Could Ecuador really be thrown out of the World Cup over 'ghost' Castillo's identity scandal?

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The World Cup is the pinnacle of football achievement and, for those countries lucky enough to make the finals, the reward for four years of hard work and sacrifice to battle through qualifying competitions across the planet; putting themselves through punishing schedules and thousands of kilometres of travel.

Ecuador earned their place at the party after a fantastic CONMEBOL campaign, but now face a new fight, as they wait to find out if they are to miss out on Qatar 2022 in the cruellest of fashions.

Last week, Chile filed an official complaint with FIFA over the inclusion in several Ecuador games of one Byron Castillo.

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Castillo, a talented, versatile right-back and midfielder who has stood out at club level with Guayaquil's Barcelona, was handed his international debut in 2021 by Tricolor coach Gustavo Alfaro, and was a fixture in the nation's final World Cup qualifiers as they stormed to third place in the standings behind runaway leaders Brazil and Argentina.

According to Chile, however, the 23-year-old is not who he says he is, and was not born in Ecuador at all, but rather in neighbouring Colombia.

That complaint was addressed by FIFA on Wednesday, as the world governing body opened an official disciplinary review into the case in order to determine whether Ecuador flouted nationality rules in fielding Castillo.

“We have investigated the case in full to discover where the player was really born and we are sure: he was born in Colombia,” the Chilean FA's lawyer Eduardo Carlezzo, who is pursuing the nation's legal action, told Marca.

“What we are affirming categorically is that Byron Javier Castillo Segura was born in Tumaco, Colombia on July 25, 1995, and Byron David Castillo Segura, who was supposedly born on November 10, 1998 does not exist, he is a ghost.

“This is an adulteration, forgery and even a crime under Ecuadorian law.”

Chile's interest in pressing this charge, which Ecuador has emphatically denied, is clear. If Castillo is found to have played illicitly, the Tricolor are in danger of forfeiting the 14 points picked up while he was on the field in qualifying, which would pull them down from fourth place to second-bottom, ahead of only Venezuela.

There is a precedent for such a punishment in CONMEBOL, too. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Peru and Chile were both awarded wins for matches in which Bolivia had fielded the ineligible Nelson Cabrera, an outcome that sent the former to Russia while Chile missed out by virtue of goal difference.

By a quirk of fate, moreover, this time the Roja are the only team who could benefit from Ecuador's sanction. Aside from featuring against Chile in both clashes, an Ecuador win and a draw, Castillo faced already-qualified Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Bolivia, Venezuela and Paraguay, who do not have any hope of making the cut.

The defender missed games against fifth-placed Peru and sixth-placed Colombia through injury, meaning that while Chile would gain five points, under a hypothetical FIFA ruling their rivals would receive nothing – pushing La Roja into fourth and an automatic berth in Qatar.

It should be clarified, however, that the Castillo case differs significantly from that of its predecessor.

Paraguay-born Cabrera represented a clear transgression of the rules: he had only been resident in Bolivia for four years rather than the necessary five before debuting for his adopted nation and even in their (later dismissed) appeal, Bolivia made no attempt to dispute that fact, merely the timing of the complaint and FIFA's right to investigate.

Castillo, meanwhile, stands accused of doctoring his own birth certificate, an allegation that first arose in 2015, leading him to be released by Emelec, and two years later when he was withdrawn from Ecuador's Under-20 South American Championship squad as a precautionary measure.

One particular club has come under the spotlight: his first side Norte America, who in 2017 were the subject of an investigation which found irregularities in the identity of no fewer than 73 players over a period of 10 years.

Nevertheless, in 2021, prior to his full debut, a judicial review determined that Castillo was Ecuadorian, verifying his records and giving Alfaro the green light to pick the youngster for the first time.

“I don't know why this issue has come up again, basically because of the fact that a false piece of news in Colombia has led on the ANFP (Chilean FA), which didn't even finish in the first six spots,” Castillo's lawyer, Jose Massu, fired to Radio Redonda on Wednesday after the news broke.

“There has never been a formal complaint against Byron Castillo... What we did have was a sanction from the federation, which punished the player without following procedure because they presumed a birth certificate with the same name in Colombia belonged to Byron Castillo.

“Byron Castillo not only has never lived in Colombia, he has always lived and played in Ecuador. I don't know where this madness has come from.”

In any case, Castillo is an Ecuadorian citizen and has played his entire professional career in the country.

If, in the worst-case scenario, FIFA does find his papers are forged, that would not necessarily mean Castillo was ineligible to play, but rather leave the player himself open to charges, punishable by suspension and fines, but not necessarily the loss of points for Ecuador - unless the country or federation was found to have been complicit in the forgery.

Ecuador are confident about beating the sanction, while Massu insists that the chances of losing their World Cup spot are “Zero, 0 per cent... Mainly because Byron Castillo, was, is and will be Ecuadorian until the day he dies.”

But the Tricolor must still face up to some nervous weeks and months ahead, until FIFA, and even higher authorities in the case of appeal, rule on this convoluted case of possible mistaken identity.