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Ecuadorian stars emerge from the shadows

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Tim Vickery | 15:15 UK time, Monday, 10 August 2009

Twenty years ago the idea that a top flight English club's record signing coming from Ecuador would have been utterly inconceivable.

Two decades ago there was hardly a foreigner to be found. These days - thanks to the extraordinary globalisation of the game - supporters of even lesser Premier League clubs can receive a global geography lesson merely by plotting the birth places of the first team squad.

Perhaps the more obscure side to the transfer of Christian Benitez to newly promoted Birmingham City is the remarkable rise of the Ecuadorian game. In the 2006 World Cup they reached the last 16. Go back 20 years and they were minnows in their own continent.

At about the same time that Orville and Wilbur Wright were making their first flights, a pair of brothers with the same surname were having a harder time trying to get Ecuadorian football in the air.

Juan Alfredo and Roberto Wright brought the game back from their studies in England in 1899. But Ecuador did not compete in the South American Championships, now known as the Copa America, until the 15th version in 1939. Going into the 1989 tournament their record in the competition was straight out of the chamber of horrors - 4 wins, 14 draws, 57 defeats, with 69 goals scored and 254 conceded.

Then there were sings of progress. In 1989 they drew 0-0 with world champions Argentina, Diego Maradona and all, and in the debut game they beat Uruguay 1-0 - the winner scored by a certain Ermen Benitez, father of Birmingham's expensive acquisition.

Benitez senior also holds the honour of being the first Ecuadorian player to be transferred to Europe, when he joined Spanish Second Division side Jerez de la Frontera in the early 1980s. The move didn't work, and he was soon back home.

There are grounds for hoping that Christian's time in Europe will be more successful. This is a different moment, and Benitez junior is a different type of player.

Christian Benitez in action for his country

There is no longer any reason for an Ecuadorian to feel overawed by the challenge of European football. Their game has made good on that promise shown by the national team in 1989. The national team have qualified for the last two World Cups, LDU of Quito are becoming a heavyweight club and, with a strong emphasis on physical development, their best players are showing they can hold their own in Europe.

And, providing he can shake off an unlucky recent run with injuries, there is no reason for Christian Benitez to be overawed by the challenge of joining Birmingham.

His father was an out-and-out penalty area goalscorer. Cristian brings much more to the dance. Strong and stocky, he is a support striker who catches the eye with the versatility of his game. Two footed, he can drift out wide and supply crosses from either flank, he combines well on the edge of the area, and he can burst in to score.

Despite his lack of height he can also carry an aerial threat. Nine goals in 28 internationals makes a persuasive case for his quality - and at the age of 23 he seems to be developing quickly. He will inevitably feel the step up from the more open, less physical Mexican league (where has been starring for Santos Laguna) but Blues fans can be optimistic that he is money well spent.

The same may not apply to their other Ecuadorian, centre back Giovanny Espinoza. Just over two months ago I wrote a blog comparing him to Jack Charlton. His gangling frame has put in superb service in the yellow shirt of Ecuador. He does have European experience (Vitesse Arnhem in Holland), but at 32 this move could be a bridge too far. With a reputation as an excellent dressing room influence, Espinoza has a role to play helping Benitez settle in.

And another compatriot is also on his way. Little left-footed Fernando Guerrero joins Burnley.

A child prodigy, Guerrero was once on the books of Real Madrid, and has represented Ecuador in the last two South American Under-20 Championships. So far there has been much more promise than reality. It shows just how far Ecuadorian football has come that an English club is prepared to take a flyer on one of its prospects.

A quick word on a couple of other South American imports.

Paulo Da Silva is a vastly experienced Paraguayan defender (son of a Brazilian) with 60 caps to his name - though it's only since the last World Cup that he has become a senior player for his country. For Paraguay he plays centre back in a conventional back four - for Toluca in Mexico he often featured in the middle of a back three, sweeping up and leading the line. He's a good, solid defender, though I wonder if he will prove sufficiently physically imposing to stand out as a centre back in the Premier League. Perhaps he might feature as a defensive full back, a role he has filled for Paraguay in the past.

And Chile's Luis Jimenez should prove a good acquisition for West Ham. Classy and elegant, he's right in the club's traditions and the supporters should warm to him - and years in Italy means that he has already adapted to European football. He likes to operate behind the central striker, where he generates ideas and strikes the ball well. On the evidence of Saturday's friendly against Napoli, West Ham will need more attacking options down the flanks if they are to get the best out of him.

