Ecuador is the 12th best team in the world according to the FIFA rankings. They're also the sixth best South American team, with Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil and Uruguay above them. While FIFA rankings themselves are strange and easily dismissed, the fact that Ecuador is so high on the list is incredible. They also seem very out of place.
And Ecuador doesn't belong that far up on the list of the best teams in the world in the same way that they don't belong in the Copa America. In the tournament's 100 year history, Ecuador has hosted three times without winning it; they're one of the only two South American teams to not have won the tournament (Venezuela is the other.) Speaking of them winning it alone is a far-fetched concept. They don't do well to begin with. They’ve appeared 26 total times in the competition since 1939, and their best campaigns have been two fourth place finishes in 1959 and 1993.
The 1959 tournament was an extra championship for the year. Only five teams participated: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay. They played four matches each and the team with the most points at the end – two for wins, one for a draw, none for loss – was deemed the winner, naturally. Ecuador finished fourth, second to last. That accomplishment ranking as one of their best finishes then is disingenuous.
The 1993 rendition, like the '59 one, was also held in Ecuador. All 10 CONMEBOL teams played, along with Mexico and the United States.
Ecuador finished first in their group, which consisted of Uruguay, Venezuela and the USA. They won all three of their matches, beating Venezuela 6-1, USA 2-0 and Uruguay 2-1. The quarterfinals saw them pitted against a weaker Paraguay team that finished third in their own individual group, with Brazil and Peru above them. Ecuador won the match 3-0 and moved on to face Mexico.
While Mexico also finished third in their group, they had striker Hugo Sánchez and goalkeeper Jorge Campos. Sánchez headed in a goal from a corner in the 23rd minute before Ramón Ramírez, Mexico's left-back, counterattacked by his lonesome after a desperate Ecuadorian attack faltered in the 54th minute and chipped Ecuador's goalkeeper, Jacinto Espinoza, to end the contest. Campos would make sure of it.
Mexico went on to lose to Argentina 2-1 in the final and Ecuador would never hit the same heights again.
Yet somehow here they are as one of the top 20 teams in the world. Here they are, ready for another Copa América. They were seeded into the group stage with the top CONMEBOL nations. They have exciting players in Felipe Caicedo, Fidel Martinez, Miller Bolaños, Jefferson Montero, Enner Valencia and Antonio Valencia, when he's not running into dead-ends. Minus the suspect and fearful defense, they look a deadly team.
Looks are a small part of the equation though, and they will have to prove their worth very soon. There are obvious reservations about Ecuador, which might help explain how the 12th best team in the world has gone under the radar for so long. They're hardly covered or advertised as extensively as their future opponents are, and though they lack a recognizable big name like a lot of the other teams, they have done much better in the competitive games leading up to this tournament.
They also seem to be a steady team going forward. They have created and accepted their identity. They don't defend well, but they can score. They subjugate their lack of organization with a high level of intensity, and they hide their midfield weakness with a forward line that can and should terrorize many defenses. They know who their best players and leaders are, and playing to those strengths have seen them rise to the top of the Copa and world rankings.
But history is a terrible burden. Ecuador can't escape that. All prior knowledge says that the best they can finish is fourth. They should make it out of the group stages, with Haiti and Peru being unfortunate to see themselves trapped with Ecuador and Brazil. After that, is an uncertain, if not dark future.
What Ecuador can take heart in is that this is the Copa of endings and beginnings. The last in a century of tournaments, and the first to be held outside of South America. It's a perfect arena to cleanse the disappointments of the yesteryears, the futility and embarrassment of being one out of two barren countries as far as the trophy goes. Ecuador has a chance to start anew. They can use this tournament to justify their lofty world ranking and announce themselves to the world. The hope of a tournament win is unreasonable, but right now, all they need to beat is fourth place and go from there.