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Saturday, 25 May, 2002, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Ecuador eager for debut
Edison Mendez, Ecuador
Ecuador's Edison Mendez could surprise opponents
Tim Vickery

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Ecuador have been South America's busy bees.

This year they have played nine full internationals, plus a number of friendlies against club sides - all with the objective of coming out of their debut World Cup with their heads held high.

Such frenetic activity has produced some clear conclusions; Ecuador have seen that they need not feel ashamed to be in the company of the world's best. Their confidence has grown.

They are tactically more astute, and more solid defensively that they were - although still dependent on Agustin Delgado to score goals at the highest level.

Coach Hernan Dario Gomez has repeatedly stressed that Ecuador's objective in this World Cup is come out of the competition a better team than when they went in.

Gomez is a third in a series of foreign coaches who, in a decade of hard work, have taken the Ecuador national team this far.

Edison Mendez has proved inspirational
Mendez has proved inspirational
First was Dussan Draskovic from Montenegro, who groomed a generation of players who were able to compete in physical terms.

Then came Francisco Maturana of Colombia, who put more emphasis on the ball skills so beloved in the land of his birth.

And now his compatriot Gomez has turned team spirit into an obsession.

Ecuador have one young player who fulfills alll three of these coaches' requirements.

And, in terms of the future of the national team, a key consequence of the World Cup could be that Edison Mendez emerges as the most important player in the side.

The 23-year-old midfielder is one of Ecuador's shortest players, but is becoming a giant on the field with his combination of ability and lung power.

Mendez broke into the side half way through the marathon qualification campaign. It was a key moment. Ecuador were sixth in the table, and in danger of missing out on the World Cup once more.

But in Mendez's first game Ecuador won away from home - an achievement they had last managed in World Cup qualifying back in 1965.

Magic touch

After the introduction of Mendez they suffered just one defeat in the last nine games, and flew past the line to finish as the second team in South America.

Against Brazil, Mendez marked Rivaldo out of the game. Against Paraguay his cross set up the winner for Delgado. Agaianst Peru he scored the vital equaliser after Ecuador had gone behind almost straight from the kick-off.

Gomez describes him as "a player who wants to do the work of all those around him". It is becoming increasingly apparent that the midfielder has the attributes to make good his promise.

Ecuador will go into their first World Cup with the spotlight on the likes of Delgado, Kaviedes, Aguinaga and De La Cruz. But by the end the talk could be of Edison Mendez.

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