When Ecuador takes on Cameroon on Monday afternoon in Vancouver's BC Place Stadium, Vanessa Arauz, all 26 years, four months, and three days of her, will become the youngest person, male or female, to ever coach in a World Cup, surpassing Juan Tramutola, Argentina's record holder from the 1930 men's Cup.
"The record will be very nice...but as always I don't want to be recognized for an achievement [of this sort]," explained Arauz in a video interview with Mas Deportes. "It's about the work that is being done with the Ecuadorian Women's National Team."
The task ahead of Arauz seemed almost impossible when she was handed the reigns of Ecuador's national side in August of 2014. With only three years of coaching experience, the Quito native took over in the final stages of South American qualifying and was asked to deliver Ecuador's first ever ticket to the FIFA Women's World Cup.
She did just that, coaching Ecuador to three wins and four losses— including a dramatic 3-2 comeback win over Argentina to set up a playoff for one of the final spots in this summer's tournament—with a team of comprised of amateur players.
Then Arauz's young career took a definitive turn. With her team struggling to score goals down the stretch, Arauz convinced Monica Quinteros, a gym teacher who had once been the country's leading scorer, to make an improbable comeback.
Quinteros, who made her international debut as a 13-year-old and is seven months older than her head coach, returned in a 45-minute stint during the first leg of the home and away series with Trinidad and Tobago. After a 0-0 tie in Quito, Arauz started the veteran striker in the Caribbean leg, and was repaid when a looping set piece found Quinteros' head in the middle of a crowded Trinidadian penalty area. Quinteros popped the ball up and over the keeper for a 91st minute game winner. The 1-0 victory on December 2 secured Ecuador the 24th spot in the 24-team tournament.
"Before the game [Arauz] told me, 'This is your moment, visualize that and go and realize your dream,'" Quinteros told FIFA.com. "I couldn't believe that defenders that tall didn't clear it, then I remember getting my head to it. The ref didn't immediately give it so I didn't scream right away, and after that it's all a blur."
Ecuador at the 2014 Copa America. Photo via Wiki Commons.
The team returned to a hero's welcome at Mariscal Sucre International Airport, and Arauz's miracle working was lauded throughout the country. It even earned the the team a celebratory breakfast with President Rafael Correa in the presidential palace. Still, this wasn't the first time Arauz had risen above expectations.
The pony-tailed coach is also the first female to obtain a certified coaching title in Ecuadorian history. She graduated from the Higher Institute of Technical Football—essentially the university all Ecuadorian trainers must pass through—in 2011 with a grade score of 19.54—the second highest in her 30-person—and otherwise all male—graduating class.
"The last time I checked the ball, I did not see anything that said 'men only' or 'no women allowed,'" maintained Arauz in a January video interview with Ecuador Olimpico T.V. "This was [my chance] to make a mark on women's soccer."
The trainer's academic performance was noticed by Luis Chiriboga Acosta, the president of the Ecuador Football Federation (Ecuadorian soccer's governing body), who immediately made her assistant coach with the women's senior national team. In March of 2013 she became the head coach of the U-17 team and then subsequently the U-20s before being called up to the senior squad this past summer.
Arauz entered the fold younger than a quarter of her roster, and just two years older than the average age of her entire squad, creating a unique and potentially hazardous dynamic in the locker room and on the training field. Traditionally coaches are decades older than their players. Called "Profe Vane" by her players for her extensive knowledge of the game, the Ecuadorian coach has used her age as a tool to relate to her players.
"Everyone has a very special relationship with [Arauz], she is very easy to talk to and at the same time...thinks of every detail and is very professional," said Ali Salvador, a 19-year-old center midfielder and one of two Ecuatorianas playing soccer collegiately in the U.S. (she started 8 games as a freshman for Alcorn State in 2014). "She has earned 100 percent of our team's respect."
Unlike other young coaches, Arauz did not ascend the coaching ranks because of her prowess as a player. She loved the game from a young age, and played for her home club Emelec. But the calculated tactician realized early on that her future would not be on the field. According to an interview with El Telegrafo, a 10-year-old Arauz matter-of-factly informed her teachers that she was going to be a famous soccer coach when asked what she wanted to do with her life.
"All of my classmates laughed," said Arauz in her El Telegrafo interview.
Photo via Agencia de Noticias ANDES/Creative Commons.
Now Arauz is hoping to change the women's soccer conversation in her home nation.
There is no professional women's league in Ecuador, and the country has only had a women's national championship since 2013. That means that 21 of the squad's 23 players (all but the two playing for American universities) must find alternative means to fund their dreams of playing soccer.
Quinteros' situation has been the most publicized. She had to pull out of the 2014 Copa America to fulfill her work duties and put food on her family's table.
"I thought about retiring," admitted Quinteros in an interview with El Universo. "I saw no further development in women's [soccer]...we are not like the men who make a living at this."
Arauz hopes a good showing in Canada could give women's soccer legitimacy in Ecuador's male-dominated society. Any discussion would have to start with a structure that would give the team a stable financial future.
Though soccer pundits see the team's dream run skidding out early, Arauz and the "guerreras", or "warriors", as she refers to her group, have some factors working in their favor. While their Group C is highlighted by 2011 champion Japan, the other two nations, Cameroon and Switzerland are also making their World Cup debuts and have little experience outside of their respective continents. Cameroon, ranked 53rd in the latest FIFA Women's poll, appears to be a chance at three points.
The tournament's structure—an expanded field of 24 teams, with 16 advancing past the group stage—gives Ecuador better odds at an extended run.
Before every big game, Arauz preaches, "Si se puede, si se pudo," or "yes we can, we we did". It's motivation for a team given little chance to succeed both domestically and abroad, but it also serves as an apt manifesto for a leader who has defied social norms while pursuing her dreams. After less than a year at the helm of her national team, Arauz has vaulted Ecuador from 125th in the world to 46th. So at this point, anything seems possible.
As she told The FIFA Weekly, "We can...dream of winning the World Cup."