The World Cup is like time speeded up, with stories toppling over each other in their desperation to be heard. At such an accelerated rhythm, it is easy to forget the narrative of the opening day of the competition, the Sunday that belonged to Ecuador, to two-goal hero Enner Valencia, and to coach Gustavo Alfaro.
In his tie and sharp navy suit, Alfaro cuts a well-tailored but austere figure, and works hard to reinforce the impression. Where some coaches jump around like fans when their team scores, Alfaro barely seems to register the moment, his mind already whirring on the new scenario of the game. And he lived up to his own stereotype in the news conference following his side's 2-0 win over hosts Qatar.
"I don't go away satisfied," he said. "What we did today, and in the qualifiers, is not good enough. The best teams in the world are here, and time is tight. I'm left with the feeling that we didn't do enough. We should have done more, we weren't able to kill off the game on the counterattack. If we really want to make progress in this competition, then we have a lot of improving to do."
His words were surely judged to provoke a psychological effect in the dressing room, a recognition that things will get much tougher. But while there is some truth in his verdict that Ecuador's counterattack was not as sharp as it could have been, in the light of subsequent events that opening day performance now looks even better than it did on the day.
Saudi Arabia showed on the following day in their historic win over Argentina clearly that they benefited by spending so much time together in the buildup to the tournament, refining a method of play that served them well against Lionel Messi and crew. But the same applies to Qatar, who have spent years under Spanish coach Felix Sanchez preparing for the big event. They were stylish winners of the 2019 Asian Cup and left a good impression when they were invited to take part in that year's Copa America.
Ecuador lived an opposite reality. In a World Cup of minimal preparation time, Ecuador had less than anyone else. Many of the squad could assemble only a week before Sunday's big kickoff -- and as the team taking part in the opening game, they had less time than anyone else to polish up their act.
Alfaro dealt with the challenge by being characteristically bold. From Argentina, with no previous connection to Ecuadorian football, he stepped into the national team job just a month before the start of the World Cup qualifiers. The team had been in disarray. But his brand of quiet control was exactly what was needed -- and his faith in the country's youth was extraordinary.
Right from the start his approach has been: if they are good enough, then they are old enough. Teenagers have been thrown into the thick of the action. Eight days before the meeting with Qatar, Ecuador played a warm-up friendly against Iraq. Still without many of his squad, Alfaro called up some extra players to make up the numbers. One of them was Kevin Rodriguez, a striker with second-division club Imbabura. He came off the bench against Iraq and did so well that Alfaro found space for him in the World Cup squad -- and Rodriguez made a second-half appearance against Qatar. Ten days ago, Rodriguez was barely a household name in his own home, and now he was on the sport's biggest stage.
And he might get more chances in the next few days. Against Qatar, with next to no time on the training field, Alfaro used a system that his side have barely employed in the past 18 months, swapping his usual 4-3-3 for a 4-4-2. It proved an inspired choice.
Firstly, the coach had seen that Qatar might struggle against the physical threat of long passes played up to two powerful strikers. Second, Alfaro had identified one of Qatar's main weapons -- long diagonal passes played up to attacking wing-backs. Ecuador countered the threat by blocking the space with a pair of wingers.
Both Romario Ibarra on the right and Gonzalo Plata on the left worked back to prevent Qatar from making headway down the flanks. And with a pair of quick centre-backs, Ecuador were able to stay compact and make sure that they usually had more men around the ball than their opponents.
True, Ecuador could have killed off the game and boosted their goal difference had their counterattack worked better. But there was never a minute in the game when they lost control of the situation -- unlike, say, the United States in their second half against Wales. Ecuador were facing a team that went into the competition one place ahead of Saudi Arabia in the FIFA rankings, an opponent who, like the Saudis, had enjoyed much more preparation time -- and they shut them out completely.
It was hugely impressive. It is easy to underestimate. And it was undoubtedly a triumph for Alfaro -- who, whatever he said in the postmatch news conference, must surely have felt some pride at his team's achievement, and will definitely be looking forward to pitting his wits against the Netherlands and their coach Louis van Gaal in Friday's second group game.