Qualification for this year’s soccer World Cup, already disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, now faces more uncertainty after Chile this week called on FIFA to throw out Ecuador and hand its place in the tournament to Chile instead. Chile contends that its South American rival fielded an ineligible player who is in fact Colombian.
To support its case, Chile on Wednesday filed a claim, reviewed by The New York Times, that contains registry documents, including birth certificates, that it says show the defender Byron Castillo was not only born in Colombia, but also that he is three years older than is stated on the documents used to identify him as Ecuadorean.
“The practice of serious and conscious irregularities in the registration of players cannot be accepted, especially when we are talking about a world competition,” Chile’s soccer federation said in a statement on Thursday confirming its had filed a complaint.
Under the rules of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, playing an ineligible player could result in a forfeit, or several of them — a consequence that could upend the qualifying results in South America. Ecuador finished fourth in the recently concluded qualifying campaign for Qatar, claiming one of the continent’s four automatic places in the World Cup, which begins in November.
Chile is demanding that Ecuador forfeit the eight qualification games in which Castillo played, with the opponents automatically granted three points per game. If FIFA agrees, as it has in at least one recent case in South America, that would lift Chile into the World Cup at Ecuador’s expense.
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Ecuador’s soccer federation released its own statement in which it rejected what it called “false rumors” about Castillo, who it said was an Ecuadorean citizen in a legal and sporting sense. “We categorically reject any attempt by those who seek to avoid our participation in the World Cup in Qatar, which was legitimately obtained on the field,” the federation said.
FIFA confirmed Thursday that it had received the complaint but said it would not comment on the case.
Chile’s legal effort added a new complication to the qualification process for the 2022 World Cup. FIFA oversaw an opulent ceremony in Doha last month to finalize the groups and schedule for the tournament’s opening stage even though four places have yet to be decided. The final teams will not be determined until June, when two intercontinental playoff games and the final European qualifiers take place.
Castillo’s background has been shrouded in questions for several years after a wider investigation into player registrations in Ecuador looked into hundreds of cases and resulted in punishments for at least 75 youth players found to have falsified records. Wary of a mistake that might jeopardize Ecuador’s World Cup hopes, officials from the national soccer federation had held off selecting Castillo until this year.
Two years ago, in fact, the president of a special investigation commission convened by the federation appeared to suggest Castillo was Colombian, something that Chilean officials now say they have substantiated.
“The level, both in quantity and quality, of the information and evidence that we have been able to collect has surprised even us,” Eduardo Carlezzo, a lawyer representing the Chilean federation, said Wednesday. Carlezzo claimed that in addition to an Ecuadorean birth certificate used by Castillo, there was also a Colombian one for a child with a similar name born in 1995 and whose parents have the same names as Castillo’s. “How could we not act with this level of evidence in hands?” Carlezzo said.
Concern over Castillo’s eligibility appeared to have concerned Ecuadorean officials as well. In March 2021, Carlos Manzur, the vice president of Ecuador’s soccer federation, suggested as much in comments reported by the local news media.
“I think it’s a matter of playing it safe, avoiding problems,” Manzur told reporters at the time. “I think he is a good player. If it were up to me, I would not have him play for the national team. I would not take that risk. I would not risk everything we are doing.”
About a month later, an Ecuadorean court provided Castillo with an identification document that appeared to pave the way for him to make his national team debut, which he did about five months later in a set of games that included a 0-0 home draw with Chile. He has since played in eight games overall, including a 2-0 victory at Chile in November that all but ended the latter’s hopes of qualification.
After questions over Castillo’s eligibility were reported in regional media outlets, Manzur, the Ecuador soccer official, declared that any inconsistencies in Castillo’s documentation had been corrected and that his Ecuadorean identity had been confirmed. “The national team waited until that was corrected to incorporate the player into its squad,” said Manzur.
That will now have to be determined by FIFA.
“We understand, based on all the information and documents collected, that the facts are too serious and must be thoroughly investigated by FIFA,” Pablo Milad, the president of Chile’s soccer federation, said in a statement to The Times. “We have always respected the fair play principals and we hope that the other federations do the same.”
Ecuador finished in the fourth and last automatic place in South America’s 10-nation World Cup qualification group, two points head of Peru, which will meet either Australia or the United Arab Emirates in June for a place in the finals. Chile finished below sixth-placed Colombia in the standings, but Castillo did not play in either of Ecuador’s games against Colombia or Peru. That has left Chilean officials believing the six points they should get from the forfeited games — and the six Ecuador would lose — would leapfrog them into Ecuador’s qualification spot.
For FIFA, Chile’s complaint adds further complication to a World Cup qualification campaign that already has suffered significant disruption. The coronavirus delayed games around the world for months, and meant that Oceania’s entire series of games had to be held in Doha. Other games were pushed back until after the tournament draw. (One of those as-yet-unknown countries was placed in a group with the United States.) Then, in March, Russia was thrown out of the European playoffs after invading neighboring Ukraine, which also led to a playoff game between Ukraine and Scotland being rescheduled.
Chile will point to recent precedent in another sport to argue its point. Last month, Spain was disqualified from rugby’s 2023 World Cup after being deducted points for fielding an ineligible player in two games. But it also has recent experience with a similar situation in soccer: During qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Chile was awarded a forfeit after FIFA found Bolivia had fielded an ineligible player in two matches.