Comments on today's piece in the space provided. Other questions on South American football to and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag:

Q)Saw this morning that the Argentine football season has been delayed due to club debt. Can you give us some further information regarding this.

Rhodri Evans

A)Argentine football runs at a loss, and the clubs have become dependent on selling players to Europe in order to cover their costs. This year the market is depressed, and the external problem has brought the internal problems to the surface.

A)Suspending the start of the championship is a negotiating stance by the Argetine FA. Suspension doesn't suit anyone, and in this way the local FA are putting pressure on the players' union (to scale back demands), the TV companies (to pay more for rights, and perhaps even force a change of rights holder) and the government (to reduce policing costs, give some tax relief and hand over a slice of revenue from an online/telephone betting system). I suspect that some kind of compromise will be sorted out, and if the action doesn't get underway as scheduled on Friday the stoppage will not be a long one. South American Cup (Europa League equivalent) games will go ahead as normal.

Q)How is Alfredo di Stefano viewed in Argentina? Is he seen in a less positive light considering he played for Spain, and remained in and embraced his adopted country after his retirement? He was named Spain's greatest player of the last 50 years. I wondered how that went down in Argentina?

Calum Whelan

A)They are proud of him - whichever shirt he was wearing, he's their product, off the conveyor belt of the golden age of Argentine football who carried that greatness and those ideas off to Colombia and Spain.

But obviously the fact that his biggest triumphs came abroad creates a certain distance - and that can work both ways. Di Stefano would argue that he took the dynamism of Argentine football abroad, and he thinks that quicker means better. This puts him at odds with many in contemporary Argentine football. I saw an interview with him recently in the Argentine press when he said that the general standard of the game today (not talking specifically about Argentina) is higher than before. You could feel the journalist's eyebrows being raised in surprise.


  • Comment number 1.

    Excellent post Tim.

    It's good to see quality players (although relatively unknown over here) getting picked up. I think props should go to Steve Bruce et al for their scouting systems, rather than relying on how far Easyjet and Ryanair fly into Europe for bargain basement purchases.

    One Ecuadorian I would have liked to have seen at a top-flight English club earlier in his career is journeyman striker Ivan Kaviedes. Apart from that farcical spell at Palace. A noted goalscorer, I think he would've been an excellent purchase.

    All the best,

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Tim,

    Nice article, I too think that Ecuadorian football has come a long a way. The National Team is strong and still on course for SA2010 and LDU has been one of the best teams in South America for a couple of years now.

    With regards to Paulo Da Silva, he wasn't always a fan favorite with Paraguay fans but with Martino he has been outstanding at centre back. I think the move to Toluca did very well for his career and nowadays he forms an excellent centre back duo with Julio Caceres (bringing back memories of Ayala/Gamarra). I believe he's got what it takes to play in the EPL for years to come.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Tim

    Good article, as always. You made a subject (the South American domestic game) that I didn't find particularly interesting into something that I look forward to reading every week.

    Keep up the good work.

    By the way, sixth paragraph in - I think you meant "signs", not "sings".


  • Comment number 4.

    3 - 'sings of progress' is better somehow!

    Kaviedes - was always going to infuriate, wherever he played. I remember being on the pitch, behind the goal (for some reason they'd given me a photographer's credential) for the crunch game in 2001 at home to Uruguay when Ecuador needed a point to qualify for their first World Cup.
    uruguay scored - Kaviedes was having a nightmare, and this official, i think from the ecuadorian FA, was moaning about him - i joined in and we moaned together - and then, cross comes in, up rises Kaviedes to head home the goal that took the team to 2002 - me and the offical looked at each other and burst out laughing - that was kaviedes.

  • Comment number 5.

    great post Mr Vickery.

    If Argentia progress to the world cup finals. is there an outside chance Seba Veron will be in the squad? hear he's been in great form for his club back in this homeland.

    also now with L.Valencia at united, ecuador has a star in central europe at a major club. is there any more young potential you have seen that could prosper in the future over here??


  • Comment number 6.

    Great blog as always, Tim. I have a quick question for anyone out there who may know. I have heard that the Benitez deal has been arranged in a way where Birmingham can send him back after a year and get their money back if things don't work out. Is there any truth to this and does anyone know how it will work.

