From poverty in Ecuador to Old Trafford: the battling career of Antonio Valencia

From poverty in Ecuador to Old Trafford: the battling career of Antonio Valencia

THE DATE IS 14 SEPTEMBER 2010 and Manchester United are squaring off against Scottish champions Rangers at Old Trafford in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. In a game that saw chances come by in limited numbers, United’s Antonio Valencia picked up the ball in the Rangers half, hoping to craft something special from the right wing, as he had done for the Red Devils for the last year. But just before he could hit full speed, he was taken down by Kirk Broadfoot in an innocuous looking challenge.

However, Broadfoot also had Valencia’s left ankle knotted in between his legs, and upon hitting the ground, the Rangers and United players were in disbelief over what they had witnessed. An hour into the game, Valencia’s night, and potentially his season, was over with a double fracture to his ankle.

The injury was so awful that Sky Sports, who were broadcasting the game that night, chose not to show replays of the incident as Valencia was immediately transported to hospital and was set to go under the knife the very next morning. His recovery time was set for about seven to nine months, but just like he had been defying the odds all his life, he would do so once again.

The Ecuadorean was back in training just five months later and made his return to first team action a fortnight after that before going on to become the first man from his country to win a Premier League title and starting a Champions League final, against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at Wembley.

His instant return obviously came as a surprise to many, especially considering the magnitude of the injury, but to Valencia, it was another chapter to his tales describing his immaculate fighting spirit. Born in poverty in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, he, along with his mother, would sell drinks in front of the local Carlos Vernaza stadium, before jetting out with his expectedly energetic brothers to find empty bottles so that they and his father could sell it off to a bottle deposit. It wasn’t the easiest of upbringings for a young Valencia, and the conditions around him weren’t the best, although he would make the most efficient use of it.

Lacking relative height and having a slim frame, Valencia would play barefoot in the sand near his home in Ecuador. Luckily for him, at the age of 11, it would be the same open fields that would give him his break. Pedro Perlaza, a former midfielder for Barcelona, was scouting the area and found Valencia showing off the best of his abilities. Impressed by what he was viewing, Perlaza signed him up for a local academy, which he had been asked to run in Sucumbíos in the north-east of Ecuador, citing the youngster’s immense perseverance and desire to keep the ball on the scorching surface.

The signing would now mean that Valencia would have the opening to show his skills on an actual football field with moderately improved conditions and, more importantly, a chance to break into professional football.

After four years of training in Sucumbíos with Caribe Junior, Valencia would get a chance to play for his first professional club, Club Deportivo El Nacional, in the country’s capital of Quito. This was a major breakthrough in the 16-year-old’s career. Split between his father’s wishes of wanting him to further his education and his own will of turning towards professional football, Valencia’s choice would have a major influence on the rest of his life. In the end, he pulled off something bizarre, and it would change the course of his life.

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Supported by his mother, he left home and travelled 260 kilometres east to the capital without the consent of his father. His mother arranged his belongings and a ticket for a bus ride and he would start his professional career on a $50-a-month salary. A few years down the line, he explained in an interview that his family eventually told his father just a few days later, and he unexpectedly understood: “We thought he would never say yes because he wanted me to stay with the family and finish my studies. He was looking around the house asking where I was. Eventually, they plucked up the courage to tell him after two days and when he calmed down he realised it was for the best. I was in tears when I went. It was so young to be leaving home.”

Valencia made quite the impact when he was in the youth setup at Nacional. Within a year of joining the club, he was fast-tracked to represent the club’s under-20s, where he scored 17 goals in 23 appearances and formed a formidable partnership and close friendship with fellow forward Christian Benítez. The pair grew up together at Nacional’s army barracks and would be the core behind the club’s success over the next two years, even winning the 2005 Clausura, which would prove to be Valencia’s only trophy in his home country.

His starring role at a young age earned the attention of the biggest clubs across South America and Europe, as well as giving him the chance to represent his national team. He made his debut in 2004, with his first goals coming in the spring of 2005 against Paraguay in World Cup qualifier that booked their ticket to Germany for the finals. While back in the domestic frame, he would earn a move to Spanish side Villarreal, who offered him the glamour of Champions League football. Valencia’s CV was slowly improving; he was becoming a star in his country.

However, just before the 2006 FIFA World Cup came around, he was struggling to earn minutes with the Yellow Submarine, and his European dream was slowly falling apart. Valencia struggled to adapt to his new lifestyle and had his family thousands of miles away from him in Ecuador.

