It is impossible to separate Ecuador’s historic achievement in qualifying for their first FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup at Bahamas 2017 from the earthquake that struck the province of Manabi on 16 April 2016.
The simple reason for that is that all the members of the Ecuador team hail from this coastal region, which was worse hit than anywhere when the ground shook that day.
What is more, all but one of the players live in the city of Manta, where the Ecuador team coached by Jose Palma, also trains. The odd man out is the side’s first-choice goalkeeper, Carlos Saltos, who lives half an hour away in Portoviejo but who still fell victim to Mother Nature a few days earlier when the local river broke its banks and flooded his house.
“We’d just started to recover from the flooding when the earthquake happened,” recalled Saltos, in conversation with FIFA.com. “It all happened so fast. My house collapsed in less than a minute, and with it went everything, including all the money I’d worked so hard to save through football. It was a blessing not to lose anyone, but how was I supposed to go and start from square one?”
Nicknamed La Roca (“The Rock”), the 30-year-old custodian, who stands 5’9 (1.76m) tall, was a professional player in Ecuador’s second and third divisions between 2005 and 2012, a period in which he considered giving up the game altogether on more than one occasion.
We stuck together, though, and helped each other through it.
His first taste of beach soccer came in 2008, when he took part in a tournament organised in Manta. “I volunteered to play in goal because I had experience of playing eight- and 11-a-side matches on the beach. The president at Manta FC didn‘t have a problem with it, so I was able to play both versions.”
Saltos was faced with a problem when his professional career ended in 2012. With no regular source of income and beach soccer being an amateur sport, he had to scrape money together, playing the occasional futsal match and working as a goalkeeping coach at a football academy to supplement the sporadic travel allowances he received on national team duty.
The earthquake changed more than just the local landscape. Aside from Saltos, the striker Stalin Moreira and the squad’s other goalkeeper, Jorge Leon, also lost their houses. “We all had problems, and we were all in two minds about carrying on with the national team," explained Saltos. "We stuck together, though, and helped each other through it.”
As Saltos went on to explain, when the team returned to training two months later, the players made a vow: “To qualify for the World Cup. We’d finished fourth in the two previous qualifying competitions, with only three places available. The 2015 competition hurt because it was in Manta and we lost on penalties to Argentina in the third-place match.”
He added: “The tragedy had made us closer than ever by the time the qualifiers in Paraguay came around, though we were also aware that it was the last chance for a lot of us.”
Bound for the Bahamas
After finishing second behind Brazil in the group phase in Asuncion and then losing in the semi-finals to the tournament hosts, the Ecuadorians once again faced a duel with Argentina for the last ticket to the Bahamas. And, as was the case two years earlier, the two sides played out a 4-4 draw in normal time. When the tie went to penalties, however, it was Ecuador who claimed victory.
“Obviously, that match was fresh in our minds, but we said it was going to be a case of third time lucky, that we were going to do it for ourselves and the people of Manabi,” Saltos said. A penalty specialist, it was his friend Leon who was the hero of the hour, saving one of Argentina’s three spot-kicks, with the other two being fired wide. “I told him he was going to get us through and that’s how it turned out,” Saltos explained.
Facing Ecuador in Group A in the Bahamas will be the hosts, Switzerland and Senegal. “The aim is to gain experience and to compete too,” said the goalkeeper. “We’re working on our defence and our tactics, so we can cut the number of mistakes we make.”
Saltos, who now lives with a relative some ten minutes away from where his house used to stand, is currently dividing his time between preparing for the Beach Soccer World Cup and running a thriving cheese store, where his wife Angelica and his children Laura (20), Estefani (17) and Junior (15) help out.
His big ambition, however, is to help develop beach soccer in Ecuador: “We hope that qualifying for the world finals will change everyone’s mindset," he said. "A lot of youngsters have got involved, though we need to give them incentives to stay in the game. As for me, I’d like to train keepers, coach young players or help out at a beach soccer academy.”