This article was first published on These Football Times and can be seen here
Independiente del Valle will play Boca Juniors in the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores in what is by far the biggest game in their history and one of the biggest games in the history of Ecuadorian club football. But life hasn’t always been this glamorous for Club de Alto Rendimiento Especializado Independiente del Valle. This is another story of a meteoric rise and spectacular overachievement in a year that seems to have provided a superfluity of these heart-warming tales.
In December 2007, the final four-team group stage of the long and convoluted Ecuadorian third division came to a close. Independiente José Terán, as they were then known, a small team from a town called Sangolquí on the outskirts of the capital, Quito, were crowned champions and would climb into the second tier for the first time in their history.
Surprisingly, Independiente, who play their home games at a ground with a capacity of just 7,000, climbed out of Serie B at just the second attempt, finishing as runners-up with the help of the promising and lightning quick young winger Jefferson Montero, who they had signed from top-flight side Emelec.
In their first and second seasons in the top-flight they struggled and narrowly missed out on relegation on both occasions. However in 2012, with new Uruguayan manager Pablo Repetto at the helm and their new name, Independiente del Valle managed to finish fourth, qualifying for their first Copa Sudamericana.
In 2013 they followed this up by finishing second and qualifying for the next year’s Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club tournament. In their first shot at the Libertadores they narrowly missed out on the last-16, only going out on goal difference to San Lorenzo of Argentina, the eventual winners of the competition.
In 2015 they tried again but fell in the last qualifying round. This year they have had another chance at the continent’s top-table. After finishing third in last year’s Ecuadorian domestic campaign they again had to go through the pain of the qualifying round, and but for a large slice of good fortune they could have fallen at the first hurdle once again.
In the last minute of injury time in the second leg of the tie against Paraguayan side Guaraní, Independiente centre-half Arturo Mina gave away a soft penalty. The Guaraní centre-forward Hernán Rodrigo López stepped up to take it knowing that if he scored he would take the Paraguayans through and send Independiente back to Ecuador with their tails between their legs. Fortunately for lovers of underdog stories everywhere, Lopez sent the ball flying over the crossbar and into the stand behind the goal, thus sending Independiente into the next round on away goals.
The draw for the group stage did Independiente no favours at all, putting them together with Chilean giants and serial champions Colo-Colo and probably the strongest Brazilian team in this year’s competition Atlético Mineiro.
For the Libertadores, Independiente’s home games are played the Estádio Olimpíco Athualpa in the centre of Quito, 10 kilometres away from Sangolquí, owing to the tiny capacity of their own stadium. This arrangement does bring its benefits though, Quito sitting 2,800 metres above sea-level. During the group stage they managed to make the most of this advantage, winning two and drawing one of the games played in Ecuador.
In the last round of group games they needed to go to Chile and get something out of the game against Colo-Colo, which is no easy task. However, after a heroic defensive performance and a lot of assistance from the woodwork, they held on for a 0-0 draw, sending themselves through to the last-16 for the first time.
Here they faced a challenge that many believed would be insurmountable and would bring a swift end to this wonderful tale. They drew reigning Libertadores champions and one of the favourites for the competition, River Plate of Argentina.
In the home leg the Independiente players put in the performance of their lives. Despite several fine opportunities in the opening period they were unable to find the net, but in the second half they were able to make the most of their continued dominance.
In the 64th minute athletic young centre-back Luis Caicedo stole the ball from River in midfield and gave it to top-scorer and talented playmaker Junior Sornoza who fed Bryan Cabezas on the left wing. Cabezas then pulled it back to centre-forward José Angulo who took heavy touch before rifling the ball into the roof of the River Plate net from 12 yards out.
After this they managed to resist a barrage of River Plate attacks before breaking out once more and forcing the panicked River defence into giving away a penalty which was duly converted by Sornoza, giving them a 2-0 lead to take to Argentina.
Much like this year’s other over-achievers, they have relied on a tight, narrow and courageous defensive unit, coupled with tenacious ball-winning in midfield and directness, pace and the quality of players like Sornoza, who also possesses a wicked free-kick, to hurt teams on the counter attack.
