Ecuador's defensive double act
Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand might not look back at the Champions League final with much pleasure, but a glance at Manchester United's goals against column this season highlights the importance of a great centre-back pairing.
It was Brazil who invented this concept - dropping an extra player into the heart of the defence to create the back four. Their first World Cup-winning side in 1958 featured the classic contrasting pair of centre backs.
Team captain Bellini was the towering presence who was at his best dealing with the aerial threat. Alongside him was Orlando, a defender of such quality that he later became an idol of Boca Juniors fans in Argentina. He supplied the class, the reading of the game, timing in the tackle and the passes out of defence.
Eight years later England won the World Cup with a similar double act, Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore. There is a modern-day equivalent, and one of the most successful and long-running partnerships in international football, at the heart of the Ecuadorian defence.
Ivan Hurtado fills the Bobby Moore role. It is a comparison made with all due respect for the West Ham legend, who was Pele's choice as the best defender he ever faced. Hurtado is not quite in that class. But he is a quality player whose record speaks for itself. He has been playing international football for nearly 17 years, and has represented his country on an extraordinary 159 occasions.
Hurtado (pictured above) has been nicknamed 'Bam Bam,' and seldom has a nickname been less appropriate. His defending has little to do with force and ignorance. Watching Hurtado win a tackle has often reminded me of an old fashioned school teacher gently correcting a wayward student - he comes away with the ball almost with an air of regret that the striker could not offer him a stiffer challenge.
His long-term partner cuts a very different figure. Gangling and ungainly, Geovanny Espinoza has none of Hurtado's grace. But he has the height to hold his own in the air, and an inspirational will to improve and overcome his limitations.
The two of them first paired up in the qualifiers for the 2002 Fifa World Cup. Hurtado was one of the first names on the team sheet, Espinoza was a reserve, getting his chance when the crude, burly Augusto Poroso was suspended. After Poroso's second red card, Espinoza was in, and, alongside Hurtado, played the last six matches of the campaign when Ecuador qualified for the World Cup for the first time. Come the tournament, though, Espinoza was seen as too vulnerable, and had to watch from the bench as Poroso was recalled.
Ever since, however, Espinoza has been in the starting line up - and now has 85 caps of his own. He was the only player in South America to play all 18 rounds of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers - Hurtado only missed the last game, when Ecuador had already made sure of their place in Germany.
This time Espinoza was not to miss out. In 2002 Hurtado produced a wonderful saving tackle on Alan Boksic to help ensure that Ecuador won a World Cup match (1-0 over Croatia). In their opening match in Germany Espinoza came up with the heroics, producing a last-ditch tackle on Soboloweski in the win over Poland that projected Ecuador into the last 16.
In addition to three Copa Americas and one World Cup, Hurtado and Espinoza have been in harness for a total of 35 qualifiers. They are approaching the end - Hurtado will be 35 in August, Espinoza turned 32 in April - but conceivably could still be operating together in South Africa next year. It would be a fitting climax to their international careers - but first Ecuador must qualify.
This is looking difficult. The team have struggled to replace their great goalscorer Agustin Delgado. Manchester City's Felipe Caicedo has some moments, but is not yet doing enough, especially in the air. In the last two rounds Ecuador dominated Brazil and Paraguay but had to settle for 1-1 draws both times - dropping four points at home leaves them seventh in the table (the top four go through automatically, the team finishing fifth go into a play-off) with time running out.
This Saturday the top six all meet each other (Paraguay against Chile, Uruguay against Brazil, Argentina against Colombia). It's an excellent opportunity for Ecuador to make up lost ground. On Sunday they are away to bottom of the table Peru.
It's a game they must win. And they will have to do it without Hurtado and Espinoza. Both the veteran centre backs are suspended - the first time since 2000 that Ecuador will play a competitive match with neither of them on the field. Worried about a lack of leadership in his defence, Ecuador coach Sixto Vizuete has been forced into a drastic decision - Marcelo Fleitas, a 35- year-old naturalised Uruguayan, stands by to make his international debut.
Comments on today's piece in the space below. Other questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) After the elimination of Boca Juniors from this years Copa Libertadores, leaving only Estudiantes in the last eight, I have come to the realisation that Argentinean football is in big trouble. All the big teams are struggling and have changed managers at
least once in the last 12 months. Fans, for their part, have unrealistic expectations, believing their team has a divine right to be successful and hence demand change when results do not go the way of their teams. The word 'continuity' is now extinct in footballing
terms. Is the future of local Argentinean football really bleak, so much so that things will get worse before they get any better?"
A) I read an interesting interview recently with Ramon Cabrera, the coach who developed a good generation of youngsters at Lanus and who has just headed for Colombia. He was open about the decline of quality, and posed the question, "and what do most clubs do? Bring in eight or nine players on loan, give them just six months to adapt and it doesn't work. The championship ends and the process starts again - another eight or nine players, and never, ever forming a team."
Perhaps the short championships (two per year) have boosted the short-term mentality and lack of continuity that you have picked up on - and there are also fundamental issues of club administration. The model of a club being owned by its members can be one thing in theory and another in practice - open to abuse by inside groups, prone to political in fighting, and even at its best, with the difficulty of administering passion, with the perceived need to play to the gallery with populist gestures, like changing the coach too often. The immense history and tradition of Argentine football can indeed appear as a problem - in the unrealistic expectations and in the nationalistic refusal to accept reality. But it can also be a virtue - as shown in coach Angel Cappa's Huracan, where he has come in, tapped into that wonderful tradition of passing football and quickly formed an attractive side.
Q) Why hasn't Fabio Aurelio been called into the Brazil squad? He has had a great season, but he hasn't been called up and was passed over again for the Confederations Cup. Why is he being snubbed?
A) A good point and one I can't really explain. I've long been a fan of his, and I thought that when he was one of Brazil's few plus points in the 2000 Olympics that he would be the long-term successor to Roberto Carlos. An awful run with injuries stopped it happening - but he's been playing regularly this season, and left-back is a problem position for Brazil. Marcelo of Real Madrid was dropped from the Confederations Cup squad - perhaps because he's been playing in midfield. The two included are both Brazil-based. Kleber has an excellent left foot, but lacks the physical quality to keep hitting the byeline, and has not looked convincing so far. And Andre Santos, called up for the first time, is powerful but perhaps lacking top quality. I rate Fabio Aurelio clearly better than both. I know he is anxious for a call up - the good news for him is that the place in next year's World Cup team is still up for grabs.