DOHA/QUITO - Ecuador's veteran captain Enner Valencia could not control his tears as he apologised to his country for the side's failure to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup in Qatar.

But Valencia, whose team came agonisingly close to reaching the last 16 and matching Ecuador's previous best showing in 2006, was quickly consoled by fans who hailed "La Tri" (The Tricolour) for inspiring them with excellent performances.

"We offer an apology to all of Ecuador," Valencia said, crying in the aftermath of Tuesday's 2-1 defeat to African champions Senegal which stopped them from progressing.

"We didn't expect this, we were very happy with what we were doing ... Unfortunately we could not meet Ecuador's expectations," he added.

The 33-year-old remains a hero at home, however.

Ecuador's all-time top scorer bagged three goals in a 2-0 opening win over Qatar and a 1-1 draw against Netherlands when they deserved to win and secure passage to the knockout stage.

A draw would have done against Senegal, but Ecuador paid for two lapses in concentration to give away a penalty and then a second goal straight after the euphoria of pulling back to 1-1.

"Unfortunately that's football, it bites you," said defender Angel Preciado. "We're so sorry not to go through and we thank our nation for their wholehearted support."

Ecuador's fans were sad but also proud that their 44th-ranked team had done so creditably.

"They gave their all and couldn't win in the end, but they showed that they can match bigger teams," said Margarita Vidal, 36, in a park in the coastal city of Guayaquil.

"Ecuador is spoken of and known in many nations, that is an achievement no-one can take away from us."

Ecuadorean media were united in their praise of coach Gustavo Alfaro who transformed the team with an injection of fresh talent to complement the experience of Valencia.

"Youth: the legacy of Gustavo Alfaro for 2026," was the headline of leading Ecuadorean newspaper El Comercio, looking forward to the next World Cup.

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Doha, Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Editing by Hugh Lawson)