Soccer-Despite agonising exit, Ecuador's 'kids' came of age at World Cup


Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group A - Ecuador v Senegal - Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar - November 29, 2022 Ecuador's Gonzalo Plata in action with Senegal's Idrissa Gana Gueye REUTERS/Issei Kato

DOHA (Reuters) - Ecuador's young team in Qatar will forever rue the few centimetres that came between them and World Cup history.

Had 22-year-old Gonzalo Plata's second half shot against the Netherlands gone in, giving them a victory they deserved, the South Americans would have reached the knockout stage after two games, equalling their previous best finish in 2006.

Instead, one of the tournament's youngest teams heads home at the first hurdle in gut-wrenching fashion.

Ecuador came to Qatar as outsiders, their only big name Enner Valencia viewed by many as a has-been in a team otherwise full of little-known youngsters who could easily have frozen.

But the 33-year-old rolled back time and wrote himself into the tournament's history with another three goals to match his tally in Brazil eight years ago and show why he is still revered as "Superman" back home.

He and his energetic team mates may have run out of steam when it counted, in Tuesday's 2-1 defeat to Senegal when just a draw would have taken them through, leaving them weeping and inconsolable on the field. But their largely impressive performances earned them plenty of new respect.

PARTY-POOPERS

Though heavyweights Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are normally South America's main headline-grabbers, Ecuador were in the limelight from the off as they opened the tournament against hosts Qatar, ruining their party with an easy 2-0 win.

They then drew with the Netherlands before the agonising 2-1 loss to African champions Senegal.

Anyone who has been watching Ecuador in the last couple of years will not have been surprised at their poise. Coach Gustavo Alfaro scouted for new talent to renew virtually the whole side several years ago, then watched as they hauled themselves out of the gruelling South American qualifiers.

Acknowledging he had a team of "kids", Alfaro told his 44th-ranked team they were going to face superior opposition in Qatar, so should just enjoy and express themselves.

They did, indeed, look unintimidated as they blew away Qatar in front of an enormous global TV audience then forced Louis van Gaal's Netherlands' backs to the wall.

Against Senegal, knowing that a point would be enough, they were unambitious in the first half, hit back after going 1-0 down in the second, but then showed their lack of experience in conceding a quick second through sloppy defending.

'BIG HEART'

Though the youngsters are Ecuador's future, their 2022 World Cup will be remembered for Valencia's goals and battling spirit. The man who as a kid himself had once sold cows' milk to buy boots played most of the tournament with a painful knee sprain.

"Enner has a big heart. He gives his all for his country and is an inspiration to the younger players," Alfaro said.

Behind him, some newer names enhanced growing reputations.

Midfielder Moises Caicedo, who turned 21 just before the tournament, was brilliant box-to-box - shielding his defence, comfortable in tight spaces, threading to the front men.

His poacher's goal against Senegal was fitting reward.

"It looks like he's been to four World Cups and is 35-years-old!" said admiring goalkeeper Hernan Galindez.

Plata, 22, also looked unfazed by the enormity of the stage.

Caicedo's Premier League team mate and flying wingback Pervis Estupinan, 24, and defender Piero Hincapie, 20, also had good tournaments, though Hincapie will be haunted by a clumsy tackle for the penalty that put Senegal 1-0 up.

Even though the future looks bright for Ecuador, they will have to work incredibly hard to get another chance like the one they had in Qatar. The South American qualifiers are arguably the world's toughest and they will start with a three-point deduction due to a player eligibility controversy.

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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