Ecuador sat out the 11th round of South America’s World Cup qualification campaign. Instead it strolled to a 5-0 international friendly win against El Salvador, a gentle warm up for the visit of Paraguay in the next round of matches midweek.
A win in that game would leave it very close to sealing a place in Brazil next year and making a third World Cup appearance.
The challenge is clearly boosted by the altitude of Quito, its mountain stronghold, some 2,800 metres above sea level. It is a difficult venue for an unacclimatised opponent, and Ecuador knows how to take full advantage. In the current qualification campaign it is the only team in the continent with a 100 percent home record.
But it is much more than an altitude specialist. The team has now started picking up points on its travels, and last month it even won away to Portugal - Cristiano Ronaldo and all.
It has central midfielders with the range of passing to open up the play, a variety of quick, strong and skilful options down the flanks and, now that Felipe Caicedo appears to have added maturity to his talent, a dangerous centre forward as well.
Once, as recently as 25 years ago, Ecuador was merely making up the numbers in South America. Not any more.
Ecuador’s club football, too, has made giant strides. LDU, or Liga of Quito, has become a force in the region in recent times, winning the Copa Libertadores in 2008.Ecuador
It has already been eliminated from this year’s competition but not before giving Gremio a fright.
The Brazilian side, with far greater financial resources at its disposal, needed a nervy penalty shootout to make it out of the qualifying round and into the group phase – where, if reigning domestic champion Barcelona has been something of a disappointment so far, its Guayaquil neighbour Emelec has an excellent chance of progressing to the knockout stage.
Towards the end of last year there were promising signs in the continent’s second club competition, the Copa Sudamericana.
All of Ecuador’s representatives emerged with credit – especially international debutants Liga de Loja, which eliminated Nacional of Uruguay and only went out to eventual champion Sao Paulo of Brazil on the away goals rule.
These days, Ecuadorian football is no joke – which makes the following story all the more remarkable.
Manta Futbol Club, from a city of the same name on the Pacific coast, was founded in 1998 by a local businessman by the name of Jaime Estrada. The club did well, rising through the ranks of Ecuadorian football from the regional to the national.
Promotion to the first division in 2002 probably came too soon and it went straight back down. However, back in the top flight seven years later, it is now an established first division side.
Certainly Jaime Estrada did well from the club’s progress. He was elected mayor of the city and at the end of 2009 he handed the club presidency over to his son, also called Jaime Estrada, who at the time was just 24 years of age.
Almost a decade earlier, the younger Estrada had represented the club at Under-16 level. Soon afterwards, however, he gave priority to his education and gave up his dreams of football stardom – but, as is now clear, he did not give them up for ever.
A few weeks ago Estrada announced that he would be stepping down from the club presidency and making himself available for selection as a striker. There was plenty of guffawing, especially from this writer.
It is relatively common for the sons of prominent men to suffer from delusions of grandeur. Plenty of family fortunes have been frittered away as the over-indulged second generation follow their whims.
The meritocracy of football offers no hiding place. Reality in all its cruelty is revealed out there on the pitch, with thousands of witnesses in the stands and millions watching on television.
Surely Estrada was riding for an embarrassing fall.
What happened next could not possibly have been scripted. It would be too corny for the cheesiest Hollywood movie. Yet truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Manta was at home to El Nacional of Quito, which admittedly has had a difficult few months but remains one of the giants of the Ecuadorian game. It's the side that groomed the likes of Luis Antonio Valencia and Cristian Benitez, stars of the current national team.
Going into the last 10 minutes, the points were already in the bag. Manta led 3-0, and coach Edwin Cozar decided that the time had come to give his new striker a run.
Incidentally, one of the bizarre twists of this tale is the fact that Estrada appointed Cozar. He was his boss. But now the roles have been reversed. Cozar makes the decisions and this one could not possibly have worked out better.
Estrada took the field. Two minutes later he had yet to touch the ball, when Cristian Marquez, one of those quick and strong attackers that Ecuador is producing in spades, burst to the right bye-line.
He pulled the ball back, and with his first (and apparently only) touch of the game, Estrada deftly guided a shot low into the far corner. He was not a laughing stock at all.
There is an expression in Brazil, which holds that a penalty is so important that it should be taken by the club president.
Manta need have no fears if such legislation is ever brought into effect.