E is for Ecuador
AN empty number 11 jersey will add poignancy to Ecuador's third World Cup finals appearance from the last four attempts. The shirt has been retired in honour of Christian 'Chucho' Benitez, the talented, if slightly eccentric former Birmingham City striker who passed away due to a sudden heart attack in July at the age of 27.
Signed by Alex McLeish for £6m in 2009, Benitez played in the 2006 World Cup side which reached the last 16 before losing to England and would have had a fair shout for leading the line again in Brazil were it not for the cardiac arrest one day after his debut for Qatari side El Jaish.
On the proviso that South American teams are usually worthy of consideration when the World Cup is held on that continent, this nation of 15million people deserves more than a passing mention.
Under the charge of Reinaldo Rivera, the Colombian who took Honduras to the finals in 2010, they once again qualified impressively, finishing fourth in the continent - ahead or Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and co at Uruguay on the last day.
As usual, their successes were built on the strength of their home form in the altitude of the capital Quito, at an elevation 2800 metres above sea level, where they won seven and drew 1-1 with Argentina.
Viewers of a certain vintage will recall a cultured central midfielder called Alex Aguinaga, or even Hibs duo Ulises de la Cruz and Eduardo Hurtado, but the star turn these days is skipper Luis Valencia, whose unstinting sense of endeavour down the right flank has remained unaffected amid the turmoil at Old Trafford.
Goals should come from Felipe Caceido, the striker who once played across the city at the Etihad, and who now plays his club football at the Al-Jazira club in the United Arab Emirates, while Christian Noboa of Dynamo Moscow is flanked by a number of Mexican-based players in midfield. Conditions should suit them in an open group which includes France, Honduras and Switz-erland.