    Secondly Tim, I have to disagree with your comment about Luis Jimenez. You say "and years in Italy means that he has already adapted to European football" which I think is a very strange thing to say and a poor generalisation. I do not think there is such a thing as European football as the differences between the English Premier League and Serie A are vast. I don't think that playing in Italy would necessarily equip a player to play in the EPL any more than playing in a different continent, although the standard of opposition may be more similar. But to class European football as a good starting point could mean that playing in the Polish league would prepare a player for life in the Primera Liga. It's not often I disagree with you Tim, but I do on this occasion.

  • Comment number 7.

    Another good article Tim, if only everone elses were as good.
    It seems odd though that you do an article on Ecuadorian football, yet it takes a Utd fan, NI_RedDevil comment #5, to mention Luis Antonio Valencia, a star here at Wigan Athletic and now soon to be one at Old Trafford.

    Do you know if the (reputed) £16m Utd paid for him is a record fee for an Ecuadorian?

  • Comment number 8.

    Did you hear about Lulinha? Hes gone to a low division Portuguese team on loan, is he the new Kerlon? Does he have a future at Corinthians and will he ever become the potentially great player he can be? He was very emotional aswell leaving Corinthians and him and Dentinho are apparently very close friends.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for opinions on Fernando Guerrero and Paulo da Silva. Good read as always on your blog.
    I like it how English managers begin to trust players from that part of the world. I mean Steve Bruce had Valencia and Palacios in Wigan, and now they are both playing for big clubs. He also signed Rodallega, Figueroa and he trusted them. Now, I think other managers are not afraid to sign a player from that region, they're ready to take a gamble. I think Birmingham made a terrific signing. I've only seen Benitez a few times, playing for the National Team in World Cup Qualifiers. I thought he was great, and I immediately said it was just matter of time for him to play in one of the best European leagues. And here he is, having signed for Birmigham. If he does well this season, I think he might just step onto next level signing for a better club. I think he's capable of that.

    South American region is a huge market for European clubs. Fifteen years ago it was just about Brazil and Argentina. Those were the countries European clubs were focused on. Now it's also about many other countries like Paraguay, Peru and, in particular, Ecuador. I remember Ecuador beat Poland in the World Cup 2006, with the likes of Valencia, Espinoza, Hurtado, Castillo, Tenorio, Delgado. Many Polish fans were just stunned, they thought Ecuador was just a decent South American side, though not capable of beating Poland. It turned out Ecuadorian team was much better side, which England struggled against.

    By the way, there's Hernan Rengifo of Peru playing in a Polish side, Lech Poznań. He plays on a regular basis over here and he's doing quite well, I'd say. I'm wondering if he's a first choice for the National Team.

  • Comment number 10.

    another great insight of south american football, tim. kinda odd you didnt mention antonio valencia though.

    i've only read about cristian benitez and not seen a picture of him, until that picture there. pineapple.

  • Comment number 11.

    Thanks for the insights into Benitez, Tim. As a Blues fan, I sure hope you are right about him!

  • Comment number 12.

    Great blog Tim,

    I noticed the signings of christian Benitez and Espinoza last week and I was very surprised, but I think Benitez will do well from what I have seen of him in the national team, Espinoza I agree is probably a bridge too far but we will see.

    But I was going to ask about the signing of Guerrero from Indepdiente in Serie B in Ecuador, surely they would look at someone in the top division, of which there are a handfull of decent looking players, especially in teams like Barcelona from Guayaquil. I was just puzzled about why they gambled on a lower league and only really tested for Ecuador under 20's.

  • Comment number 13.

    should have metnioned valencia - after all, his success has opened the doors for benitez and co - did mean to - had to sacrifice it in the battle v the word count!

    rengifo is not first choice for peru, he's played a few games here and there.

    6 - valid point about european football not being a monolith - i was thinking along the lines of 'he's been away from home for years so doesn't have those issues' and also that he's been playing in a type of football faster and less individualistic than had he stayed in chile - the gifted villanueva was unable to bridge that gap with blackburn last year

  • Comment number 14.

    Absolutely loved the article, having grown up in quito I remember very clearly 'that game' against uruguay in '01, I could hear the stadium roar from my house!
    Another old-school ecuadorian I wouldn't mind hearing your take on was Alex Aguinaga. As I remember it he was our star man in '02 but he was struggling with several injuries and we were the weaker for it. Any thoughts on him? I thought I heard he was linked with a big move to europe at some point?

  • Comment number 15.

