by Greg Melikov
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Ecuador coach Luis Fernando Suarez was unable to hide his delight after viewing the World Cup Trophy in Quito during its stop on the FIFA tour.
"It's strange having the trophy so near and not being able to touch it, but in a way that's symbolic of the hard work and discipline you need to win it," he said in January. "The fact that we are here proves that we can achieve everything that we set out to do. We got a great opportunity and we're going to try and take it with both hands."
In a pre-tournament interview, Suarez said, "I always said to myself that I would go to the World Cup, but only if it was in some kind of official capacity. I have to admit I doubted whether I'd actually do it, but ever since we qualified, I've been so excited and ecstatic about the prospect of going to Germany. I feel like a little kid with a new toy!"
He remains optimistic because "if you have a dream, you have to go for it. To make your dreams come true you've got to work hard, and that's exactly what we're doing - working hard.
"I think we're on the right track. We're in the process of building a structure that will put us on the same level as the world's top teams, and that's something that involves planning and selecting the right kind of people."
The "right people" include outstanding players such as Christian Lara, a wiry, clever midfielder who is entering the stage of his career where it's now or never to compete in the World Cup.
After years of sacrifice and dedication, Lara's opportunity came during a qualifying match last June when Ecuador had to face Argentina without the injured Edison Mendez. Lara replaced one of the biggest names in Ecuadorian football that scored a goal in three matches in '02.
"I was so excited when I got the call and pretty nervous, too," Lara said. "Coach Suarez quickly calmed me down though, and told me, 'Son, now it's your turn. Just do what you know best when you get your chance. That's all.'
"Although I'd played in a few friendlies (tune-up matches) for the national side, I never thought they'd call me up for such an important game. I was just another Ecuadorian fan looking forward to going to the stadium and seeing my team play.
"When I got the call, though, I promised myself I was going to show exactly what I could do, not just play my role. Luckily, everything went right for me."
It went so well that Lara scored a goal shortly after entering the second half against Argentina and later set up the second in the 2-0 triumph. He was named Man of the Match. "Lara was just the catalyst we needed," Suarez said.
Other outstanding midfielders expected to be on the squad in addition to the recovered Mendez, a strong, complete player that's quick with good movement, are:
Giovanny Espinoza, the only player in South America to appear in all 18 qualifiers, is strong, fast and versatile. He holds the defense together in the air and has shown improvement on the ground. One of his strengths is advancing the ball forward.
Franklin Salas, nicknamed "El Mago," is a fan favorite who has played numerous times for the national team.
Luis Antonio Valencia, a strong player who is good in the air, performed well in the qualifiers.
Other reliable players include:
Agustin Delano, top scorer for the national team, has a strong shot and is good in the air. Nicknamed "Tin," the striker plans to retire after the World Cup.
Ivan Hurtado, not especially strong in the air, is an extremely experienced defender that's a team player and has his moments.
Christian Rafael Mora, one of the brightest hopes in Ecuadorian football, is a goalkeeper that has ability and presence. His main strength is coping well with crosses.
Ecuador World Cup 2006 Odds: The fourth seed in Group A is 150/1 to win the tournament, according to the average odds of 19 sports books.
Strengths: Ecuador has moved from the tip-tap short passing through the middle style that characterized its game, to a clear, tactical approach. Now the team keeps the middle tight and looks to strike down the flanks.
Weaknesses: There's a lack of European experience, having only played three full internationals across the Atlantic. The defense can be caught flat and, when Espinoza isn't on the field, it is all over the place in the air. Goalkeeping also isn't a strong suit.
Ecuador World Cup 2006 Outlook: Ecuador will need its best performance in history to advance to the second round.
Ecuador World Cup 2006 First Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Wednesday, June 9, Group 3A Poland vs. Group 4A Ecuador, in Gelsenkirchen, 9 p.m.
Thursday, June 15, Group 4A Ecuador vs. Group 2A Costa Rica, in Hamburg, 3 p.m.
Tuesday, June 20, Group 4A Ecuador vs. Group 1A Germany, in Berlin, 4 p.m.
Updated Ecuador World Cup 2006 News: