What ever happened to? Ulises de La Cruz

De La Cruz became the first Ecuadorian to join a Scottish Premier League
side when he joined Hibs in 2001
In June 2001 Scottish side Hibernian signed Ecuadorian international defender Ulises de La Cruz from Ecuadorian side Barcelona Sporting Club. This transfer made Hibs manager Alex McLiesh the first manager to sign an Ecuadorian player for a Scottish Premier league club, he then signed De La Cruz's international team mate and international journeyman Eduardo Hurtado.

De La Cruz was born 8 February 1974 in the village of Piquiucho in the Valle del Chota. He made his professional debut for Deportivo Quito in 1991. He also had stints with Liga de Quito, Barcelona Sporting Club and Aucas in his homeland and with Cruzeiro in Brazil. He made his international debut in a 3-0 defeat to Japan on 28 May 1995. Before his move to the UK he had featured in three Copa América squads in 1997, 1999 and 2001.

One of the highlights of his career was netting a hat-trick in an incredible 7-0 win against Emelec in the 1998 Ecuadorian championship final.

De La Cruz settled into the first team, he scored both goals in the Edinburgh derby in October 2001 including the opening goal after only 36 seconds. The game ended 2-1 to Hibs and De La Cruz won praise from his manager, the fans and the press for his performances.

In December 2001 McLeish, the manager who had signed De La Cruz was poached by Rangers. McLeish's replacement Bobby Williamson sent Hurtado back to Ecuador and without his international team mate or the manager that signed him it became clear that De La Cruz's time with the club was limited.

De la Cruz playing for Aston Villa
against Manchester united in 2004.
During the summer of 2002 he played for Ecuador in their first ever World Cup, he featured in all three of the countries games including their first ever win in the World Cup finals, a 1-0 victory against Croatia in Yokohama. 

In 2002 De La Cruz established the British-Ecuadorian charity Friends of FundeCruz to which he donates around 10% of his wages to help fund children's nutrition, health, education and sports development. So far the charity has helped to build a water treatment plant, a medical centre and a community sports centre in his local province of Valle del Chota. He is good friends with Southampton flop Agustín Delgado who also has a charity with similar objectives in the same province.

Following his success at the World Cup  he was signed by Premier League side Aston Villa for a fee of £1.5 million. Over the next four seasons he made 109 appearances for the club and scored two goals, his first came in a 2-0 win against Charlton Athletic in September 2002 and the other came in a 3-0 win against Luton Town in a League Cup tie on 2 October 2002. During his time at Villa he played in his 4th Copa América tournament. De La Cruz eventually left the Villa on a free transfer in 2006 after falling out with manager David O'Leary.

Ulises playing against Poland in the 2006 World Cup.
He played in his second World Cup that summer, appearing in all three of the group games and in Ecuador's first ever 2nd round match against England.

His next club were newly promoted Reading who were playing their first season ever in the English top flight. De la Cruz featured as an occasional player for the team that not only survived in the top flight but finished in 8th position only one point shy of a UEFA Cup place. The following season Reading were relegated and De La Cruz was released from his contract. He made a total of 24 appearances for the Royals in all competition and bagged one goal for the club in a 3-1 win against Sheffield United.

During his time at Reading he became their first ever representative at the Copa América, his fifth outing in the tournament and his last of seven major international tournaments for his country. In 2007 Ulises came up against young Brazilian sensation Robinho, in a World Cup qualifier. He cannot be blamed for failing to deal with the situation given Robinho's brilliance before his slump in form at Manchester City.

Between 2008 and 2009 he spent time on trial with a number of different clubs, he spent some time at  Watford where he played 45 minutes of a friendly against Brentford. He also had trials at Coventry City.
 

In March 2009 he was given the opportunity to join up with the man who brought him to the UK back in 2001 when Birmingham manager Alex McLeish offered him a temporary contract. De La Cruz played only one game for Aston Villa's fierce local rivals, he was offered a 1 year contract buit decided to return to Ecuador to play regular first team football and improve his chances of returning to the Ecuador national team.


All in all Ulises de La Cruz played 8 seasons in British football making 164 appearances in all competitions and scoring 4 goals. He will never be remembered as one of the great exciting flair players but he was one of the very few South American players to last the course in British football. Many many exiting and highly talented South Americans have been beaten into submission by football in the UK, yet De La Cruz had what it takes to survive our game for 8 years.

After being released by Birmingham De La Cruz joined up with Liga de Quito; the most powerful team back in Ecuador. In July that year he was part of the team that annihilated Brazilian side Internacional 4-0 on aggregate in the final of the Recopa Sudamericana 2009 (South American Super Cup).

In 2009 De La Cruz was part of the Liga de Quito
side that won the Copa Sudamericana in 2009.
Later that year he won his second major international tournament with the club. He was part of the team that beat Brazilian side Fluminense 5-4 on aggregate to win the Copa Sudamericana 2009, although he was sent off in the second leg of the final after only 14 minutes.


De La Cruz had been frozen out of the Ecuador national team back in 2008 on 99 caps but he was recalled to the team in May 2010 for a couple of pre-World Cup warm up matches for Mexico and South Korea to put himself on the exclusive list of players with 100+ caps for their countries. With 101 caps and 6 goals he is currently Ecuador's 3rd most capped player behind Eduardo Hurtado and Alex Aguinaga.

In September 2008 he won his third major international title with Liga de Quito, he played in the 2nd leg of the Recopa Sudamericana in which they beat Alex Sabella's Estudiantes side which was captained by Juan Sebastián Verón to become only the 3rd side ever to retain the title after São Paulo of Brazil and Boca Juniors of Argentina.

De La Cruz still plays for Liga de Quito who are currently at the semi-final stage of their defence of their Copa Sudamericana championship and top of the Ecuadorian league. He continues his charity work and is a UNICEF ambassador. However he may be remembered back in the UK he will be rightly regarded as one of Ecuador's finest players, who was part of the most successful generation of Ecuadorian footballers ever to grace the game.

Part of the What ever happened to? series.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the acknowledgement. Ulises is well regarded in Ecuador, an as a result of his playing in both Scotland and England, British football is better know and appreciated in the South American country.

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  2. As a Hibernian fan he will always be a legend for the two goals in derby against Hearts.

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