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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Hurtado has the heart
Ecuador defender Ivan Hurtado
Hurtado excelled in the qualifying campaign
BBC Sport Online's Tim Vickery

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"Ecuadorians have always had ability," says Alberto Spencer, the 1960s marksman widely considered the country's greatest ever player.

"But there has been a problem; an inferiority complex. Now this has been overcome.

"Many of the team play abroad nowadays, which has given them more confidence and professionalism."

There is no doubt that Ivan Hurtado is one of the players Spencer has in mind.

The elegant centre-back has just returned home to join Barcelona of Guayaquil.

Open Quote
Before every game we played in qualifying we were told that this was the big one, the historic match
Close Quote
Ivan Hurtado

But seven years in Mexican football have taught him to set his heights high.

Coach Gomez is working hard to play down expectations of Ecuador's first World Cup campaign.

"We're going there to learn," is his mantra.

Fair enough, says Hurtado, "but that doesn't mean that we're only going to make up the numbers.

"Obviously it will be difficult. But we've earned the right to be there, and so we have to make sure we are respected."

He sees no chance of stage fright when the big day finally comes.

"Before every game we played in qualifying we were told that this was the big one, the historic match.

"It happened so much that we got used to it."

Weapon

It is just as well that Hurtado is unlikely to be overawed. Fate has reserved a daunting challenge for him in Ecuador's World Cup opener.

Three-times champions Italy are Ecuador's first opponents. So Hurtado will have to organise the defence to cancel out Christian Vieri, Italy's most potent weapon.

At full fitness, Vieri is better in the air and more dynamic on the ground than Hurtado and either of his likely centre-back partners, the rugged Augusto Poroso and the gangling Giovany Espinoza.

Stopping him will require the application of all of Hurtado's intelligence.

It will need sound positioning, to force Vieri into unthreatening areas, well-timed tackling to win possession of the ball, and quality distribution to take the pressure off the defence and set Ecuador's attacks in motion.

Hurtado showed in qualifying that he has all these characteristics. The marathon programme was a triumph for the 27-year-old defender.

Open Quote
I'm a quiet person, which can make me appear arrogant - but I'm not
Close Quote
Ivan Hurtado

A poor performance in a warm-up friendly against Honduras meant that he was left out of Ecuador's first match.

But he came straight back to re-establish himself in the side, and now Gomez refers to him as the leader of the team.

His brand of leadership is not high profile. It is the firm word of someone whose wisdom and example have won his team-mates' respect.

His cool approach may not always make him the media's favourite.

"I'm a quiet person," he says, "which can make me appear arrogant. But I'm not."

But on 3 June when the nerves are trembling before the World Cup campaign gets underway, all of Ecuador will be happy to see Ivan Hurtado as unflustered as ever.

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