ANCON, Ecuador -- Since 1958, when Pele burst onto the international scene, his name has symbolized the best of South American soccer. But when Pele was emerging as the dominant figure of the game, this dusty oil town on the Pacific coast had produced a rival by the name of Alberto Spencer Herrera.
Spencer set a record that still stands, scoring 54 career goals in the Copa Libertadores, the South American club championship. The second-leading scorer is Fernando Morena, also formerly of Penarol, with 37 goals. Pele scored 17 of his 1,281 career goals in the Copa Libertadores for Santos FC, but made his name on world tours and with Brazil's national team in the World Cup.
"Spencer is a symbol of Ecuador and he is also a symbol of South America," said his former teammate, Washington Munoz. "Pele was the best player in the world, but Spencer was the best player in the Libertadores."
Spencer spent the prime years of his career with Penarol, a Uruguayan club that snapped him up after an impressive performance in a tournament inaugurating the Estadio Modelo in Guayaquil in 1959. At the time, Penarol rivaled the big European clubs for accomplishments and prestige, defeating Benfica in 1961 and Real Madrid in 1966 to win the Intercontinental Cup. Most of the Penarol players were from the Rio de la Plata region, and the club had little need to import talent.
But Spencer added another dimension to the club and became so identified with Penarol that he performed for Uruguay's national team, though he had also appeared for Ecuador. Such a change would not be allowed today. Spencer performed for Ecuador in 1960 World Cup qualifying. In 1964, Spencer converted the first goal by a Uruguayan player in England during a 2-1 win in Wembley Stadium. A year later, Ecuador called on Spencer for qualifying. And in 1967, Spencer again performed for Uruguay.
Spencer never quite seemed to resolve the conflict until after retirement, refusing to renounce his Ecuadoran citizenship. Since 1982, Spencer has been Ecuador's consul general in Montevideo.
Playing catchup soccer
Before Uruguay played host to the first World Cup in 1930, an invitation was sent to Ecuador to participate. The minister of sports refused to fund the trip to Montevideo, and it would be another 30 years before Ecuador would become involved in World Cup qualifying. Despite an enormous interest in soccer and a great variety of players, Ecuador has been playing catchup ever since.
Latin countries with much smaller populations and less resources had established professional soccer leagues and were performing well on the international stage long before Ecuador. Until 2002, Ecuador and Venezuela were the only South American countries never to qualify for the World Cup finals. The Venezuelans have emphasized baseball and never seemed committed to the World Cup, but Ecuadorans are definitely futbol-oriented.
Observing the involvement and passion of Ecuadorans at matches such as the Barcelona-Emelec derby, it is difficult to understand the country's lack of international achievements in soccer. The atmosphere at Estadio George Capwell, named for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute-educated American who started Guayaquil's electrical company and founded Club Sport Emelec, is similar to an Argentine cancha with a slightly less threatening edge.
"The government does not support sports," said Munoz, now a director of the Carlos Perez Perasso Ciudad Desportiva, where the Revolution are preparing for the MLS season. "It is all a question of systems, of governments. Uruguay is smaller than we are and they have twice won the World Cup.
"Plus, when we had Spencer, he was only one player -- you need to have 22 players for the World Cup. In those days, preparations weren't like they are now. Ecuador did not have teams competing in the age-group events, Under 14, Under 16, Under 18. Before, there was only Copa America and World Cup qualifiers."
Others attribute Ecuador's underachieving to an inferiority complex, but there are likely many reasons.
"The real reason," said Luis Chagarben of Guayaquil, "is the soccer balls we use are too small. For a long time, the only balls kids grew up with were ones they made by wrapping rags together. And, to keep the rags from unravelling, they had to keep those balls small. So, when Ecuadorian players had to use a regulation-size ball, they weren't used to it."
Today, streets in Guayaquil are blocked off by youngsters, who set up improvised goals for games. The balls they use are no longer made of rags, but are often less than regulation size.
