It is 2:00 a.m., and the streets of Ecuador's cities are teeming with cheering, flag-waving fans, as if it were midday on a holiday. The national team is locked in a tight match with Mexico, and most of the nation's 13 million people are glued to the TV.
Many shops and most cafes are still open with TVs hooked to satellite dishes going full blast, and no one is even thinking about sleep.
"When my country is at the World Cup, nothing else matters," says pensioner Juan Gabriel. "We have to watch the games, and they are on the other side of the world. So here we have to stay up at night and sleep during the day. Everything gets turned upside down and backward, as if night were day and day were night for a couple of weeks."
In Japan, where the soccer match against Mexico is 1-0 in Ecuador's favor, it is 4 o'clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The fact that Japan is 14 hours ahead of Ecuador, which is in the same time zone as Chicago, doesn't stop more than 60 percent of Ecuador's population from watching the game. They just do it in the middle of the night.
This year's World Cup has virtually shut down the government on the days when Ecuador plays. Many businesses temporarily open in the afternoon and close at first light. Schools and offices remain empty for part of the day following a match to give students and workers a chance to rest.
The country slows to a crawl during the game. Taxis and buses don't run. Security guards say there is anecdotal evidence that burglaries drop sharply for 90 minutes, because the criminal element is too busy watching the game. But the chaotic nocturnal aftermath of the event usually makes up for the lull in crime several times over.
"I know it might be dangerous, especially if we lose, but I'm keeping the store open anyway," says store owner Son'a Tovar. "It is my patriotic duty to watch soccer, and it is good for business. Soccer is like religion. It is mandatory."
"Ecuador waited 47 years for this moment, and no one is going to miss it just to sleep," says Ecuadorean sports reporter Jorje Imbaquingo, rubbing his black-ringed eyes. "I have been staying up every night for more than a week now."
The World Cup is the unchallenged titan of sporting events in terms of TV viewership, bigger than the Super Bowl, bigger than the Olympics; and watching soccer at peculiar hours has been a tradition in countries playing in the World Cup since the invention of satellites. This little Andean nation has simply missed out on the fun for decades until this year, it was the only country in South America that hadn't qualified for the World Cup.
Ecuadoreans, like most people in Latin America, love soccer to the point of addiction. The national soccer team is elevated to superhuman status and children and adults, from the jungle to mountain villages, play the game avidly.
"Of course, we have to stay up to watch the game," says Daniel Salasar, a high school student playing a nocturnal game of kick-the-bottle on a side street here while he waits for the live match. "There is no point in watching it on tape later because soccer is all about emotion," he says. "When you are in a crowd watching the game live, everyone is completely focused. For once, the whole world is united."
Like all his pals, Mr. Salasar dreams of being a national soccer player. In a country where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, professional soccer is the one big chance for young people.
"Ninety percent of our professional soccer players come from very poor backgrounds," says Ernesto Galarza, a top Ecuadorean soccer coach. "It is the sport of the poor. For that reason, soccer frightens our political upper class."
Ecuador eventually loses to Mexico 1-2, and it looks as if Ecuador will not advance to the second round. It does have one more match to look forward to, this time against Croatia at 6:30 a.m. Thursday.
As the game ends, Ecuadorean fans pound the floor with their fists and many weep openly.
"I am very sad, but our team did the best it could," says student Marta Mena, fighting back tears. "The important thing is that we were finally represented at the World Cup. The whole country was delirious with joy. That is enough for this year."