One To Watch | What to expect from Ecuador’s Carlos Gruezo

Carlos Armando Gruezo Arboleda knew he had to leave. The Achiote groves amidst the foothills of his native Santa Domingo de los Colorados were not enough to keep him attached to the relative obscurity of Ecuadorian football. Even his name “Arboleda”, meaning grove in English, perhaps refers to the Bixa Orellana often used by locals to dye parts of their hair red, with “de los colorados” in fact referring to Santa Domingo as the land of the dyed. Inhabited primarily by the Tsachila ethnic group, the man who they call Carlos Gruezo was thinking beyond it, to the far away lands of the European peninsula and to the United States. Incessantly proud of his distinctive roots, the promising youngster from Ecuador’s fourth largest city, was about to embark on a remarkable journey, albeit one where he would never forget where he came from.

Carlos Gruezo was always going to be a footballer. Exposed to the trials and tribulations of top-level football as his father enjoyed a prolific career in Ecuador, it is little surprise he ended up fulfilling his dream. His old man played for a total of eight clubs in Ecuador’s top-flight, Serie A, before winning just a solitary cap for the Ecuadorian national team in 1998.

Although a respectable and fine career full of dignity, the truth is that his son Carlos has exceeded it. It all started in his father’s hometown of Quinindé, or Rosa Zárate, in the Esmeraldas province of northern Ecuador. Gruezo’s natural talent was duly spotted, as he signed for LDU Quito in the Ecuadorian capital for one of the nation’s greatest clubs, and (whilst he was at the club) 2008 Copa Libertadores champions. Though it would take him another two youth team moves, to Defensor Sporting, and finally onto Independiente DV, before Gruezo would really establish himself as a first-team player.

Making four appearances for the first team in 2011, Gruezo moved on to Barcelona SC, a club practically and aesthetically modelled on FC Barcelona, where his father also enjoyed two separate stints. Founded by a Catalan immigrant who named the club after his home city of Barcelona, the club truly provided Gruezo with the platform he needed for further and more international recognition. His chances were certainly helped by his first call-up into the Ecuadorian national team in 2014, making his debut against the Netherlands just prior to that year’s FIFA World Cup. Despite starting in his nation’s 2-1 defeat to Switzerland at the tournament, Gruezo’s club form combined with his arrival on the international stage, simply meant that he was a sought-after customer.

Invited to a trial by German giants VfB Stuttgart for their pre-season friendlies in South Africa, Gruezo arrived in Europe. He subsequently signed a four-year contract with the Swabians, before becoming the first Ecuadorian to ever score in the Bundesliga, netting in Stuttgart’s 4-1 dismantling of SC Freiburg. Slightly losing his way along with his frail place in the team, Gruezo signed for FC Dallas in the United States in January 2016, enjoying a fine few years a lot closer to home. But the attraction of European football and more specifically Germany was too big an allure, proving that the nation had retained a place in his heart. Joining FC Augsburg on a five-year-deal, Bavaria is where Gruezo had played his football ever since, having so far amassed 68 appearances for the Fuggerstädter, where the Ecuadorian has undoubtedly impressed. Since his debut in 2014, Gruezo has won 40 caps in all for Ecuador, scoring one goal in the process, and now stands firmly on the verge of heading to his second World Cup Finals with his country.

Described by FIFA’s official website as a “technically adept holding midfielder and a precise passer of the ball”, Gruezo is often the reason Augsburg tick. A neat recipient of the ball, whilst remaining comfortable on it, Gruezo’s athleticism, acute passing range, and subtle positional quality, means he retains his place as one of the Bundesliga’s most under-appreciated players. Though a sense of precision to his game has perhaps been lacking in recent times. During the current season for his Augsburg side, Gruezo has enjoyed a mere pass success rate of 79.2%, combined with a relatively meagre tackle success rate of 54%.

But for his country, Ecuador, it’s a different story. A reliable and consistent figure, Argentine head coach Gustavo Alfaro is often keen to utilise Gruezo and his abilities in front of the Ecuadorian defence. Frequently deployed as a lone six, Gruezo is also repeatedly paired with Brighton star Moisés Caicedo, with the pair offering immense protection of a nervy back-four. Gruezo missed Ecuador’s 0-0 draw with Japan in September but was present in the game against Saudi Arabia which produced the same result, the win over Cape Verde, as well as honourable draws against Mexico and Copa America champions Argentina earlier this year. It is likely that Gruezo will prove a crucial player to Ecuador’s chances at this winter’s tournament, with his role in the side a key determinant of their results.

Ecuador line up in Group A alongside hosts Qatar, a much-improved Netherlands, and AFCON winners Senegal. A seemingly challenging group, Ecuador will no doubt be hugely up against it to advance to the knockout rounds of the tournament. Any points taken against the Netherlands or Senegal will probably be considered huge scalps for a side in the current condition of Ecuador, but it is the game against Qatar that has the South Americans licking their lips. A win against the hosts in the tournament’s opening game would set them up perfectly for their substantially more exigent clashes, with three points here potentially only leaving another to be gained to ensure qualification.

The entire world onlooking on the opening night of a highly contentious tournament offers a perfect opportunity for Carlos Gruezo to show what he can do. You never know who might be watching.

GWFN | James Westmacott

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