Ecuador was one of the last teams to announce their 26-player roster for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but when the names of the players traveling to Qatar were released, one really stood out.
It was not Moises Caicedo, the breakthrough star in the Premier League, Enner Valencia, one of the most decorated players and the all-star goal scorer of the South American squad or Angel Mena, the veteran of the team and a point of cool and calmness.
No, it was striker Kevin Rodriguez, a surprise for many even in Ecuador, as coach Gustavo Alfaro really shocked everyone with his choice. But why was Rodriguez such a big talking point in Ecuador?
Well, for starters, he has never played top-flight football until now. Aged 23, Rodriguez was born in Ibarra, a city roughly 70 kilometers from the capital Quito, which does not have a team in the first league of Ecuador.
Instead, he has always featured for the same club in his home city, Imbabura, who last played in the first Ecuadorian league in 2011, when Rodriguez was 11 years old. Yet his performances in the last two seasons were excellent and caught the eye of Alfaro.
This season, Rodriguez played 31 games, 27 as a starter, and was the Ecuador second flight’s top scorer, with 11 goals. His speed and dazzling dribbling skills earned plenty of praise in Ecuador, but few admired him as much as Alfaro, who was convinced after the striker put on a superb performance in the Ecuadorian Cup in July, as Imbabura eliminated LDU Quito, one of the most decorated teams in the history of Ecuadorian football.
The reason was simple and revealed by the much-respected coach himself: he sees a few of his struggles in Rodriguez, who has always put his head down, worked harder and harder, and delivered when it mattered the most.
“Every time I see Kevin it reminds me of my years of fighting, it reminds me of my years when I was in the second league. In one season, I traveled more than 44,000 kilometers by bus to play matches, dreaming of playing in the Ecuadorian first league. Not to mention a World Cup. It was another dimension. But I’m here for that, to give opportunities”, said Alfaro, justifying his decision.
Alfaro spent years in his playing career trying to promote with his team, Atletico de Rafaela, into the first Argentinian league before transitioning to a coaching career, where he spent time at some of the best clubs in his home country, like San Lorenzo, Gimnasia La Plata or Boca Juniors.
“Since I came here, the doors to the national team are open for everyone, irrespective of age, one can be 37 years old, the other 18 years old, or the league they play in. Everybody has their place, everybody can lose their place. There is a moment where I need to take decisions and I will give chances to everyone,” said Alfaro.
Therefore, he knows a thing or two about football and can see the potential in a player from miles away.
Nicknamed “Leopard” for his astounding speed, Rodriguez has truly impressed in Ecuador’s second league and Alfaro was left with no choice other than call him up and see if he had the skills and the mentality to go to the FIFA World Cup.
After an excellent cameo in a friendly game against Iraq in November, which ended in a 0-0 stalemate in Madrid, Rodriguez convinced Alfaro he was the striker that could end up as a super-sub in difficult conditions for Ecuador at Qatar 2022.
“The coach told me to enjoy my time here, that I was not gifted with this chance, that I earned it through hard work and sacrifice. I need to improve, but I really enjoy this, everybody welcomed me with open arms. I feel proud and blessed and I hope I can play for the national team for many years to come,” added Rodriguez.
Indeed, Rodriguez had his chance in the Qatar 2022 opening match, when Ecuador clinched a crucial win against the hosts, 2-0, to take the lead in Group A. Sure, he took the pitch for only a few minutes, replacing Michael Estrada in the 90th minute.
But the road from rags to riches was now complete, with Rodriguez surely on other teams’ radar after featuring at Qatar 2022. How the FIFA World Cup helps the stories write themselves.