From a historical viewpoint, Ecuador have been one of the more struggling footballing nations in South America. Despite their past irregularities, however, Ecuador has risen to be a serious South American competitor in recent years.
Discarding an invitation to participate in the inaugural 1930 FIFA World Cup held in Uruguay, their first participation in a World Cup qualifying campaign was in the 1962 campaign, eventually being well beaten by over two games. However, the 1966 qualifying campaign pitted the side, regarded as one of the finest teams Ecuador has ever produced, against 1962 hosts and third-place finishers and a weakened side. Ecuador, featuring stars such as Washington Muñoz, Alberto Spencer, Carlos Alberto Raffo, Enrique Raymondi and Jorge Bolaños, forced a play-off in Peru before being eliminated by Chile. Other talented players to have represented Ecuador include José Villafuerte in the 1970s and 1980s.
The 1998 World Cup qualifiers saw the format for qualifying in CONMEBOL changed to a league home-and-away system. This difference made a huge impact on Ecuador's performance as they clinched several important home wins during the campaign. At the end, they achieved a very respectable 6th-place finish, just under and (which qualified by goal differential). The campaign also marked the emergence of several players, such as Agustín Delgado, Álex Aguinaga, Iván Hurtado, Ulises de la Cruz and Iván Kaviedes, who would set the stage for Ecuador's achievements in the next decade.
This remained the closest they had come to appearing in a finals until the qualification tournament for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Led by Colombian born manager Hernán Darío Gómez, they finished second to , and one point ahead of who went on to win the World Cup. Agustín Delgado, with 9 goals, finished joint top scorer in qualifying with Hernán Crespo of . They were drawn into Group G with , and . Although they were knocked out at the group stage, they achieved a 1–0 victory over , who had come third at the previous edition of the World Cup.
A disappointing showing at the 2004 Copa América in Peru led to the resignation of Gómez, who was replaced by another Colombian, Luis Fernando Suárez. He led them successfully through the latter stages of the qualification process for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, finishing third to make the finals. In Germany, they were drawn into Group A with , Poland, and . Wins over Poland and Costa Rica earned La Tri qualification to the knockout stages for the first time.
Another disappointing showing at yet another Copa América in 2007 and three successive defeats in the beginning of the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign led to the end of Suarez's time in the national team. He was replaced in 2008 for Sixto Vizuete, who had previously gained recognition for winning the with the U-18s. Vizuete became one of the few Ecuadorians to coach the U-23 national team, and senior team, but Ecuador finished the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in 6th place, being eliminated from the finals for the first time since 1998. They managed to turn it around in the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign where they finished in the top 4, enough to record a third World Cup appearance. On Friday, 6 December 2013 they were drawn into a balanced group compromising of top seeds, Switzerland, former champions France, and minnows Honduras.