Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro has said the opening match of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 against the home side will be of high importance terming it like a final for his side. The Argentine said ‘it’s a massive privilege’ for his side to play the opening match of the World Cup against hosts Qatar on November 20 at the Al Bayt Stadium.
After calling time on a fleeting career in the heart of Atletico de Rafaela’s midfield, Alfaro took his first steps in management in 1992 at his hometown club with one thing on his mind: to fulfil a series of pending dreams. Three decades on and after having accomplished all of his targets, the Santa Fe native is set to savour a moment that he did not dare imagine at the start of his coaching career as he prepares to lead Ecuador at a World Cup. With less than 100 days to go until he makes his debut on football’s biggest stage, Alfaro spoke to FIFA+ to discuss the build-up to his Qatari adventure. Excerpts
When you started out in coaching, over 30 years ago now, your dream was to take charge of a club in Argentina’s top flight. Back then, could you ever have imagined you’d go on to coach a team at the FIFA World Cup?
That was indeed very much a distant hope. When I started out, everything was a real uphill struggle. I began on the very bottom rung in Rafaela, a city where there’s more passion for motor racing than football. My first task was to prove that I was capable of managing my hometown club and then working hard to try and do that in the top flight. That was my ultimate dream. I went on to work as a commentator for a Colombian TV channel at four editions of the World Cup. My first tournament was in Germany in 2006. That’s when the idea of coaching at a World Cup came to mind, but a voice in my head was telling me to just focus on coaching in Argentina and establishing myself in the top tier. My head and my heart were locked in a battle. That’s when I started to search without really searching, just like the Buddhists: you’re not looking for something, but that feeling of hope means that you end up playing around with an idea in your head.
After over two decades in club management, you were given the chance to coach Ecuador. What things did you have to weigh up when that opportunity came along?
It came in the middle of the pandemic and at a very tough time. I’d left Boca Juniors and was seeking a challenge that involved similar demands. There weren’t many teams in South America that could offer me that. Coaching Ecuador offered me something different and involved me becoming a national-team coach just 30 days before our opening World Cup qualifier. Although it was a big risk, I believed that the challenge involved similar demands to those I was under at Boca, given the magnitude of the World Cup. It was all about getting our teeth into the challenge and making our mark on the project without altering the essence of Ecuadorian football, while at the same time introducing new elements to try and reverse the dynamic that resulted in Ecuador failing to qualify for the 2018 edition in Russia.
You had the youngest squad in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. How do you know when a player is ready?
When you’re observing players you take them as they are, but you can only really assess them when you’ve got them there in front of you. I would tend to call many players up, but not with our next match in mind, instead I was readying them for two or three games down the line. I always say that player intelligence is more important than experience. Intelligence is all about being able to pick things up quickly. I tell the players that they don’t need to be 30 to prove that they’re good players, if they’re 19 and quick on the uptake, that’s good enough for me. It’s when they repeat the same mistakes that you’ve got a problem and I want intelligent players in my team. The challenge for me is to teach them how to think, give them the tools to solve situations and offer them a support network, which I have to create by giving them the reassurance that I’m the one who’s ultimately responsible for things. I also have to make sure that the support network is in place for the older players and reassure them that the youngsters aren’t being brought in to replace them, but to inject a freshness into the squad, and that they have to work with me in other ways. I need my players to identify with the cause and defend it as if it were their own and that’s where the older players come in. That’s why, for me, they’ve been just as important as the youngsters in this whole process.
How much video footage have you seen of Qatar since the draw was made?
Not much as yet. There’s a time for everything. The Qatar side we come up against won’t be the same as the one I watched at the AFC Asian Cup, just like we won’t see the same Ecuador team as the one that faced Argentina and Brazil. There’ll be changes. Although the foundations will be the same, it’s only now that we’ll start to see the sort of side we really are. At this stage, we have to focus more on the things we need to change, improve and what we’re looking to do to ensure we head into the game in the best possible shape because how we use the time ahead of us will ultimately determine how we perform against them. At the moment, we still need to be focusing more on ourselves than the opposition because a lot depends on what we do. All of our opponents will present us with stern tests. We face the Asian champions, the CAF Africa Cup of Nations winners and the Netherlands, who in Louis van Gaal have a coach who has come in with ambitions of winning the World Cup.
What are your thoughts on each of your opponents?
There are similarities between three of us. Qatar have some young players, but they’re not used to performing on the world stage and don’t have the experience of competing at this level, and the same can be said of both Ecuador and Senegal. Senegal are a very powerful and tough side, they’re the reigning African champions, but they don’t have a strong World Cup pedigree either. As for the Netherlands, they’ve got a very young squad with a lot of quality, but they’re a very young side. They’ve contested World Cup finals in the past, but have always fallen at the final hurdle and this new generation is aiming to put that right.
Of the four teams, Qatar will head into the tournament in the best shape because they’ll have had more time to work together. They’re currently training together and playing friendlies. I certainly don’t expect to see a lack of chemistry from Qatar and they’ve got an advantage in that regard. The Netherlands are a different prospect because they seek to impose themselves through their possession-based game. However, I’ve told my players that we’ve already come up against Argentina and Brazil, who are both European-style teams with South American talent, and performed well against them. As for Senegal, it’s like looking in the mirror for us. They’re a powerful, quick, strong side who play as a unit and have attacking players who can make all the difference and bring something different to the table, but playing against Senegal is just like facing ourselves. That was the initial overview I gave to my players about the teams we’re set to face.
What will it mean to you to be in the dugout for the tournament opener after having watched the last four opening games from the commentary box or the stands?
It’s amazing! When I saw Ecuador versus Qatar come out of the draw, I said to myself, ‘Wow, the whole world will be watching that one’ and it’s a massive privilege. I told the boys that there’s a reason why it’s worked out as it has and we’re involved in the opening game after so many sacrifices and lots of suffering. It’s our reward, and that’s how we’ve got to treat the game and just go out and enjoy the privilege of being involved in the opening match at the World Cup. Having said that, it’ll be like a cup final for us because it’ll have a big bearing, both for ourselves and Qatar, on how the group pans out.
We’ve got to take that level of enjoyment into the game.