    Tim: I have been watching the Brazilian Itamar Batista play for Tigres in the Mexican league. He has been fantastic. Strong, agile, with a deadly finish. What do you know about him? Will he ever get a shout for the national team?

  • Comment number 16.

    I know little about Ecuadorian football, but would I be right in saying that the Ecuador national team, and maybe club sides aswell, are made up of a far greater percentage of black players than the racial make-up of Ecuador as a whole.

    I met someone who had traveled in Ecuador, and who is into football, and he explained that many of the top Ecuadorian players come from the same rough, poor, mining region.

    Is that correct?

    He reckoned if anyone wanted to become a football agaent that was the place to go!

    As the Ecuadorians are physically big and tough from that region, and would not have problems adapting to the physical nature of some European leagues eg. English, German.

  • Comment number 17.

    Regarding the fiasco in Argentina:

    I think it's worth mentioning that some clubs are well run - eg. Estudiantes, Lanus, and Velez.

    There was an interview with the 3 presidents of these clubs in La Nacion last week, Interesting that, as club policy, none of them take players on loan, nor engage in the 'percentage sharing' of players with businessmen or financial groups as many of the bigger clubs do, especially River Plate, San Lorenzo and Independeiente.

    Although they have been criticised in the past, by their own fans, for not spending, those clubs are now reaping the benfits of their policies(Estudiantes = Copa de Libertadores champions, Velez = current Argentina league Champions, and Lanus = the best Argentina team, points-wise, over last season (if Apertura and Clausura were combined)

    Grondona and AFA are muddying the waters, and combining too seperate issues, in my opinion.

    If AFA can get more money out the TV deal and the Prode (betting) then all well and good for Argentina football, but that doesn't solve the main issue, which is that so many clubs have been mismanaged, almost to the point of bankruptcy, and scandoulsy, can not pay players.

    The govt and AFA can not be expected to bail out badly run clubs, just as they can not be expected to prop up a local shop or business that's been badly managed and gone bust.

    Each club should sort it's own house out. If they can't afford to pay players then they will have to sell players, even if it means putting out a youth team and finishing bottom of the league / getting relegated

  • Comment number 18.

    Benitez failed his medical and he's not costing Blues anything really. It's a glorified loan. Typical of the club to be honest, doing everything on the cheap. Espinoza has no chance of playing. He's out of shape and was brought in by the board apparently.

  • Comment number 19.

    I don't want to dampen the focus on Ecuador but what other countries are 'coming through' at the moment? It seems since England have historically failed to match Italy and Spain at taking Brazlians and Argentinians then they are going for the smaller countries (and starting to reap the rewards).


  • Comment number 20.

    I don't really think that any international player could ever be overawed by the prospect of playing for Birmingham City!

  • Comment number 21.

    Lets hope these players are more successful than Augustin Delgado, the 3.6million flop at Southampton

  • Comment number 22.

    Hello Tim. What do you think of Christian Noboa? He scored two goals (including the one to Brazilians) in three recent matches. He's going for the Champions Ligue with Rubin Kazan this autumn by the way. Young and perspective player I would say.

    Moreover Tim, can I copy your blog to another recource? What should I do to do it?


  • Comment number 23.

    Tim, you mention in your article of World Soccer Estudiantes playing Barcelona in the Intercontinetal Cup, is this seen as a serious a competition by the South Americans, not just the chance to play on of Europes Finests?

    Is the Champions League broadcasted in South America? If so how popular is it? I feel it's a shame that the Libertadores is shown at all (however that is not a cue of Eurosport), fingers crossed ESPN find a market in it

  • Comment number 24.

    Great blog as usual. I'm growing extra thumbs to put them up as I type. ;)

  • Comment number 25.

    Tim, I have read your blogs for a long time now. They are always very interesting as it gives an insight into 1 of the greatest continents for football. What I want to know is who have you seen recently that has alot of potential? And out of those who do you believe will fulfil that potential? I know it's not an exact science but just want your opinion really...

    Keep up the good work, I'll keep on reading.

  • Comment number 26.

    Latest from the weird and wonderful world of South American football

  • Comment number 27.


    "Tim, you mention in your article of World Soccer Estudiantes playing Barcelona in the Intercontinetal Cup, is this seen as a serious a competition by the South Americans, not just the chance to play on of Europes Finests?"

