Ecuador’s three fearless Brighton amigos proud as Qatar opener arrives | World Cup 2022

Pervis Estupiñán smiles ruefully as he proves those who fall just short cherish their own versions of history. He was only eight and watching at home on Ecuador’s north coast when Carlos Tenorio, given an early chance, hit the England crossbar from close range via the shin of a desperate Ashley Cole.

“A really painful chance,” he calls his first World Cup memory, which ended with Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side reaching the 2006 last eight in ultimate comfort. “Because of that we couldn’t make the quarters but the whole country felt proud because the team had given everything.”

A rematch in early December is not unrealistic given first- and second-place teams from both sides’ groups will then face second and first respectively in the other pool respectively. More remarkable is the fact Estupiñán is sitting next to two of his international teammates on a sofa at Brighton’s training ground and that all of them should be involved when Ecuador open this winter’s tournament against the hosts, Qatar, in Al Khor on Sunday.

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If La Tri fare well in Qatar there is a high chance any success can at least partly be traced back here: not just to the affable Estupiñán, a left-back who has impressed since joining from Villarreal in August, but through to the younger pair who blazed such an unlikely trail to the south coast.

“I didn’t think I would be sharing a dressing room here with Ecuadorians,” says Moisés Caicedo, the softly spoken midfielder who started the mini-influx in February 2021. Caicedo turned 21 earlier this month and has become a fixture in Roberto De Zerbi’s side: for Ecuador he is already the heartbeat, the brain and legs in the engine room, a player tipped for football’s summit who carries the hopes of a youthful, savvy national side.

“We’re one of the youngest teams at the World Cup but we’re convinced we have the ability and the talent in every player,” Caicedo says. “We believe that, with this quality and effort, it’s enough for us to be able to show the world we’re a very strong team too.”

To his right sits Jeremy Sarmiento, who speaks fluent English with a faint London inflection. Sarmiento was born in Madrid to Ecuadorian parents who relocated to England when he was seven; he spent nine years at Charlton’s academy and three with Benfica before Brighton called last July. He has started only one Premier League game but anybody who saw him glide through Arsenal’s defence in this month’s Carabao Cup win will feel well apprised of the forward’s gifts. Sarmiento has won nine caps for Ecuador but represented England up to under-18 level.

“It was a process of the heart rather than the head,” he says. “My parents have made so many sacrifices to help me get where I am now, so I just wanted to pay them back with something they’d be happy with. The switch wasn’t easy but I feel in my blood that I’m Ecuadorian and the support I get over there made it a lot easier.”

Ecuadorians have taken Sarmiento into their hearts and they have also embraced the Seagulls. For many Manchester United remain a first love after the trailblazing success of Antonio Valencia but the south coast club are stealing some of those affections. “Lots of people wear the Brighton shirt,” Caicedo says. “The time difference is crazy but people back home get up at 5am, 6am to watch our games and it means a lot,” Sarmiento adds.

Pervis Estupiñán

On his arrival Estupiñán, who spent four years within the Pozzo model at Watford but was loaned out for the entirety, completed a group that has quickly become tight-knit. Neither he nor Caicedo speak English confidently, so Sarmiento doubles as interpreter and social coordinator; there is a South American restaurant nearby, although no tangible Ecuadorian community. They are hardly a discrete unit within the squad but their togetherness has obvious benefits. “There’s the pride you feel to have a compatriot on the pitch with you,” Estupiñán says. “You know they’ll be there to support you if things aren’t going well and you know you’ll be there to support them in a game too.”

Caicedo was 19 when he joined directly from Independiente del Valle, who won the Ecuadorian title last year. The culture shock was extreme and perhaps it is no coincidence that, with two fellow countrymen alongside him, his fortunes have skyrocketed. “When I came here I wanted training to end and get home because I didn’t have that communication,” he says. “Since they have come it feels like I have found my refuge. I have someone to talk to and it’s given me so much: with them I’ve felt at home.”

Moisés Caicedo in action against Japan in September
Moisés Caicedo, in action against Japan in September, has ‘found my refuge’ since being joined by two compatriots at Brighton. Photograph: Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates Images/Getty Images

At 24, Estupiñán is seen by his two peers as a guiding hand. He is hardly a conventional veteran but, in a national team whose average age exceeds those of only Ghana and USA, has similar importance for Gustavo Alfaro’s side. Ecuador have flown beneath most radars outside South America: in a punchy Group A there has been more focus on Senegal, the African champions, as a contender for qualification alongside the Netherlands.

That belies the fact Ecuador are formidably tough to beat. They have lost only one of their last 15, no mean feat given many of those assignments came in the enervating Conmebol World Cup qualifying competition. Their last six friendlies have brought four goalless draws and two 1-0 wins, which does not promise a thrill a minute but suggests a surprisingly gnarled, durable side that may serve them admirably when the games come thick and fast.

Jeremy Sarmiento holds off Arsenal’s Cédric Soares in Brighton’s Carabao Cup victory
Jeremy Sarmiento holds off Arsenal’s Cédric Soares as he impresses in Brighton’s Carabao Cup victory earlier this month. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Action Images/Reuters

“It’s a new generation with a real desire to grow,” Estupiñán says. “It’s meant that we face every opponent without really feeling conscious that we’re playing against top players. We don’t focus on them and there’s a happiness in that: we enjoy ourselves on the pitch and it’s allowed us to get good results against big teams.”

When Sarmiento made his debut against Bolivia in October 2021 it felt light years from the manicured, deliberate process through which young England players are guided. His first start, against Venezuela a month later, was played in Quito at an altitude of 2,850m above sea level and meant senior international football required adaptation on several levels.

“At first it was crazy for me, I felt out of air every time and it was a real struggle,” he says. “But you get used to it as you play more games. In terms of style, over there the pace of the ball is a lot slower but there’s a lot more aggression, like you see all over South America.”

Antonio Valencia in action for Ecuador against Mexico in 2015
Antonio Valencia, in action against Mexico in 2015, ‘opened up doors’ for his country’s players with a successful career outside Ecuador. Photograph: Ringo HW Chiu/AP

All three cite Valencia as their role model: the player who won 99 caps and showed, by progressing from playing barefoot near the Amazon rainforest to spending a decade at Old Trafford, that difficult upbringings in Ecuador need present no obstacle to the top. “He opened up doors and made people believe it’s not impossible to make it out of Ecuador,” Sarmiento says. “We’re following his path and opening a new path for the others who follow us,” agrees Caicedo.

The next steps will be taken at Al Bayt stadium; Ecuador may not be the story when they step out to face the hosts Qatar on a footballing fever dream of an evening that has been 12 years in the making, but that does not bother them. The shadows of Cole’s last-ditch lunge may rear up but, with a little help from the spirit honed in Sussex, they believe new frontiers are in sight this time.

“It’s one of my dreams,” Estupiñán says. “We’re not scared of anyone,” adds Sarmiento. “We’ll go out and play the style of football we’re used to. We’re working towards our best tournament and I feel we can get far.”

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