“Let’s come together today for sharks” implored the stern faced man in a solemn piece to camera. “Fair play for sharks”.
The year is 2005, and the greatest footballer in Ecuador’s history has an important message about whale-sharks. When Alex Águinaga speaks – even on conservation issues – people usually listen.
Alex Águinaga was born in Ibarra, a satellite town two hours north of Quito, in 1968. He wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy its charming colonial houses and colourful markets, though, as his parents Carlos and Susana decamped their young family to the capital before his fourth birthday.
When little Alex wasn’t daydreaming his way through classes or annoying his four brothers, he was transfixed by the grainy images of Zico and Michel Platini on the television screen. Every day he tried to emulate their skills, impressing scouts from Ciudad de Quito Football School with his boyish, vital talent.
He didn’t last long with the youth side, snapped up by Deportivo Quito who granted him a first team-debut when he was just 16 years old. El Huevito (the little egg) might have been small, but his cadenced style and curly brown locks made him one of the most distinctive players on the field. He bristled with creative energy, with his peerless technique seeing him installed as a permanent fixture in manager Carlos Sevilla’s plans.
A year later, he was voted as the best player at the U17 South American Championships. Ecuador’s impish magician was an iPhone surrounded by Nokias, a whirring gnat whose coruscating vision could splinter defences in an instant.
By 1989 he had outgrown Ecuadoran football completely, with his displays at the Copa América awakening the world’s biggest clubs to his talents. Fabio Capello, AC Milan’s Technical Director, offered millions to Deportivo for his signature, whilst Colombian behemoths Milionarios also made their interest known. All of the suitors were wasting their time, however, with Águinaga having already given his word to a club in Mexico.
Nearly twenty years after their appearance at the ill-fated Club World Championship, Necaxa remain one of the most well-known clubs in North America. A decade before their moment in the Brazilian sun, however, Los Rayos were a middling team in the nation’s capital, losing players and fans to more prestigious sides like Club América.
In 1982, however, their fortunes changed. Grupo Televisa, one of Mexico’s biggest media conglomerates, assumed ownership. Infused with easy cash, they could suddenly afford the pick of Mexican and South American talent. Águinaga became one of their prime targets, but nothing had been signed by the time the Italians lodged a late interest. No matter.
“I had given my word” Águinaga recalled to MARCA about refusing Milan’s advances. $250,000 dollars later, and much to Capello’s chagrin, Necaxa got their man.
Just before moving to Mexico, Águinaga had married his pregnant wife Maria Sol. In an interview with La Revista, he summed up their relationship with the same bloody-minded loyalty that he would demonstrate throughout his career.
“She introduced herself as a fan who wanted to say hello. I liked her voice, I invited her to go out and we ended up getting married”.
Maria Sol, who had her own plans to study at university, put her life on hold to join her husband in Mexico City. At first they struggled to adapt, cooped up thousands of miles from their home and family.
“We learned and grew together” Águinaga would later recall of those trying first few months. “We were accompanying each other in the good times and the bad”.
On the pitch, Necaxa’s new number 7 didn’t find life much easier. Describing himself as a player “with a small past and a foggy future”, Águinaga was solid but uninspiring under the dogged regime of Uruguayan coach Aníbal Ruiz. He was fully cognisant of the need to impress, particularly as one of the few foreigners in a league still dominated by local talent.
“You occupy a place of a player born in that locality” he admitted in an interview with a Mexican newspaper earlier this year.
“Therefore, you need to perform more, you need to show more”.
Águinaga stuck to his task assiduously. By the time Manuel Lapuente arrived as coach in 1994, he’d finally begun to show his true potential. With a talented coach at the helm and with several high-profile acquisitions that Summer, El Guero (the blonde) led his teammates to a first title in nearly 60 years. A ‘Balón D’Oro’ award in 1995/96 was just recognition of his talents, but it was a mere ribbon during a period in which the club won two titles in three campaigns.
Things would continue to get better, as Necaxa secured their first ever continental triumph in 1999. By the time Águinaga strolled out at the Sam Boyd Stadium in Nevada to face Alajuelense, his flowing brown locks and captain’s armband were symbols of Necaxa’s brilliance.
When Josef Miso had the temerity to open the scoring for the Costa Ricans on 35 minutes, Águinaga responded in typical fashion, firing an overhead kick into the bottom corner. With his warriors’ face and gymnast’s balance, the Ecuadoran spent the entire game playing in six footballing dimensions whilst his teammates clambered through three.
