Ecuador keeps place at 2022 World Cup despite falsified birth records controversy

SANTIAGO, CHILE - NOVEMBER 16: Byron Castillo of Ecuador and Jean Meneses of Chile fight for the ball during a match between Chile and Ecuador as part of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers at San Carlos de Apoquindo Stadium on November 16, 2021 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images)
Ecuador defender Byron Castillo played twice against Chile during 2022 World Cup qualifying. (Photo by Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images)

Ecuador will retain its place at the 2022 World Cup after a FIFA investigation into a player's allegedly falsified birth certificate failed to find evidence that would disqualify the South American nation.

Soccer's global governing body said Friday that, after analyzing the case of Ecuadorian defender Byron Castillo, it had closed disciplinary proceedings and, in essence, rejected Chile's bid to seize Ecuador's place at the World Cup.

Chile's soccer federation, citing "irregularities" in Castillo's documentation and "innumerable proofs" that he was not born in Ecuador, had filed an official complaint to FIFA, whose disciplinary committee took up the case last month. Chile believed that if Castillo were ruled ineligible, and Ecuador handed retroactive forfeits, the Chileans could jump from seventh to fourth in the South American table and qualify for Qatar 2022 after all.

But FIFA ruled that no disciplinary action would be taken, and Ecuadorian soccer officials celebrated. The Ecuadorian federation's president, Francisco Egas, said that "sports justice has been done."

Chile has 10 days to challenge the ruling. It reportedly plans to file an appeal, first to FIFA's appeal committee and then, potentially, to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But for now, Ecuador remains comfortably qualified for the World Cup, which begins Nov. 21. Its official Twitter account reacted to the news with a single emoji.

The Byron Castillo case

Castillo is one of thousands of Ecuadorian players whose documentation had been investigated by the Ecuadorian soccer federation (FEF) and the country's civil registry. Until last year, with questions swirling, Ecuadorian soccer officials had withheld Castillo, a talented young fullback, from the national team. “I think it’s a matter of playing it safe, avoiding problems,” FEF vice president Carlos Manzur said in March 2021. Selecting Castillo, he said, would be a "risk."

But that summer, Ecuadorian authorities cleared Castillo to represent the country. He debuted for the national team in September, and appeared in eight qualifiers as Ecuador booked its place in Qatar.

The controversy, though, reignited this spring amid an unrelated transfer dispute. A Colombian journalist published a birth certificate, reportedly presented in court and purportedly belonging to Castillo, that seemed to show he'd been born not on Nov. 10, 1998 in General Villamil Playas, Ecuador, but rather on July 25, 1995 in Tumaco, Colombia. The name on the certificate was "Bayron Javier Castillo," not Byron David Castillo, and Ecuador has said that Bayron was Byron's now-deceased older brother. But of course, all the questions re-emerged.

A week later, having calculated that retroactive forfeits could elevate Chile to the World Cup in Ecuador's place, the Chilean soccer federation filed its official complaint to FIFA. The following week, FIFA agreed to take up the case. Chile argued that "serious and conscious irregularities in the registration of players cannot be accepted," and that "the world of soccer cannot close its eyes to so much proof."

Ecuador contended, however, that Castillo "is an Ecuadorian citizen for all legal purposes, both in the civil sphere and in sports." Egas, the FEF president, later argued that "FIFA is not an authority that can determine the nationality of a player."

FIFA, of course, has rules governing eligibility, but nothing in those rules made Castillo ineligible. Even if Castillo were born in Colombia, under FIFA statutes, he'd be eligible to play for Ecuador if:

1) he is an Ecuadorian citizen; and
2) he never represented Colombia at a senior international soccer competition; and
3) he has lived in Ecuador for at least five years.

That Castillo satisfies those three requirements was never disputed. His parents, born in Colombia, moved the family to Ecuador before or after Byron was born. He has an Ecuadorian passport, and has been playing for Ecuadorian teams his whole soccer life.

Even if Castillo was actually born in Colombia, and obtained citizenship via a falsified birth certificate, the argument went, that was an Ecuadorian government issue, not a FIFA issue.

FIFA did not publish its reasoning for dismissing the case.

Castillo suffers amid scrutiny

FIFA's investigation lasted four weeks. As it sped forward out of public view, Castillo suffered in the spotlight. After conceding a penalty for his Ecuadorian club, Barcelona SC, he burst into tears and appeared to shout to his coach: "Sácame! Sácame!" Take me out! Take me out!

The coach, Jorge Celico, heeded his request, and said after the match: "Byron Castillo is a victim of the power of media in modern times." He said Castillo was carrying a big "emotional burden," and that it was a product of the "fight" over his citizenship and eligibility.

Teammates rallied around him, and the club offered psychological support. But the pressure hasn't relented. In fact, the issue has trailed Castillo throughout his career, even since he was a teen. In 2015, an Ecuadorian club rescinded an offer because of paperwork irregularities. Ecuadorian national teams feared the consequences of his participation as well.

His talent, though, was undisputed. Castillo became Ecuador's starting right back soon after he was cleared, and helped his country secure qualification.

They were drawn into Group A alongside Senegal, the Netherlands and Qatar. They'll kick off the tournament on opening day against the hosts, who themselves will field several players born abroad. And Castillo will, in all likelihood, be there.