'Yes, it can be done'
Ecuador on a high ahead of World Cup debutPosted: Wednesday May 01, 2002 7:09 AM
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) -- When Ecuador qualified for its first World Cup finals late last year by finishing second in the South American qualifying group, it was the greatest sporting achievement in the history of this small Andean nation.
The success sparked delirium among Ecuador's sports media and fans, and has inspired a new national slogan: "Yes, it can be done."
The high tide of optimism has since subsided -- Ecuadoreans have been drawn into Group G with three-time champion Italy, Croatia and Mexico, one of the toughest groups in the tournament -- but the team that finished ahead of Brazil and Paraguay in qualifying still wants to go far.
Coach Hernan Gomez, a Colombian, will likely try to cool the nerves of his players by drawing on his coaching experience from the 1990 World Cup, when he was an assistant to Colombia coach Francisco Maturana.
Gomez, 46, took charge in October 1999 and oversaw a dramatic turnaround in the team's traditionally dismal international play. The last time Ecuador came close to making the World Cup finals was when a loss to Chile kept them from qualifying for the 1966 tournament.
Gomez found success by revamping the team's offense, developing a more aggressive attack led by strikers Ivan Kaviedes and Agustin Delgado.
Amid the excitement of qualification, the coach has struck a cautious tone ahead of the World Cup finals, stressing that the appearance will be a learning experience for the team.
"Ecuador is going to learn, but that doesn't mean we won't aspire to get to the second round" or beyond, he said.
Triumphs during the qualifying round included the country's first-ever win over Brazil -- a 1-0 victory in Quito that injected the squad with an invaluable boost of confidence.
The field general for Gomez' offense is 33-year-old midfielder Alex Aguinaga. The reliable veteran is the team's playmaker, able to dominate the midfield with shrewd ball control and crisp passes.
He will look to set up young guns Kaviedes and Delgado. The latter practically came out of nowhere to lead South America in scoring during qualifying with nine goals, tied with Argentine star Hernan Crespo.
Delgado, 27, referred to affectionately as "El Tin," a shortened version of his first name, was signed by England's Southampton in November after his standout performance during the qualifying round.
Delgado, who spent February and March recovering from two knee operations, is best known for his aerial skills, scoring many of his goals off headers.
He will be complemented by Kaviedes, a 23-year-old from Ecuador's Barcelona club who scored two of the team's three goals during a recent friendly against Bulgaria.
Ulises de la Cruz, 28, of Scotland's Hibernian, and Ivan Hurtado will anchor Ecuador's defense.
Luis Chiriboga, president of the Ecuadorean Soccer Federation, said the secret to Ecuador's success has been the tight-knit relationships among the players and coaching staff.
"The familiarity, the solidarity, the friendship that there is between everyone -- a true family has been formed," he said. "They mutually respect and help each other, and that is seen off the field and principally on the field."
Chiriboga said few World Cup teams have played as many friendly practice matches in preparation for the tournament.
Since January, Ecuador has beaten Guatemala 1-0, defeated Turkey 1-0, lost to the United States 1-0, topped Bulgaria 3-0 and drew with South Africa 0-0.
"The team has been doing things well and demonstrating a better attitude with each game," defender Hurtado said. "That's the most important thing, to keep working and give our best shot at a good showing in the World Cup."
Ecuador skirted a potential disaster in January when the national soccer federation re-elected Chiriboga as president. Gomez, who is now considered a national hero, had threatened to resign if Chiriboga was not re-elected. His departure in the middle of preparations for the finals could have badly damaged morale.
Gomez had resigned in May after a bizarre incident in which he was shot in the leg during an argument over the exclusion of a former president's son from the national under-20 squad. After originally faxing in a resignation from his hospital bed in Colombia, Gomez later reversed the decision.