Last year I was in Ecuador, South America, to spend time with a team called Sociedad Deportiva Aucas. Founded in 1945, and originally owned by oil company Royal Dutch Shell, financial troubles have cost them dearly in recent years, resulting in a dramatic fall from grace. They were floundering in the third tier of the league system when I arrived, but had begun to benefit from the backing of local businessman Ramiro Gordon and had ambitious plans to return to the top.
Ecuador has two professional football divisions, La A and La B. Whilst both are comprised of twelve teams and use the standard league format, the division below is split into 19 regional leagues. The winners and runners up of the regional leagues qualify for the zonal leagues, with the zonal winners entering a national league to determine the overall champion that is promoted to La B. It is an epic tournament that lasts almost an entire year and is notoriously difficult to win, mainly due to the amount of games played. Trying to maintain a squad focused and motivated for such an extended period of time requires great skill, with managers constantly battling to reduce the number of injured and fatigued players through the use of squad rotation.
The idea behind this league setup was that it would help semi-pro and amateur teams, who have extremely limited finances, by reducing travelling times and consequently costs. In reality, although this aspect was achieved, it actually made it much harder for smaller teams to gain promotion; their smaller squads can't cope with such an arduous and lengthy campaign, and if they manage to qualify for the regional phase then they have to start travelling anyway.
It is in this division that Aucas had been stagnating for several years, unable to push their way through and take the final step to promotion. Qualification at the regional and zonal phases is not particularly difficult to manoeuvre, but the previous season saw the team come unstuck at the national level, to the immense dismay of their fans. This failed attempt was not accepted lightly and an angry mob of ‘fans’ hurled stones, bottles and anything to hand at the players and coaching staff, who were forced to take refuge in the changing rooms for several hours under armed guard.
There is immense support and passion for this team and they regularly have higher attendances than many first division clubs. They are also one of only several teams in the entire country to own their own stadium and consequently have a distinct advantage over amateur opposition. The downside of their professional status is the incredible pressure and expectation that the team should qualify through each phase with ease, including the final stage.
Upon arriving at the start of pre-season training I was informed that almost the entire squad was made up of new signings. This is fairly common practice for many teams in the lower divisions, although I did wonder how long it was going to take for them to start playing with any type of understanding or cohesion. Jose Vicente Moreno was the man in charge, an ex-player who displayed his goal scoring talents at Liga de Quito in the 90's and had studied for his coaching qualifications in Spain. His assistant, Luis Granda, had been a very successful player for El Nacional and had also been an assistant manager at many top division sides. Forming the rest of the coaching team were fitness coach Cesar Benalcazar and goalkeeping coach Cesar Ramos. Both were hugely experienced and talented and had been part of the coaching setup that travelled with the national side to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
Training took place in several locations and a typical week would start with a match on Sunday morning. The whole squad would then have a rest day on Monday to recover from the exertions of the previous day, although any injured players would see the doctor to continue working on their rehabilitation. Only the coaching staff would get together to discuss the match performance from the day before and they would also plan the programme for the coming week.
A morning training session in ‘La Carolina’, which is a vast public park right in the heart of Quito, would take place on Tuesday and was often led by Cesar Benalcazar. Wednesday was normally a double training day; morning training at the Aucas complex in Chillogallo, which is a poor neighbourhood in the south of the city, followed by an additional session in the stadium in the afternoon. The stadium is adjacent to the complex and so the coaching staff and players would eat together and socialise on a Wednesday afternoon when they had a double session. This allowed for a relaxed and pleasant ambience within the squad and led nicely into the afternoon session, which was always purely football based. Jose Moreno and Luis Granda would work together on team shape and set pieces, and the emphasis was on tactics rather than fitness.
Thursday's training would be either at the military school facilities, known as ESMIL, on the outskirts of the city, or at the Aucas complex and Friday was again at the complex. Saturday morning would involve a short session, normally a small sided game which was characterised by the players dividing themselves into two teams. There was no discrimination or racism within the team, but they always formed ‘blancos’ versus ‘negros’ for the ‘big game’ and it was the most fun they had all week. The players would then stay at the training ground for the rest of the day and after eating lunch they would often go to the cinema in the afternoon, or participate in activities such as table tennis, playing pool, or watching television. All squad members selected for the match were required to sleep at the facilities, before going direct to the match on Sunday, and Cesar Ramos was the ‘night watchman’ for want of a better description. This is common practice in Ecuador and many other South American countries, where there is a longstanding belief that this custom focuses the players' minds on the upcoming match. It also allows the coaching staff to monitor and supervise them the day before a game, to make sure that no-one is doing anything they shouldn't be.
