Ecuador is playing in the U-17 World Cup despite qualifying with adults

Ecuador had a very promising group of players coming into this past March’s Under-17 South American Championship. They were the prototypical Ecuadorian side: fast, physical, athletic, and skilled with the ball.

The team’s stars had offensive characteristics that made them tantalizing prospects. Independiente del Valle’s Fabiano Tello had a penchant for scoring that number nines need to have in order to be successful at higher levels. He was the team’s high-profile star going into the tournament, and the hype behind him was backed fully as he became one of the competition’s leading goal-scorers. Nacional’s Joao Montaño was another promising talent.

But it was Liga de Quito’s Andy Casquete that garnered the most plaudits. According to many, the young left back was the player to watch. His abilities down the flank arguably made him the player most likely to break in to the senior side in the future.

Ecuador finished the tournament in third place, behind champions Brazil and runners-up Argentina. The team’s performance left many in Ecuador extremely optimistic about the future. Casquete, Tello, and Montaño were part of a class recognized as one of the region’s best crop of youngsters. If things stayed on course, Ecuador could perhaps be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

But the South American Championship wasn’t a complete cakewalk for the Ecuadorians. After they eclipsed Uruguay, 1-0, in the final group stage, Uruguay coach Santiago Ostolaza mentioned that there was something weird with the Ecuador’s players. Some of them were much faster and stronger than his kids. Physically, some of the Ecuadorian kids were way more developed. He raised the issue on multiple occasions.

The Uruguayan federation eventually launched an official protest, and the ensuing investigation seemed to vindicate Ostolaza’s suspicions.

EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 24:  A member of staff at the General Register Office for Scotland holds the birth certificate of Robert Burns January 24,2006 Edinburgh in Scotland. The certificate is to be made available to view on the internet on Burns Day, January 25,2007.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Birth certificate anomalies and nationality questions

Investigators learned that nine Ecuadorian players had abnormalities with their player registrations, making them ineligible to play at the under-17 level.

Among them, U-17 star Andy Casquete was found to have a double identity. His original birth date was February 23, 1995, which would have made him 20 years old during the U-17 South American Championship. Investigators found that, in 2009, Casquete’s mother made an amendment to his birth certificate, changing his birth date to February 23, 1998. Casquete’s agent provided a letter from the obstetrician purportedly present when Casquete was born to corroborate his client’s amended age. Later, however, the obstetrician denied being present at Casquete’s birth.

Fabiano Tello also had a double identity. He was first registered as Mateos Joao Tello, born on August 10, 1995. He later re-registered with a birth date of April 10, 1994, which would have made him 20 years old at the South American Championship, where he was registered as “Fabiano Tello.” Fabiano Tello was born on October 28th, 1998, making him eligible to play for the youth national team this past March.

Unfortunately, the manipulated birth dates were only the beginning of Ecuador’s problems. Six players from the Ecuadorian team were not found in Ecuador’s Civil Registry, which logs birth registrations and is used for citizen identification. Ecuador’s Civil Registry Office confirmed that the six players did not just change birthdates; they weren’t even born in Ecuador. The players, it turns out, were Colombian nationals who had entered the country illegally.

The South American Football Museum and Convention Center is seen prior to its inauguration in  Asuncion, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009 (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)Jorge Saenz/AP

Ecuador’s curious defense

Uruguay’s case must have felt like a slam dunk. Evidence of Ecuador’s violations were well documented. Precedents were lined up such as Mexico’s “cachirules” incident, where Mexico was banned from the 1990 World Cup for fielding over-age players at the 1989 World Youth Championship. And to further help Uruguay’s cause, Ecuador presented a comical defense, which basically boiled down to: “We didn’t know.”

Surprisingly, claiming ignorance was enough to win the day. CONMEBOL cleared the Ecuadorian federation of wrong-doing, but the result didn’t smell right to everyone.

Uruguayan journalist Luis Eduardo Inzaurralde raised questions about the influence of Guillermo Saltos, an Ecuadorian who serves as the president of CONMEBOL’s appeals committee. Saltos curiously represented the Ecuadorian federation in the matter. Conveniently, Ecuador went unpunished, even though Uruguay’s allegations were confirmed.

Uruguay appealed the decision, which sent the matter to the appeals committee—the same committee run by Saltos. Saltos abstained from participating, but Inzaurralde believes that Saltos representing Ecuador, in front of a committee he runs, itself is improper. Uruguay’s appeal was eventually rejected.

Uruguay then tried to appeal to FIFA, unsuccessfully.

Thus, Ecuador, as the third-place team in South America, is in Chile right now, representing South America the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 25:  Ecuador fans enjoy the atmosphere prior to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group E match between Ecuador and France at Maracana on June 25, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The blame game

This certainly isn’t the first case of players, teams, or federations modifying ages or identities to seek an advantage. But where is the oversight and accountability?

“There is no doubt that the blame has to be placed on the FEF [Ecuador’s football federation] because they did not control this prior to the tournament,” said Uruguayan journalist Alejandro Etcheverry. “For a few weeks, the player documents were extensively analyzed.”

But no one seemingly caught the discrepancies. In the end, the players—the same parties who always get punished—caught the worst of the the backlash. Casquete was suspended for a year for his infraction. The suspension reportedly took an emotional toll on him. According to his lawyer, Casquete attempted to commit suicide days after his suspension was handed down. Tello and Montaño were suspended for six months and their careers seem to be in limbo as well.

Of course the players were guilty of trying to outsmart a system, even if it was broken one. But the broken system didn’t have to answer for anything. So things went back to the tenuous status quo.

“The procedure to set up the under-17s was always the right one and it was implemented years ago,” said Ecuagol editor Alberto Guaranda. “Even [FEF president] Luis Chiriboga said to not worry because the federation did not break the rules because they followed the process alongside with the clubs.”

But procedures aren’t always enough where accountability is lacking. CONMEBOL allowing ignorance as a plausible defense is problematic because it provides no disincentive for players, teams, or federations to take any extra steps to prevent abuses of the system. Teams and federations now recognize that it’s possible to reap the benefits of using over-aged players, even if the players are caught. That’s a hell of a system.

Ecuador beat Honduras, 3-1, in its first U-17 FIFA World Cup game on Sunday, in Talca, Chile. Its next game is on Wednesday, October 21, against Mali.