In order to build on his game, he would be sent out on loan to second-tier Recreativo Huelva, where he would flourish and show Spanish football his true colours. Despite never managing to get on the scoresheet, he was at the heart of their midfield as they topped the Segunda and gained promotion to La Liga. It was the perfect preparation for him before he jetted off to Germany to represent his country on the grandest stage in football.

At the World Cup, Valencia was seen as the country’s most prominent figure by the neutral viewers and he left them impressed with his speed, athleticism and willingness to take opposition players on. He featured in all four of his country’s games as they finished second in Group A behind hosts Germany, eventually crashing out to a David Beckham strike against England in the last-16. In a tournament they entered with no clear expectations, they proved themselves to many. Valencia was nominated as the tournament’s best young player alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and eventual winner, Lukas Podolski.

It was at the World Cup that he was being scouted by Wigan Athletic boss Paul Jewell, who said he was there to spot a few Polish players of interest in their clash against Ecuador. Instead, he was left enthralled by 20-year-old Valencia’s performances and quickly wrapped up an initial loan deal with Villarreal for him.

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Valencia’s commitment was what impressed Jewell the most. “He arrived on a Friday and we had a pre-season friendly on the Saturday. Without having trained, he came on for 20 minutes and straight away the lads could see he was a player. And I liked him, we all did, he always came in smiling.”

Valencia lacked the necessary command of the English language but was never in much trouble due to his awareness on the pitch. His early days at Wigan were surrounded by shyness in the media and keeping a low-profile at the club, where he left many in awe of his performances and scored his first professional goal in European football against Manchester City. Despite missing three months in the middle of the season due to injury, and spending the final part of it suspended, he would play for the blue and white of Wigan 22 times in the Premier League as they would narrowly avoid relegation.

Wigan’s inconsistent form over the course of the campaign saw Paul Jewell hand in his resignation just a day after the season had ended, and hand the managerial reigns to his assistant Chris Hutchings, who completed another loan deal for Valencia. It all but confirmed his stint with Villarreal coming to an end.

Poor form marred the early months of their season once again, and Hutchings was out of the club, to be replaced by Steve Bruce in controversial circumstances. Within two months of Bruce’s appointment, he completed his first transaction, making Valencia’s contract at the club permanent for a fee of around £5 million. He was a certain starter in most of Wigan’s games that season and was the driving force behind their survival campaign, which they achieved in the penultimate game of the season, subsequently finishing 14th.

In his final year, he would be in prime condition and was a star at the club as they finished 11th in the league, with Valencia adding at the end of the season that he rejected an offer to move to Real Madrid in the January transfer window in 2009. As ever, he would show his humility towards the smaller surroundings and take his family into consideration when rejecting the opportunity to play in Spain.

He would describe his unease at adjusting to life in the Iberian country and that Wigan had a greater feeling of home. In the end, though, he would end his stint with the Latics, with a move to nearby Manchester United, who had just lost their star man, Cristiano Ronaldo.

There were thoughts that Sir Alex Ferguson’s £18 million signing was there to replace the Portuguese winger, and there were several stories criticising him as a cut-price buy forced upon the manager by the owners, but those reports were eventually quashed and Ferguson cited that big things were to happen for him.

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Over the 12 months, he would win his first major honour in Europe – the League Cup – playing a role in the winning goal scored by Wayne Rooney, and featured in the PFA’s Team of the Season alongside several of his Manchester United team-mates. With his drive and determination, there was talk at the end of the season as many called for him to be given the legendary number 7 shirt, which was then occupied by Michael Owen.

The next season was the one with that horrific injury against Rangers, causing him to miss large parts of the season, making just 10 league appearances and 20 in all competitions. But more importantly, there was a doubt over whether he would have any impact on the team, with his acceleration on the ball and work-rate being put in doubt. However, if that season was full of uncertainty and confusion, the next season proved that he could put the injury behind him and continue to perform at the highest level.

Under a new dynamic with Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United of 2011-12 was different as compared to its earlier years. Young stars such as Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones were brought into the first-team picture and, despite missing Valencia due to a lack of match fitness, were scoring goals at will in the early phases of the season.

