Ecuador’s Cinderella Story: Independiente del Valle
Independiente del Valle was promoted to the third division of Ecuadorian football 25 years ago. They have since made it to the Copa Libertadores Final, won the Copa Sudamericana and handed Flamengo their biggest ever defeat in the Copa Libertadores.
The 2020-21 Copa Libertadores resumed this week with match day three of the group stage after halting the competition in March due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Soccer fans around the world are usually aware of the start of the competition because social media gets flooded with amazing scenes. Normally, the stadiums are packed to the rafters, entire streets are blocked by chanting fans wielding flares, and pyrotechnics and tifos adorn the terraces.
I have now watched countless soccer matches with empty stadiums. Whether it's fake crowd noise or the shouts of players on the pitch, I thought I had gotten used to the ‘new normal.’ That was until the Copa Libertadores returned. The passion on display in the competition is just as interesting as what takes place on the pitch (if not more interesting) and I was worried it would not hold the same importance now.
But throughout match day three, you could see it was still the most important competition in South America whether or not the fans were in the stadium. The players celebrated with the same passion they always have and I started to pay more attention to more of the storylines taking place on the pitch instead of the barras bravas and torcidas organizadas.
The Copa Libertadores has historically been dominated by three countries: Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Argentine clubs make up four of the most successful clubs in the history of the competition. Independiente has won seven Copa Libertadores titles, Boca Juniors has won 6 and Estudiantes and River Plate have each won four. Uruguayan club Peñarol are the only non-Argentine club in the top five with five titles of their own.
Since 2009, the Copa Libertadores trophy has only traveled to three countries. Brazilian clubs won six times, Argentine clubs won four times and a Colombian side won once. But the year before, LDU Quito became the first Ecuadorian side to ever win the competition.
After three match days, many of the usual suspects sit in the top positions across the eight groups. In Group A and Group D, LDU de Quito leads their group with six points, sitting above River Plate (four-time winner, 2019 finalist and 2018 winner) and three-time champions Sao Paulo.
Group A also has an Ecuadorian side at the top of the table ahead of reigning champion and Brazilian power house Flamengo. Unlike LDU de Quito, Club de Alto Rendimiento Especializado Independiente del Valle is not a traditional Ecuadorian heavyweight.
The club was founded in 1958 in Sangolquí and had humble beginnings. They reached the Segunda Categoria, or third division, for only the second time in 1995 and do not have many trophies to write home about. They did win the Segunda Categoria in 2007 and Serie B, the second division, two years later, reaching the first division.
In 2013, they were closest to getting their hands on some hardware. Los Negriazules finished runners up to Emelec, who claimed their 11th league title.
Three years later they were playing in the Copa Libertadores. They drew reigning champions River Plate in their first knockout round of the competition and beat them 2-1 on aggregate against all odds. Independiente del Valle was then paired with UNAM Pumas. After an exhilarating 3-3 draw across two legs, the match was decided on penalties. The Ecuadorians advanced again and would have to defeat another Argentine giant in Boca Juniors.
It was another goal filled tie. Los Negriazules came back from 0-1 down to win 2-1 in Ecuador, but faced the daunting task of getting a positive result in the infamous Bombonera to advance to the final. But, the fairytale continued. Boca Juniors went ahead within the first five minutes through Cristian Pavón. Independiente del Valle responded with three unanswered goals to put themselves in the driver seat in enemy territory. Pavón grabbed another at the end of the match, but the Ecuadorians were heading to the Copa Libertadores Final.
In the final, the Cinderella story came to a disappointing end. They drew the first leg of the match 1-1 in Ecuador but lost 1-0 in Colombia and Atletico Nacional were crowned champions.
Again, they would only have to wait three years for their next shot at glory and this time they would not slip in the final. In 2019, Independiente del Valle advanced to the Copa Sudamericana Final. They dismantled Argentine side Colón de Santa Fe 3-1 to win their first-ever major title.
The title gave them the opportunity to take on the 2019 Copa Libertadores Champions Flamengo in the 2020 Recopa Sudamericana. Independiente del Valle drew 2-2 with the Brazilians but were crushed 3-0 in the Maracanã.
Fast forward to Sept. 17 and Los Negriazules were hosting Flamengo in the Estadio Municipal General Rumiñahui and dismantling the cup-holders. The game was pretty even for the first half. The Ecuadorian side opened the scoring through Moises Caicedo who dummied a pass at the top of the box and made a defense-splitting run into the box. Gabriel Torres received the ball and, with one touch, passed the ball to Moises Caicedo, whose shot pinged off the left post and into the back of the net.
In the second half, Independiente del Valle ran the show. In the 49th minute, right back Angelo Preciado drifted up the pitch and scored a beautiful curler from outside the box. Less than 10 minutes later, Gabriel Torres found the back of the net with another curling shot from a similar position.
Los Negriazules would add a third golazo in the 81st minute. Flamengo defended the Ecuadorian counter horribly and allowed Beder Caicedo space and time on the wing. He crossed it low to Jhon Sánchez, who flicked the ball with his back heel past the Flamengo net-minder.
Independiente del Valle added a fifth in added time. Beder Caicedo fired a low shot from the top of the Flamengo box into the back of the net, making it Flamengo’s biggest ever defeat in the Copa Libertadores.
It is a shame that the Estadio Municipal General Rumiñahui was not packed to see this historic performance. But I am certain their fans will remember this victory for a long time. The fans may not be in the stands but there are still plenty of stories to follow.
Independiente del Valle is tied with LDU de Quito at the top of the Ecuadorian league with 28 points, although the team from Quito has a game in hand and sits at the top of the table in Group A of the Copa Libertadores. The club is chasing their first ever first division title and looking to make another Cinderella run in the cup. Now Los Negriazules have made a massive statement of intent with this win.