Given that Ecuador have safely negotiated the notoriously difficult South American Zone qualifiers to reach the last two FIFA World Cups™, many observers felt it was only a matter of time before the nation's clubs made their mark in the Copa Libertadores. And 2008 was the year that prediction came true, though the manner of victory was not entirely as you would expect.
Newly crowned Libertadores kings Liga de Quito recorded just one victory in their last seven games in the continent's most prestigious club competition - including a 3-1 reverse in the second leg of the final. Yet Los Blancos held their nerve in the decisive penalty shootout to silence an 80,000-strong crowd in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana and go down in Ecuadorian football history.
From the moment Liga de Quito's team took the field, it was clear that the players were carrying the hopes not just of their own fans but of an entire country. Having emerged bearing a banner that read 'Ecuador, thanks for getting behind us', Edgardo Bauza's charges went on to deny local favourites Fluminense and become the first Ecuadorian team to win a South American club title - all in the very same stadium where the national side had won gold at the Pan-American Games 2007.
No sooner had the penalty shootout ended than thousands of fans swarmed on to the streets of Quito, all desperate to celebrate the country's elevation to the top table of continental and world football. Quite an achievement when you consider the club's seasonal budget runs to just $6 million.
Cevallos the hero
"We know that this is a historic event for the entire country. That's something we've been very clear about all along," said veteran goalkeeper Jose Francisco Cevallos, who saved no fewer than three penalties to turn the shootout in Liga de Quito's favour. Already an iconic figure, the 37-year-old's key role in bringing the Copa Libertadores title to Ecuador for the first time will only enhance his glowing reputation.
Even before Wednesday night's success, Cevallos had quite a Libertadores pedigree. The experienced custodian was on the bench for Barcelona in 1990 when they lost to Paraguayan side Olimpia, as well as starting the 1998 final defeat by Vasco da Gama. These were the only two previous occasions an Ecuadorian club had reached the Libertadores final.
We came very close both times and, given everything we Ecuadorians have achieved in recent years, I think it was a case of third time lucky for us
," Cevallos told FIFA.com. "And for me personally, at 37 years of age, this was my last chance."
It was a chance that Cevallos came close to missing out on altogether, having seriously considered giving up the game in late 2007 while at Deportivo Azogues. He only made the decision to carry on after the Quito club made an approach for his services, a move he felt would give him one last shot at Libertadores glory. And even after tweaking his adductor muscle just days before the decisive showdown with Fluminense, Cevallos would not be denied. "I simply had to play this match. That's what I said to the doctors and the coaching staff," said a clearly emotional Cevallos after the game.
"The pain, the need to have an injection, it's all worth it to be here today. It's perhaps the most important moment in the history of the game in Ecuador. It helps us to further boost our importance on the world footballing map."
The same goes for Liga de Quito, who before Wednesday were relatively unknown outside of their own borders. All that has now changed forever, while their fame will no doubt be extended still further by the time December's FIFA Club World Cup Japan comes around. Including the likes of English giants Manchester United, Mexico's Pachuca and Waitakere United of New Zealand, the elite event will be yet another test of just how far Ecuadorian football has come.
"This is the type of competition that not so long ago would have been considered a pipe dream for clubs in our country," said Cevallos. "Fortunately for us, it looks like our dreams are starting to come true."