Whispers about Aguinaga’s fitness, however, were finally beginning to catch up to him. He’d never been a natural athlete, but his jowly, reddened cheeks were finding it harder to get through a season unscathed. He’d laboured through a desperate Copa America in 1999 and, aged 31, the Club World Championship felt like one last chance to demonstrate his talent on a global stage.
Manchester United were the opponents for the opening game of what felt like a strange, discordant tournament. Barely anybody in Rio and Sao Paulo, the two host cities, seemed interested in attending. The cavernous stands of the Maracana were largely empty as Águinaga locked horns with a sunburned Roy Keane.
The match itself was woeful, with Necaxa stifling United for 80 long minutes after taking an unlikely lead through Cristián Montecinos’ free kick. On a turgid afternoon, Aguinaga’s balletic performance was one of the few highlights. Even a missed penalty couldn’t detract from a wondrous display, with the Ecuadoran spreading the play whimsically In his oversized shorts and stocky frame.
South Melbourne were rolled over in the next game, but defeat to Vasco Da Gama meant that 3rd place would need to be wrought from Real Madrid. The Spaniards had been just as lethargic as United throughout the tournament, sapped by a lack of interest and the soaring Brazilian temperatures. Raúl and Morientes were largely nonplussed when Necaxa managed to secure a famous penalty-shootout victory.
As the club faded domestically, Aguinaga’s international commitments gained a sharper focus. He’d carried his national team for much of the 1990s, an elite talent wading through a morass of functional journeymen. The biggest highlight of his international career had been a magnificent goal against Wanderlei Luxemburgo’s Brazil in 2000. That night at Morumbi, he had scored an outstanding chip against a hapless Dida in a 3-2 defeat. But Ecuador had still lost, just as they had done for much of their history in South American qualifying.
Prospects for the World Cup in Korea and Japan seemed equally bleak, even if Ecuador managed to negotiate their way into a decisive game against Uruguay on Wednesday 7th November 2001. 2,800 metres above sea level, Andrés Olivera had given the visitors a lead that they spent the whole afternoon defending.
Águinaga had been absent throughout the campaign, struggling with form and fitness, but coach Hernán Gómez threw him on as a second half substitute. With 18 minutes left on the clock, the aged maestro clipped a delicious cross into the box for Ivan Kaviedes. The resultant header gave Hector Fabián Carini no chance. The Atahualpa Stadium erupted into a crashing wave of yellow as fans and players ran delirious onto the pitch. Ecuador had made it to the World Cup for the first time in their history.
“Ecuador isn’t only a dot on the map anymore” Águinaga proclaimed shortly before the tournament.
“Now we have a name in sport”.
Given how crucial he’d been in bringing his country to this point, it was only fair that Águinaga be given the opportunity to play on the grand stage. Gómez granted him 86 minutes during games against Italy and Croatia, but his role was largely ceremonial in a team that was ready to move on without him. A 1-0 win over the Croats couldn’t stop Ecuador from finishing bottom of the standings, but everybody was aware of the role that the wizened playmaker had played in even getting them there.
When asked about his love for Mexico, Águinaga was unequivocal.
“It is my second home and the first of my children” he told reporters. “ They were born and live here”.
For Rayos fans, of course, the love was mutual. Águinaga’s talent wasn’t just appreciated by Necaxa, though. In 2000, he was voted Mexico’s ‘Player of the Decade’. Even the country’s president Ernesto Zedillo was a convert; on one occasion, he’d intervened to stop the Ecuadoran moving to bitter rivals America.
“You can take any player” he’d stated bluntly to the club’s administrators. “Except Águinaga”.
After nearly 500 appearances for Necaxa, the dream came to an end in 2003. The club announced plans to move from Mexico City to Aguascalientes, some 500km away. At 34, Águinaga had neither the time nor the inclination to uproot his home and family.
Over 100,000 people crammed in to the Azteca Stadium to wish him farewell, before he left for a six month sojourn at Cruz Azul. Fourteen years after arriving as a bewildered 21-year-old, he departed Mexico as a legend, leaving a life and legacy that few footballers can match. Águinaga might have been a big fish in a small pond, but his character and talent put his club and country firmly on the map.