Ecuador’s football team is ‘like a mosaic of cultures’

Édison Méndez (43) has set up a large television at his home in La Valle del Chota to watch Ecuador’s matches with his neighbours. The duel with the Orange on Friday in Doha is special for him for several reasons. As a former PSV player, his heart still beats a bit for the Netherlands. Yet he is full behind Ecuador, where his nephew Jhegson Méndez (25) has a basic place. He is the new pride of Chota.

La Valle del Chota is the most important breeding ground for football talent in Ecuador. It is a former slave colony about a three-hour drive from Quito. The roots of the approximately 25,000 black residents lie in Africa. And that still partly determines the local culture. If she la bomba dance, then the valley swings. But above all it is football that dominates the lives of many. Also that of the Méndez family. Édison Méndez is the youngest in a family of nine children. His father earned his living growing tomatoes, which his sisters sold. Édison Méndez himself was always busy with a ball. Often barefoot. He had only one goal in mind: to become a professional footballer. It worked.

Édison Méndez qualified as a player of Deportivo Quito with Ecuador in 2002 for the country’s first World Cup. Four years later, after his participation in the world championship in Germany, he signed a contract with PSV. In February 2007, he was the first Ecuadorian footballer to score a goal in the Champions League against Arsenal in Eindhoven. After the 2014 World Cup, the midfielder ended his career.

First generation

Édison Méndez is considered the figurehead of the first generation of footballers with international success from the Chota Valley. Together with Ulises De La Cruz (ex-Aston Villa), Agustin Delgado (ex-Southampton) and Giovanny Espinoza (ex-Vitesse), he was at the basis of the rise of football in Ecuador. A generation that was reviled in the South American country after the elimination from the 2010 World Cup. One of the low points in Édison Méndez’s career. Although the death of international Christían Benítez, whose father came from La Valle del Chota, was the darkest page. The Ecuador striker died in Qatar in 2013 just after his debut with El Jaish. Appendicitis that ended in cardiac arrest killed him at the age of 27. He lives on within the team of Ecuador. The current striker Enner Valencia, the maker of both goals against Qatar, dedicated a victory to Benítez several times.

In the current selection of Ecuador, the Chota Valley is represented next to Jhegson Méndez by Romario Ibarra (28), the younger brother of Renato Ibarra (ex-Vitesse). National coach Gustavo Alfaro (60) knows from experience how important the input of players from the valley of the Imbabura province is. “Ecuador’s selection is like a mosaic of many different cultures. And the football players from La Valle del Chota are part of that,” says the Argentinian when asked at a press conference. “At the presentation of our shirt, I met many internationals of the generation of Édison Méndez. Many of them came from La Valle del Chota. And that is no coincidence. Because now we have two again. It is a place where people are used to making great sacrifices in order to achieve something. In Chota, footballers combine exceptional talent with a strong constitution. And on the field they fight as if their lives depended on it. And football is also the way to achieve something there.”

In Ecuador’s current squad, the Chota Valley is represented by Jhegson Méndez (left) and Romario Ibarra.

Photo Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

The dozens of professional football players from the valley feel indebted to the young people from the northern area between two mountain ranges in the Andes. Also called ‘the African corner of Ecuador’. Édison Méndez, among others, founded his own football school there. Agustin Delgado is present in Qatar as an official of the Ecuadorian Football Federation. He is pleased to see how Alfaro has forged a close unity of the 26 internationals, of whom only the three goalkeepers and striker Kevin Rodríguez play in the national league.

According to Jhegson Méndez, the family atmosphere is the strength of the national team. “I am very proud to play for Ecuador,” says the Los Angeles FC midfielder. “It is wonderful to play against the Netherlands. A team with a lot of quality. But we have that too. I think the battle mainly takes place in midfield.”

Irrespective of Ecuador’s performance at this World Cup, the internationals from La Valle del Chota will be welcomed with open arms in their native soil for Christmas. Once back in the valley, they blend in with the people they grew up with. And they play football games on the artificial grass or a dusty field together with former professionals and young talents. There is no greater contrast to the ambiance in the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar.

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