Rarely in my travels have I seen such an obsession for one football player in Ecuador’s infatuation for Antonio Valencia.
The Manchester United right back/winger is lauded as “the best player in the world” up here in the Andes and receives the type of attention usually only reserved for Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
They are rightly proud of their man from Lago Agrio who rose from poverty to play for one of the biggest football teams in the world. It helps that by all accounts Valencia seems to be a very grounded and pleasant person.
In the national newspapers Valencia’s every match and any public utterance is covered in detail. The slightest hint of injury verges can create national panic, especially in the lead up to a World Cup qualifier.
Valencia’s career rise has not been meteoric but more measured progress. After climbing through the youth ranks and into the first team with Quito based El Nacional (The Ecuadorian army team of which Valencia was a soldier) , Antonio won a move to then Spanish giants Villarreal. With limited opportunity available at the Madrigal he was farmed out to Recreativo de Huelva then loaned and signed by Wigan in the EPL. After 3 years impressing for Wigan he was attracting attention from around Europe and particularly Real Madrid. However when Alex Ferguson came knocking he opted for Old Trafford and he has since cemented his place in Man U’s starting 11.
In his 3 years in Manchester he has won the Premier League and League Cup and last year he was voted as Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year then rewarded with £80,000 four-year contract.
Ferguson obviously values his player citing, “Antonio is always very professional and a great human being. I’m very happy with him”
Similarly Ashley Young is glowing in his praise despite his competition for a place recently claiming
“’He attacks, he defends, he can shoot, he can cross, he can pass… he has it all and that’s why he scooped up everything at the end-of-season awards. It’s why the players voted for him and it’s why the fans voted for him”.
When it was announced that Valencia was to play as the No.7 for Man U, Ecuadorians immediately thought this was a further identification of the his greatness and an assimilation along with previous number sevens alike George Best and Eric Cantona. A typically humble Valencia accepted the honour with his usual grace.
Valencia has represented Ecuador a total of 54 times, scoring six goals. He played in all 4 of Ecuador’s games at the 2006 World Cup and garnered universal praise for his performances. Appearances in the Copa America and unsuccessful qualification campaigns followed but his performances have be rewarded with the captain’s armband.
When Valencia receives the ball in the Atahaulpa stadium there is a collective hushed mumble of “Antonio” in anticipation of some oncoming breath-taking skill. Unfortunately, rarely is there any Messi-esque magic but he often has a telling contribution for “El Tri”. Sometimes Ecuador’s over-reliance on Valencia has a detrimental effect on their pace based play and it becomes too obvious to the opposition.
In recent World Cup qualifiers the opposition have been wary of the Valencia effect and doubled up on him somewhat stymying his contribution. Luckily Ecuador has quality all over the park and Valencia can be used as a foil and play quickly switched to the left hand side through the likes of Saritama and Montero.
Valencia is fast and incisive but he is no playmaker. His lung-bursting runs and rapid counter attacks can severely test the best of wing backs. He can chip in with the odd goal but is hardly prolific with an average of around one goal every 8 matches for club and country.
Valencia’s real strength is his overall ability. While some players are more gifted in specific skills i.e. tackling, free-kicks, close control, not many are proficient in all.
He is arguably the best right sided player in the EPL and while he is not as skilled as Barcelona’s Daniel Alves at right back his versatility makes him invaluable for club and country. There are few modern players who can flourish in a number of positions and for this reason Valencia is very special.
Off the field Valencia is also growing and becoming a lot more vocal in the media. Early in his career he was a very reserved and shy however recent months he has become more confident and controversial.
After last month’s qualifier against Uruguay when he was harshly red-carded in the dying minutes was scathing and incandescent with rage:
“This referee is a clown,” he said. “How come he didn’t give us that penalty? We are in Uruguay, we are not on another planet.
“He did the same in the last World Cup qualification campaign. He’s a disgrace, a total clown”.
A day later he was even more enraged when he had his camera stolen by the customs officials in Quito airport. This time his countrymen felt both barrels in a tirade in the media.
At 27 Antonio Valencia is entering his prime years as a footballer. By all accounts he lives a proper lifestyle and with Manchester United and Ecuador he should be competing at the very highest level for many more years.
If he can continue his career progression the maybe he will become, as many Ecuadorians already believe, one of the greatest footballers in the world.