There was a priority placed on fitness work during the first few weeks of the season, as is customary at all clubs during pre-season, with the coaching staff well aware of the physical demands of the season ahead. Plenty of exercises aimed at improving agility, sprinting, and stamina were used, along with basic ball exercises in small groups and teams. The atmosphere was positive, the training slowly but surely increasing fitness levels, and the new players were beginning to integrate into the side.
Friendly matches were arranged and potential signings were talked about by the management and sporting director. Several players were given trials and others were allowed to train with the team to maintain fitness, despite not being registered to a club. One of these was Omar de Jesus, a veteran 36-year-old right back who had played at the club about a decade earlier. After amassing almost 300 appearances for Aucas, between 1993 - 2002, he had gone on to play for El Nacional and Barcelona Guayaquil before being released at the end of the previous season. He was affectionately known as 'tio' and although he trained only to improve his fitness, the coaching staff quickly realised that he was still good enough to play regularly. He accepted their contract offer and it appeared that this was to be the most surprising signing of Aucas' pre-season, but the news was about to be eclipsed by the arrival of an Ecuadorian football superstar.
Jaime Ivan Kaviedes is one of the most famous footballers in Ecuador. Over the course of a career stretching back to 1995, he has played in Italy, Spain, England, Argentina, Mexico and Ecuador. He scored the crucial goal in a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay, which allowed Ecuador to qualify for their first ever World Cup, and is still fondly remembered for an overhead kick goal against Barcelona that was voted goal of the Spanish season for 00/01. He is recognised as a star of the Ecuadorian game but his life has not been without drama. It is widely known that he has battled a drug problem for years and many people claimed that he is unreliable, bad for team morale and past his best. Despite this he is still a big media attraction and loved by his adoring fans.
Aucas decided that is was worthwhile taking a chance on a potentially disruptive figure and were immediately the talk of the town; his first training session in La Carolina park was attended by hundreds of fans, along with every major television and radio station reporter in the country. His team mates were shocked at the attention suddenly thrust upon them and many of the younger players were in awe of playing with their idol. Several experienced players such as Gustavo Figueroa, Omar de Jesus and Wellington Sanchez gave him a warm welcome to the club; they had played together previously for the national team and were able to take the media focus in their stride.
After numerous interviews held up the start of training (even the kit man got his five minutes of fame!) the session began, but only after the coaching staff had asked the spectators and members of the press to move back to allow them an area in which to work. All eyes were on Kaviedes, but his teammates seemed more nervous than he did, as no-one wanted to make a mistake in front of the national media. Small talk and banter quickly settled the group into a positive working environment and a possession game developed nicely; five or six players formed a circle and another player in the centre tried to win it back. Deft touches, back heels and plenty of flair were on show, and players, coaching staff, spectators and journalists all thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
As the session came to its conclusion there was another media scramble to grab a quick interview with the new 'star man', combined with a wave of rushing spectators all wanting an autograph and photo with their idol. The rest of the players were left to drink from their water bottles and stand watching the show. Everything had begun well, spirits were high and there was a definite air of optimism surrounding Aucas’ chances of promotion.
Pre-season form was encouraging, with several wins over higher placed teams, including a victory against arch rivals Liga de Quito. The ‘Superclasico Capitalino’ took place at Liga's training facilities and Liga's president, Esteban Paz, declared that the first division missed their presence and hoped they could make a swift return to top division action.
The squad initially contained 34 players, but many of the younger ones were sent
on loan to gain match experience and develop their skills. This meant that the
coaching staff had a manageable group of about twenty to work with, which allowed
for injuries and suspensions to occur without decimating the team. A preferred
starting eleven was taking shape, as was the formation that Jose Vicente Moreno
wanted to use.
The first official game of the season arrived and a crowd close to 11,000 spectators turned up to watch 'El Papa Aucas' defeat Universidad San Francisco by a scoreline of 2-0. A carnival atmosphere was provided by the fans, with plenty of noise, colour and encouragement throughout. It was a satisfactory opening to the season although plenty of work was still required to get the team playing the type of flowing football desired. Nevertheless, the team had won, there were encouraging signs of progress and fitness levels were increasing.
Ten games into the season and Aucas were in pole position in the table. They had won all of their matches and attained the maximum 30 points available. No doubts existed about whether the team would qualify for the next phase of competition; it was just a matter of when they would be mathematically assured of their passage. Concerns about the style of play still lingered, as a result of several occasions where the team had struggled to defeat significantly weaker opposition. Various changes were made to both personnel and formations during this period to try and find a solution, but nothing seemed to gel as desired. However, the team was definitely heading in the right direction and morale remained high; the plan now was to maintain a winning attitude and continue working on attacking fluidity. The push for promotion was underway and nothing was going to stop this team from getting to La B.