In the return leg in Buenos Aires it was an Argentine onslaught from the first minute to the last. But, with some more luck, some horrible finishing, a terrific goalkeeping display and another valiant rear-guard action they managed to escape from River Plate’s intimidating El Monumental stadium having only conceded one, going through 2-1 on aggregate to face Pumas of Mexico in the quarter-finals.
Pumas also play their home games at lung-bursting altitude so Independiente could no longer rely on this advantage to see them through. However, a wonderful creative performance from the quick-thinking Sornoza and two goals from Angulo, demonstrating both his power and ability, saw them take a 2-1 lead to Mexico from the first leg.
The return tie saw Pumas take a two goal lead within 18 minutes, and to make matters worse Independiente had left-back Luis Ayala sent off early in the second period for a high and reckless challenge. But, in the 65th minute Sornoza once again came to his team’s rescue, whipping in a delicious ball from a free-kick on the left which evaded everybody, including the Pumas keeper, and nestled in the back of the onion bag.
Independiente then managed to cling on to take the game to penalties with the manager Repetto making two substitutions in the final minutes to get his best spot-kick takers on the pitch. The gamble paid off, the two players who had come on took the first two penalties and both converted. The first five penalties were all tucked away, making it 3-2 to Independiente, then Ismael Sosa, who had scored both of Pumas’ goals in normal time stepped up and sent a poor penalty just to the keepers’ left. It was comfortably turned round the post by Independiente’s experienced Paraguayan number one, Librado Azcona, and the Ecuadorian side’s two centre halves converted the next two spot-kicks to make it five out of five.
This sent them through to a glamorous semi-final tie with Carlos Tevez’s Boca Juniors, one of the biggest clubs in the world and record winners of the Libertadores, less than a decade after their promotion from the Ecuadorian third tier.
Independiente fans have had a long time to soak up the glory of being in the semi-finals of South America’s top club competition, with a long break for the Copa América after the quarter finals, but on Thursday they will finally experience all they have been anticipating. Boca travel to Quito for the first leg, before the return tie a week later in the inhospitable, explosive cauldron that is Boca’s La Bombonera.
It is the game of a life-time for the Independiente players, many of whom have come from the academy or were signed very young by Los Negriazules. Herein lays the success of this tiny team from a small suburban town. It is no accident that they have reached this stage of the competition; it is the result of careful planning and a wonderful academy.
Independiente have employed a successful policy of promoting youth players and mixing them with a few old heads, such as Azcona and Uruguayan midfielder Mario Rizzoto, to provide experience and leadership. They have already produced players like Jefferson Montero who has gone on to star in the Premier League and for the national team, as well as Juan Cazares who is now lighting up the Brazilian league for Atlético Mineiro, and it seems as if this trend of producing talent will continue.
They maintain one of the best-run youth systems on the continent, with dormitories for players who do not live close by, six full-size pitches, a swimming pool, a separate gym for the youth teams and, most importantly, a secondary school on site for the boys to receive a proper education whilst they attend the academy. The school also provides education for disadvantaged local youngsters, in the spirit of social responsibility which is oft found lacking in the beautiful game.
Independiente are also one of the few clubs in Ecuador that does not have substantial debts to pay. They are a shining example of how to run a football club on a continent where many sides are on the brink of extinction and forced into selling their best players far too young just to service their vast interest payments.
To add extra gleam to this terrific tale Independiente have been using their wonderful Libertadores campaign not only to bring joy to their own fans but to inspire an entire nation. All of the gate receipts from their games against River Plate, Pumas and now Boca have gone to help victims of the devastating earthquake that took place in the country on 16 April this year, which killed 660, injured tens of thousands and destroyed the lives and livelihoods of many, many more.
This has won them admirers across the continent, and fans of Quito’s bigger teams have been turning up for their home games to show their support for the cause and cheer them on in their quest for Libertadores glory.
2016 has so far been the year of the underdog, the year that the smaller teams have risen up against the economic superpowers of football’s elite. Independiente are another chapter in this beautiful story and maybe, just maybe, this poignant, touching tale tops the lot.