Ecuador went home with three losses, one goal scored, and 17 conceded, a disaster in every competitive sense. No team fared worse: Ivory Coast wound up beaten three times and with a goal difference of minus-13 (three scored, 16 allowed), and edged out Ecuador for the worst defeat: a 10-0 hammering by mighty Germany.
Yet Ecuador also conceded 10 goals in a game and though it scored a goal, its 10-1 defeat came against another debutant, Switzerland, which in its other group matches lost tough games to Japan (1-0) and Cameroon (2-1). The Ecuadorans could well have crumbled after being pummeled by Cameroon, 6-0, and being knifed apart by the Swiss.
Instead, they gave Japan whatever they had left and while Japan controlled most of the play while winning, 1-0, the deep scowl normally worn by Japanese head coach Norio Sasaki grew darker as the match unfolded. On the other bench, 26-year-old Vanessa Arauz -- one of just eight female coaches among the 24 teams -- paced the sideline, clapping her hands, shouting instructions and encouragement, and occasionally flashing a smile. If pride prompted that grin, she had every right.
On the field, Ecuador battled. Trailing from the fifth minute, another rout certainly seemed likely. The Japanese players pinged the ball around as only they can do yet the Ecuadorans chased and pursued spiritedly. They were outshot, 20-3, but refused to wilt. Keeper Shirley Berruz saved seven shots. When a tackle late in the game left Mayra Olvera struggling to stand up, Ligia Moreira did just what a captain should; she dragged Olvera upright and exhorted her and everyone else to keep going.
Moreira had been sent off in the opener and in her absence Cameroon and Switzerland punished Ecuador. In the Japan game, she and her teammates kept their heads in the game.
Ecuador didn’t deserve a tie, yet a goal would have been merited and it nearly got one 20 minutes into the second half. Kerlly Real went for a loose ball in the penalty area, but Megumi Kaminobe swept it clear with a slide tackle. Japan pressed for a second goal but couldn’t break through. A few minutes after Yuika Sugasawa hit the crossbar with a shot from an overhead kick, Berruz repelled Mama Iwabuchi’s close-range attempt.
So Ecuador joins the list of South American teams humbled by their first appearance in the world championship. Argentina, one of the world’s great soccer nations on the men’s side, went home in 2003 beaten three times and with a minus-14 goal difference (one scored, 15 allowed).
What of Brazil? It’s hard to believe, but the only South American nation to compete in every Women’s World Cup didn’t fare well in the first two. It squeaked by Japan in its 1991 opener and then lost to the USA, 5-0, and Sweden, 2-0. The ’95 team started off by beating Sweden, 1-0, but lost to Japan, 2-1, and collapsed against Germany (6-1).
Finally, in 1999, Brazil joined the elite. It won its group, beat Nigeria, 4-3, in an incredible quarterfinal, and fell to the Americans, 2-0, in the semis. Still, in those first three tournaments it was the only South American representative, which is indicative of how seriously Conmebol regarded the women’s game. The first two competitions featured only 12 teams but even expansion of the field to 16 in 1999 didn’t increase the South American presence.
Inevitably, expansion of the tournament field from 16 to 24 teams would expose the weaker newcomers, yet as Colombia showed by stunning France, 2-0, the depth of the women’s game in South America goes deeper than Marta and Brazil. The only South American newbie to perform reasonably well in its first competition was the Colombian team of four years ago. The Colombian women didn’t score, but they allowed only four goals and celebrated at the final whistle of their final game, a 0-0 tie with North Korea.
There were plenty of smiles and hugs in Winnipeg Tuesday when Ecuador’s World Cup visit ended. Arauz and her players shook hands with the Japanese and embraced each other, joyful and proud of what they accomplished, sad and forlorn, and yes, relieved that it was over. They had worn the colors of their country on the world stage and the stark figures in the standings told only part of the story. No country has the soccer tradition of Brazil, but the women's game in South America is rife with promise.
What happens next is completely out of their hands and there’s no guarantee that the Ecuadoran federation will pump money and resources into its women’s programs in the wake of two heavy defeats. Now with two and a half slots in the Women’s World Cup -- Ecuador beat Trinidad & Tobago, Concacaf's No. 4 team, in a playoff with the lone goal of the two-game series coming in second-half stoppage time of the second leg in Port of Spain -- does Conmebol -- riddled with scandal on several fronts -- have the will and wherewithal to push forward on the women’s side?
"Despite the two previous routs we suffered, we showed why we deserved to be here,” said Arauz on Tuesday. “We earned our qualification and we have defended the honor of our country. We'll take this experience and continue to develop women's soccer in Ecuador.”
I sincerely hope she is right.