    You better believe it! Every single South American I've ever spoken to about the subject is adamant the IC/CWC is the biggest prize in world club football. And although it is seen as a glorified super cup in a good few European countries (nowhere stronger than in England in my experience), there are clubs and countries (Spain, Italy, and definitely Germany and the Netherlands) where fans reckon the title "club world champions" IS a serious one.

    I still can't wait for the day FIFA decide to make it a 16-team biennial summer (as in European summer) event in the odd years not taken up by World Cup or Euros/Copa America. The competition might then take up its rightful place at the top of the heap.

  • Comment number 28.

    great blog as usual tim,as a coastal ecuadorian resident please dont forget about barcelona (sc) and emelec,both have a top football pedigree !

  • Comment number 29.

    Great post as always Tim.

    I wanted to get your opinion on Pablo Aimar. He's probably one of my favourite players ever although he has been out of the spotlight somewhat these past few years.

    Has he been totally overlooked by Maradona so far? Or is it just that his form and physical condition hasn't been good enough for Benfica?

  • Comment number 30.


    "Is the Champions League broadcasted in South America? If so how popular is it? I feel it's a shame that the Libertadores is shown at all (however that is not a cue of Eurosport), fingers crossed ESPN find a market in it"

    Yes. Here in Brazil, both on cable and open tv.

    And it is popular, but the problem is that the games are broadcast in the afternoons of weekdays due to different time zones, which obviously reduces the audience.

  • Comment number 31.

    Would be interested in Tim´s views on developments on the situation for Argentina´s league. Looks very likely that the Argentine FA is going to sign a deal with the government this Friday to televise games on a free-view basis.

    Is there a precedent for this in South America? The whole situation is pretty unbelievable and is certainly a novel situation to the financial problems that Tim often comments on for South American clubs.

    Moral of the story - if you can´t make ends meet via player sales, tickets, TV rights, merchandising etc. Cut your spending? No. Obtain subsidy from government? Yes.

  • Comment number 32.

    hi tim,
    great post, what do you think of Ramires of benefica?
    what else does he offer apart from making runs into the box and stamina in midfield?

  • Comment number 33.

    Thanks for the insight on ecuadorians Tim. Will be interesting to see indeed how they fare in the EPL. There are also a number of other south american recruits this year that can be seen in europe as well. I personally feel the italian game suits itself best to new south american talent, adoption wise.

  • Comment number 34.

    Very nice and refreshing post on the upcoming Ecuadorian football stars. I really like your positive approach. Thanks for the fine effort. Let's wish the Ecuadorian footballers happy hunting overseas.

    Dr. Cajetan Coelho

  • Comment number 35.

    Mr. Coelho, what kind of Dr. are you?

  • Comment number 36.

    DOCTOR Coelho just wants to point out that he IS a doctor. Good for him, doctors opinions are very useful for this blog.
    Anyway Tim very interesting research you have done here, you should try to keep up some articles on the results these players have in Europe, every couple of months or something.
    One of the best aspects of the EPL in my opinion is the incredibly high diversity of nationalities represented in every team. And Ecuador is definately a nation whose representatives have been coming al the way up since one of the first ones, Ulises de la Cruz in Aston Villa. Whatever your opinion on him you have to admit he raised some eyebrows when we started.
    Thank you and I will follow your blog with great interest.

    DR! Sortelo

  • Comment number 37.

    I have to say, by far one of the most exciting prospects of south american football is Chile's Nicolas Millan. He played for his old club, Colo Colo, at the age of 14 and was a prolific goalscorer. Would love to see him in the Premier League sometime

  • Comment number 38.

    As a Wolves fan I don't think Benitez will do well at Birmingham. He showed disrespect for the team by not taking the flight to Birmingham right after the international game against Chile latest and upset McLeish and others for sure.

    You're not mantioning our loan Segundo Castillo of Ecuador in your blog. Why not? Maybe you're not as knowledgeable about South American football as you will make people believe?

    Castillo will of course mean much more for Wolves than Benitez for Birmingham. A club that, by the way, will go down to play in the Championships again in May.

  • Comment number 39.

    38 - this blog was written in early august - i don't think castillo had signed for wolves at that point.

    maybe you're not as good as reading dates as you should be.

  • Comment number 40.


    Kightly's cross is the type of idiot who should be completely ignored.

    Castillo didn't sign for Wolves until 31 August, however I suggest that he was excluded from your blog anyway, purely because he isn't very good.

    He looked out of place at Everton, and in his brief appearances this season, has did little to alter this opinion.


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