The streets of Manta, a city on Ecuador’s coast, are engulfed by the stench of fish. Fishing and tuna processing are the port town’s lifeblood. Tourism is also part of the economy, as Ecuadorians in search of a weekend-long vacation will brave the odour and invade the beaches. But if one thing defines the place, it’s fish. They’re swimming in the water, being sold on land, and even hovering in the sky – an enormous statue of a tuna overlooks the pueblo.
But on the shores where fishermen congregate, the locals aren’t talking about the day’s catch. Football dominates the conversations.
Delfin Sporting Club, one of Manta’s two major clubs, is in the final of Serie A, Ecuadorian football’s first division. It’s the first time ever that Los Cetaceos, or any club from Manta, for that matter, are in the final, and that only tells half the story. Less than 15 months ago, an earthquake brought Ecuador’s coast to its knees and left Delfin without a home. But, in a microcosm of how the region is overcoming adversity, Los Cetaceos are one game away from going unbeaten through one half of the season. If they beat River Ecuador, it will mark the first time that any club accomplishes the feat.
Some context: Serie A’s format changes constantly, but the format since 2010 involves a season divided into two halves of 22 games each, with the winner of each half meeting in a final near the end of the calendar year. The finalists are usually supplied by Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city.
Manta lacks a rich tradition in football, but the city is becoming as synonymous with the sport as it is with fish, and it’s all because of Delfin.
(Courtesy: Delfin Sporting Club)
- Founded: 1989
- Stadium: Estadio Jocay
- President: Jose Delgado – economist and businessman who was washing dishes at 18 years of age
- Manager: Guillermo Sanguinetti – represented Uruguay as a footballer
The story begins on April 16, 2016, when Ecuador was hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed at least 650 people and left more than 28,000 homeless. It was the worst natural disaster to hit the country in decades, and Manta, close to the epicentre, was among the cities and towns most affected. Piles of debris littered the municipality, making parts of it resemble a wasteland.
(Courtesy: Delfin SC)
Delfin was among the homeless. The earthquake damaged Estadio Jocay, and Los Cetaceos were left without a stadium for almost six months. The ground’s western rostrum had to be demolished. Forced to take the pitch elsewhere, the club finished the first half of the season four points above the relegation zone. “Nobody extended a hand, not even when the earthquake happened,” Delgado said. “We had to play our home games in Guayaquil, Portoviejo, and Machala. Partly because of that, we put the ranking at risk.”
Refusing to be flattened by an earthquake, Delfin did just enough in the second half of the season, evading relegation by five points. Maximiliano Barreiro was the poster boy of the wonderful achievement. The Argentinian forward scored 26 goals over the season’s two halves and finished as Serie A’s top scorer. A transfer to Club Necaxa was his reward, and he sailed away from Manta with a heart as heavy as an anchor. “I hope to have the doors open and tell you ‘see you soon’ and not ‘goodbye forever,'” he said. “Thank you, Delfin. I’ll always carry you in my heart.”
The historic season
Delfin contracted 15 new footballers for the next season. Eleven arrived from other clubs in Serie A and four came from abroad. Los Cetaceos had a budget of $2.75 million – Ecuador uses American currency – thanks to the support the club received from sponsors, many of which were private companies from the coast, including La Esquina de Aces, Freshcorp, Frescodegfer, and Conservas Isabel. Multinational corporations, such as Coca-Cola and Pronaca, also lent a hand.
At Estadio Jocay, a gigantic piece of green cloth stood in place of the western rostrum that was demolished, revealing the streets surrounding the stadium to the television cameras. The eastern rostrum remained closed due to damage, with the exception of the dressing rooms and the press room. Only two stands would be usable for the season. The capacity of the ground was reduced by 53 percent, leaving room for 9,364 people.
The situation wasn’t ideal, but, for the first time since the earthquake, it felt like there was stability at Delfin.
Delfin’s season started with a scoreless draw versus River Ecuador at Estadio Jocay. From there, things took a turn for the surreal. Los Cetaceos beat Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito, the champion of the 2008 Copa Libertadores, and Barcelona SC, the most popular club in Ecuador, which boasts a massive following in Manta. Then came victories over Fuerza Amarilla, Club Deportivo Macara, CD El Nacional, Clan Juvenil, Clan Juvenil again, Deportivo Cuenca, Macara again, Independiente del Valle, and Universidad Catolica.
Delfin couldn’t be stopped. Was something in the seafood? Was it the doing of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the virgin whom some of Los Cetaceos’ players pray to after each game?
Or had Delfin quietly built one of the best squads in the history of Ecuadorian football?
On a Sunday evening in Guayaquil, Delfin answered the question, conquering El Estadio Monumental and silencing one of South America’s biggest cities. In a game that Barcelona had to win in order to have any chance of catching Los Cetaceos in the standings, the club from Manta produced a 2-1 triumph. It was the most important result in Delfin’s history, one that fishermen will recount for centuries to come.
Barcelona had been ahead until some nightmare-inducing goalkeeping in the 65th minute allowed a free-kick taken by Carlos Garces to roll underneath the fingertips of Maximo Banguera, a goalkeeper who once faked his own death on the pitch. The hat-sporting shot-stopper probably wished he was actually dead at that moment, and Delfin wasn’t done. Roberto Ordonez, who played at a time when his mother was gravely ill, impaled Los Toreros in the 80th minute by finishing off a counter-attack that started with a corner kick at the other end of the field. You could hear an empanada drop at El Estadio Monumental. At that moment it became clear: Los Cetaceos were going to the final.
Delfin’s conquest of Barcelona put Los Cetaceos in a position where they only needed one point from their penultimate game in the first half of the season. A draw would send the club to the final of Serie A. Hosting Liga at Estadio Jocay, Delfin did more than what was necessary, drowning Los Albos 4-1 to begin the party in Manta.
As a bonus, Delfin qualified for the Copa Libertadores. It’s hard to believe that Los Cetaceos will potentially be playing Boca Juniors, River Plate, Flamengo, and Fluminense in South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. As recently as seven years ago, they were in such disarray that, in one bizarre instance, the club took the pitch with only eight footballers due to lack of documentation.
Regardless of whether Delfin wins its last game of the first half of the season, regardless of what happens in the final, the club’s players are immortalised in Manta. There’s Garces, whose nine goals so far filled the void left by Barreiro. There’s Ordonez, the forward who is playing through the pain of his ill mother. There’s Francisco Silva, the captain and domesticated husband. There’s Jhon Chancellor, the defensive giant who looks like Goliath but who plays for David.
There’s Sanguinetti, the manager who, after Delfin vanquished Barcelona and was accused of playing ugly football, screamed: “We play ugly? La concha de tu madre we play ugly. No one beats us!”
Not even an earthquake.