Now, though, Ecuadorian soccer is evolving. Alex Aguinaga, Ulisses de la Cruz, Agustin Delgado, Ivan Jaime Kaviedes have performed well in foreign countries. Ecuador is in third place in South American World Cup qualifying, behind Argentina and Brazil. The Ecuadorans are preparing for games against Paraguay in Quito Sunday and against Peru in Lima next week, and there could be problems as defender Fricson George of Barcelona broke his ankle in a 2-1 win over Emelec Sunday and striker Ariel Graziani, the league's leading scorer, was left off the team, partly because of the coach's desire to use only native Ecuadorans -- Graziani is a naturalized citizen born in Argentina.
"We qualified in 2002 and we are in third place now," Munoz said. "We are going to qualify for the 2006 World Cup."
Not gone but forgotten
English pirates began plundering along the Pacific coast a few decades after the Spanish slaughtered Atahualpa and his general, Ruminahui in Quito, ending the Incan empire in 1535. Some believe Henry Morgan buried part of his treasure here, and there have been reports of old coins being found on Ancon's beaches, about 100 miles from Guayaquil.
In 1911, the English returned in search of oro negro, the black gold of petroleum. Anglo Ecuadorian Oilfields began drilling on the Ecuador coast, Los Ingleses setting up a separate society and also a way of life "that will never be forgotten," according to a story in the Quito daily El Comercio. Clubs, hospitals, schools, theaters, and sewage and water systems were established. All services were provided free of charge by Anglo Ecuadorian, which had been granted the oil concession on the Santa Elena peninsula, which including the tiny community of San Jose Ancon.
Walter Spencer, who had English and Jamaican roots, arrived in Ancon, where Spencer and his Guayaquil-born wife, America Herrera, raised 13 children. The Spencer house was located across the street from Club Andes, Alberto Spencer Herrera's first team. The Spencer Herrera home has been replaced by a tin-roofed, green-painted house, tightly enclosed by a brick and cement block fence, separating it from litter and rocks.
Club Andes survives, but barely, in a barn-like wooden structure with a 25-foot ceiling. Games are played on a dusty field, with wooden stands for a few dozen spectators, several hundred yards behind the location of the Spencer house.
"They are doing some work on the [club] building," said Victor Asqui, who runs the panaderia, a bakery, next door to Club Andes. "You see where floor is falling in in the back.
"There is not much left around here. There used to be a lot of good players coming from this area but now you really have to go to Guayaquil to find anything. Alberto Spencer is an inspiration, and so are guys like Luciano Macia and Mauricio Munoz, who came from here. But we do not receive any support for sport, and so a lot of guys don't do too much except sit around."
Ancon and neighboring Atahualpa are forgotten and forlorn, except by the gas and oil companies, operating on a lower scale than the days of Anglo Ecuadorian. Tourism is being promoted along the coast, where frigate birds glide, sharing air space with vultures. Guayaquilenos escape Ecuador's largest city for the resorts of Playas and Salinas.
A choice player
Near Guayaquil's Estadio Modelo, where Spencer launched his career with a goal against Penarol 46 years ago, the Museo Olimpico displays exhibits of tennis player Pancho Segura, race-walker Jefferson Perez, and Spencer.
"The legendary Cabeza Magica -- winner, friend, is and will be the best Ecuadorian footballer ever," reads the testament to Spencer.
But, had Spencer not been scooped up by Penarol, could he have changed the fortunes of soccer in his country? Or, had Spencer committed to playing only for Uruguay, would his profile have increased?
Spencer never performed in the World Cup. With Uruguay, Spencer could have been in the 1962, 1966, and 1970 World Cups, events that went far in popularizing soccer's personalities in the electronic media. Spencer totaled 510 career goals, but performed only 15 times for national teams (11 for Ecuador, four for Uruguay).
"Pele and Spencer were two very different players, they played different positions," Munoz said. "Spencer was less technical than Pele and he was a forward, an attacker.
"In those days, Uruguay had great teams but they were kind of slow, and when Spencer and Joya [of Peru] went to Penarol they were so much faster. The game is more physical today, less technical, but Spencer would be a great player today. He was a player ahead of his time."