He returned in a 3-1 home win against Chelsea in the unfamiliar position of right-back and continued there for the next few games, displaying his versatility. He failed to provide much significance to the team in the first half of the season, but post-Christmas he was in the form of his life as Manchester United were charging towards a record 20th league title.

It all started with a 5-0 Boxing Day success over his former side Wigan, where he rifled a shot in from the edge of the box – and his form kicked on from there. The following month, he scored the equaliser and set up the winner in a 2-1 away success at Arsenal and followed that up with brilliant performances against the likes of Chelsea, where they came from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 and take a point to Old Trafford, and against Liverpool where he played a key role in creating Wayne Rooney’s goals in a 2-1 win, as well as a 5-0 away victory at lowly Wolverhampton Wanderers, which many regard as his greatest performance that season. To top it off, he scored a wonderful goal at Blackburn Rovers, a shot which outwardly curved into the net, which was eventually voted as the club’s goal of the season.

That win over Blackburn, in which Valencia set up the second goal for Ashley Young, gave United an eight-point cushion at the top of the league over neighbours Manchester City, with six games left to play. But the end of the season bought inconsistent form, including a 4-4 draw at home to Everton and a 1-0 defeat to battling Wigan, and to hand the reigns back to their rivals, they lost 1-0 at the Etihad to give City the advantage on goal difference, later losing it on the final day in dramatic circumstances through Sergio Agüero’s injury-time winner against Queens Park Rangers. United would end the season trophy-less.

To some consolation, Valencia won the fans’ Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards to add to his Goal of the Season award and cemented his place in Red Devils folklore. Later in the summer, he was given the club’s legendary number 7 shirt after Michael Owen departed for Stoke City and reignited Manchester United’s charge for their 20th title.

With the added weight of the club’s historic shirt number, Valencia had a quieter season in the United midfield. He only scored once in 40 games as his shine was taken by new signing Robin van Persie, who he formed a great partnership with. He did, however, prove his worth at the end of the campaign with crucial performances against West Ham and Stoke as the Old Trafford side sealed the title in comfortable fashion, sending off their legendary manager in fine fashion. The Scotsman’s retirement would start a new chapter in Valencia’s career, and he would reinvent and evolve to his surroundings.

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Valencia returned to his former shirt number of 25 in a bid to return to his best form. Despite a horror season under David Moyes, where United would finish seventh in the league and win no major trophies, Valencia played more often at right-back and would become a similar choice for new manager Louis van Gaal. He would also represent Ecuador at that year’s World Cup in Brazil, crashing out in the group stages having failed to show the same stature from eight years earlier.

He was now seen as an out-and-out full-back rather than a winger and often played there due to van Gaal’s other options – Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Rafael – being injured or inconsistent. In fairness to the Ecuador star, he showed the required traits to play in that position: stamina, desire, work-rate and a strong case of one-footedness, which often deprived him in his right-wing days.

Even van Gaal’s potential replacement for him, Matteo Darmian, proved to be too inconsistent in the Dutch manager’s final year in charge. United would return to the Champions League in van Gaal’s first season but endure dire football the next, finishing fifth. However, along with the 2016 FA Cup success in his final game in charge of the English giants, van Gaal’s help in reinventing Valencia is regarded as his parting gift to his former apprentice and eventual successor, José Mourinho.

Under Mourinho, Valencia has been the club’s most consistent player and was rewarded with a contract extension in 2016. His numbers prove that he is the best right-back in the league, winning the club’s player of the month honour twice this season. His first win, in November, showed everything about him, as he quickly recovered from a wrist injury sustained the month before to come back and play an important role in Mourinho’s plans, shoring up the defence and adding bite in attack.

His goal for the club in his 200th league appearance – against Middlesbrough – epitomised everything he stands for. Late in the game, with United leading 2-1, he chased down a Stewart Downing back-pass, aimed for his goalkeeper, and showed the energy required by a top professional late in the game, forcing Victor Valdés to succumb to the pressure, eventually slipping and giving Valencia a tap-in. It looked easy, but it was far from it.

Antonio Valencia’s is a true rags to riches story. From the dusty ground in poverty-filled Lago Agrio to the grand turf of Old Trafford via a few steps at El Madrigal and the JJB, Valencia has seen it all. He’s what a faithful, hard-working athlete should be, and continues to stay humble. Despite the criticism and the obstacles that came along the way, he’s defied each one and, in the process, has become one of English football’s most respected imports.

By Karan Tejwani  @karan_tejwani26

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