Independiente del Valle’s home pitch, the Estadio Rumiñahui, holds around 7,000 people. The average age of its players is 24.2 years. Its squad is valued at approximately $17m. The club has only been in the top division for six years. Yet this underdog from the outskirts of Quito is the last remaining Ecuadorian side in the Copa Libertadores and knocked aside big name clubs on its way to the final four.
On May 24, Los Rayados, so called due to the black and blue stripes on its home jerseys, beat Mexican side Pumas 5-3 in a thrilling penalty shoot-out. Independiente went into the match having won the first leg, 2-1. However, los Pumas outplayed Independiente in Mexico City, leading 2-0 at the end of the first half. It wasn’t until the 66th minute, when Junior Sornoza brought the team back to life with a brilliant free kick, that Independiente found a lifeline. The goal took the game to penalties, where Independiente scored five to Pumas’ three, sending the team to the semifinals in July.
Independiente finished the 2015 Ecuadorian Serie A in third place, meaning the team didn’t automatically earn a spot in the Copa Libertadores. Independiente faced Paraguay club Guaraní in the first stage, winning in extra time to advance to the group stage of the tournament. The team has left behind plenty of big teams, including Colo Colo – eternal champions and the most successful team in Chile. Even the current Libertadores’ champion, River Plate, could not stop Independiente.
Meanwhile, Liga de Quito, the most successful Ecuadorian club in international competitions, and Emelec, who won Serie A the last three consecutive years, could not make it past the group stage.
But what Independiente has achieved in the last few years is not just luck and should not come as a surprise. Los Rayados has created a process and a project that begins at the academy level and ends with its top team. It has the best academy in the country, producing a U20 squad that is the only Ecuadorian team to have been part of the U20 Copa Libertadores for three years running.
The infrastructure and services the club provides to players (at every level) help account for the team’s success. The training grounds and complex, Centro de Alto Rendimiento Independiente del Valle, is home to six regulation-sized football pitches, two fully equipped gyms – one for academy players and another for the top team – a pool and a wet area, dorms for players and a high school where academy player attend classes during the week. It helps, too, that Independiente is probably the only professional team not affected by the economic crisis affecting Ecuador over the past five years, with many clubs racking up significant debt. A few teams have even been relegated due to their financial situation.
Independiente, participants in the last three Copa Libertadores, remains an underdog, but its success and popularity continue to increase. Due to the small size of its home stadium, the club adopted the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa, holding approximately 40,000 and located in central Quito, as its unofficial home for its recent Copa matches. And after the devastating earthquake in Ecuador on April 16, the club decided to donate 100 percent of its home ticket sales against River Plate and Pumas – both sellout crowds – to those affected by the disaster. It has said it will do the same for the semifinal against Boca Juniors.
Maybe some of the people that filled the Atahualpa on May 24 were not Independiente supporters. Yet, just like me, they are fans of good football, they wanted to support the earthquake relief cause, and they recognised Independiente’s achievements. The team’s hard work, discipline and courage have certainly paid off. After seeing the beautiful game Independiente plays, it seems likely the Atahualpa will be full to capacity for the semifinal. And who knows, maybe next year the small Estadio Rumiñahui won’t be able to contain the ever-increasing group of fans Independente is acquiring through this phenomenal campaign.
In football, results are a long-term achievement. Patience, hard work and perseverance – throughout the organisation – are key factors in achieving success. These factors have turned Independiente into a football pioneer, both in the country and on the continent. In Ecuador the team has gained support because its passion, both on and off the pitch, is one to admire.