Ecuador's transition period

While its senior side may be in a state of transition, Ecuador's youth team offers a lot of hope for the future. And the Young Socceroos will find that out first hand when they meet in Colombia.

Alex Ferguson’s decision to field an experimental Manchester United side in last week’s second leg against Schalke could have backfired. Imagine if the Germans had scored first. Nerves would have jittered in the crowd and on the pitch.

But United got away with it - in no small part due to the first ever performance of a player from Ecuador in a UEFA Champions League semi final.

Recently back from a horrific injury, Luis Antonio Valencia Mosquera latched on to an excellent ball from Darron Gibson to give United the lead with a cool cross finish. A couple of minutes later he returned the favour, setting up Gibson for goal number two.

The 25-year-old South American made a strong case to become the first Ecuadorian to play in the final of the UCL in three weeks time.

Valencia is a living symbol of the huge strides taken by Ecuadorian football in recent times.

In 1985 when he was born it was unthinkable that a player from his country would represent with such distinction a major European club. In South America, Ecuador was a footballing Luxembourg.

It went in to the 1989 Copa America with the following record in the competition - four wins, 57 defeats, 69 goals scored, 254 conceded.

In 2006, with Valencia in the team, it reached the last 16 in the world. It is an extraordinary rise.

The first signs were there in that 1989 tournament. Ecuador beat Uruguay and drew 0-0 (missing a penalty) with world champion Argentina, Diego Maradona and all.

The coach was a Macedonian, Dusan Draskovic, who groomed a group of physically strong players. Later, a line of Colombian coaches (continued currently with Reinaldo Rueda) added a touch of local flair.

Whatever the nationality, it was easier for foreign coaches to keep their distance from the rivalry between Quito and Guayaquil, mountain capital and bustling port.

Ecuador was also the chief beneficiary of the introduction in 1996 of South America’s marathon format of World Cup qualification, all 10 nations playing each other home and away.

It gave it a calendar of regular competitive games, the type that European national teams take for granted, with guaranteed income, the opportunity to retain quality coaches and keep a team together.

It was also blessed with a very good generation of players, who carried it to its World Cup debut in 2002, and in to the second round of the competition four years later.

But then comes the problem. How do you replace them?

Peru has yet to find an answer to this question after its golden age of the 1970s.

The so-called 'spontaneous generation’ of Colombia has not been replaced after hitting the heights in the late 80s and early 90s.

And Ecuador missed out on the 2010 World Cup to a great extent because it was unable to substitute the penalty area presence of Agustin Delgado, the gangling centre-forward who was so dangerous in the air and on the ground.

Now the problems are growing. Ecuador had an excellent centre-back combination between the classy Ivan Hurtado and the crude, but effective, Giovanny Espinoza. Ulises De La Cruz was a wonderful attacking right back, Edison Mendez an accomplished midfielder.

There is still some talent around - Valencia, for example, central midfielder Cristian Noboa and perky striker Cristian Benitez (whose father Ermen scored the winner against Uruguay in 1989).

Young support striker Jefferson Montero is a great hope. But compared with the 2000 to 2006 team, it still looks light in several key positions.

Hence the importance of youth development, and, specifically, of the team that will travel to neighbouring Colombia in July to compete in the FIFA World Youth Cup. There are grounds for optimism.

Ecuador finished fourth in South America’s qualification campaign, held in Peru in January and February. But for one of the most astonishing misses this writer has ever seen (Marlon De Jesus managing to put a shot over the bar against Uruguay from a distance of a metre) it would have been second.

Of all the teams on show it looked the best organised, with the most consolidated pattern of play.

It must have been doing something right to concede just five goals in nine games, while also offering a threat at the other end.

True, it was cautious, looking to defend deep and then spring its rapid wide men on the break. But the plan was carried out well with a number of interesting players. Goalkeeper John Jaramillo was calm and safe.

Even more impressive was Dennys Quinonez in front of him, a centre-back of highly promising anticipation and timing in the tackle who formed an effective partnership with the taller, more combative John Narvaez. Quinonez has since played for the full Ecuador side, and is clearly one to watch.

So too is Fernando Gaibor, a central midfielder who gives the game flow with a splendid range of passing. He was the main supply line for the team’s flank flyers, Alex Ibarra to the right and the very tricky Marcos Caicedo to the left. Up front were two burly strikers, De Jesus and Edson Montano, one dropping deep off the other in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Ecuador’s first opponent in the World Youth Cup is Australia. The teams meet in the opening Group C game in the impressive stadium of Copa Libertadores quarter-finalist Once Caldas in the city of Manizales, in the heart of Colombia’s coffee growing region.

There is no need to overdo the caffeine in order to get a buzz before this game. The Young Socceroos trying to make a name for themselves, against an Ecuador line-up full of hope for the future - it is a match up that promises to provide a natural high.