Wednesday, at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Ecuadorean National Football Team needed to beat France by a mere 1-0 score to progress form World Cup Group E into the next round, and instead they simply gave up and seemed content with a 0-0 score line that spelled elimination. It was as if they had achieved some mysterious objective by obtaining four points in their group. In Manaus, meanwhile, the Swiss were beating Honduras 3-0 to leapfrog over Ecuador and advance into the next round with France.
The Maracana crowd got to witness one of the strangest performances ever in World Cup history, as the usually confident and combative Ecuadoreans seemed unsure of what to do when needing to win to progress. Ironically, the French team was often vulnerable on defense as the Ecuadoreans seemed to have given up the midfield. The Europeans were mostly camped out on the South Americans’ half of the pitch and moved too many numbers into their opponent’s half. The Ecuadoreans never took advantage.
France had the greatest chances to score because they had so many given them, but Ecuador had prime opportunities on counters because when they did attack they had the numbers to make something out of it. Yet, time after time they seemed to squander each chance willfully, with a poor last pass, by dribbling the ball at a defender instead of around him, or by taking a wildly off-target shot, or a tame floater or roller that barely reached the goalkeeper.
The key moment of the match came at the 49:21 minute mark when Antonio Valencia, Ecuador’s captain committed a terrible foul, a studs up blow to the knee of Lucas Digne.
The Ivorian referee, Noumandiez Doue, acted admirably, turning what could have been a difficult situation into an almost routine call, in terms of impact on the players. He immediately got into the middle of the group of players forming to confront one another over the foul and he stopped them cold with some clear admonitions. Then, he went to check on the prone Frenchman, ascertained his status and called in the emergency personnel. All along he was listening on his earphone as his linesman, who having the better angle of view of the play, was telling Doue what he saw. Once the injured player’s health was being attended to, Doue brought Valencia aside, showed him the red card, and pointed him off the pitch.
The incident did not change the game in that the French continued attacking, the Ecuadoreans continued defending, and the South Americans’ coach, Reinaldo Rueda, continued hesitating about what to do. It took him fifteen minutes after Valencia’s sending off to make a tactical substitution, and another twenty to make the second one. The third substitute came in at the 89th minute. Needing a score, his first substitution was to bring in a defender. His second decision was to bring in a midfielder, and the third, made with but minutes left, finally, was to bring in a striker.
Perhaps the strangest scene was that at the end of the game the players surrounded the coach as if celebrating with, rather than comforting, one another.
With the 0-0 draw, France came out on top of Group E and progressed to a meeting with Nigeria, who came in second in group F.
At Manaus, Bayern Munich and Swiss midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri had a career game scoring a hat trick to help his team progress to a match up against Argentina, winners of Group F. The Swiss came out firing on all cylinders and scored at the 6th minute. They kept the pressure on and scored a second goal at the 31st and kept attacking. The final goal came in the second half, at the 71st. It was not until then that the Swiss seemed content to gear down and even then the game was not 20-minute walk to the end line. At game’s end the red-shirted players knew what they had accomplished, having heard what had occurred, if not how, in Rio de Janeiro.