It’s truly rare, especially in modern-day football, to see a player give his all until the very last minute of the game. Earlier this season, as an optimistic Riverside Stadium rallied behind its trailing Middlesbrough outfit - having just three stoppage time minutes to grab the all-important equaliser against Manchester United - there came a moment that signifies and defines what Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia is all about.
Steve Agnew’s men had decided to build from the back after one of Valencia’s trademark runs down the right had yielded nothing for the Red Devils, and the ball was played back to Victor Valdes, ready to thump it forward. With the clock ticking, Valencia wasn’t going to be one to let them take the long, quick route forward, and the Ecuadorian launched himself forward in a tireless, lung-bursting run that saw him steal the ball from Valdes and seal the deal for United.
Valencia made it look as if the match had only just begun. This superhuman effort may be unusual for us, but that is something ‘Tony V’ has done throughout his life.
Born in the north-eastern Ecuadorian city of Nueva Loja, Valencia probably would never have imagined that he would one day be playing for the most popular club in the world. His upbringing in Nueva Loja, as well as the city’s identity and purpose, are just some of the things that has made him what he is today.
Self-sufficient, and very often the source of agitation for colonisers due to an abundance of oil, Nueva Loja has faced a fair share of problems since its founding in 1971 by Texaco. Much like the whole of the country, Loja is known for its sticky and humid weather, which worsens during its heavy rainfall in the evenings and nights. The annihilation of the rainforests in the surrounding areas and the devastating oil pollution that often tortures the city had already contributed to the city’s deterioration even before Valencia was born in 1985.
Its close proximity to Colombia makes Loja a hub for drug dealers and illegal drug trafficking, and the rampant cocaine gang wars only add to the woes of the city. Despite all the problems of the city, however, self-sufficiency is one of Loja’s most notable characteristics. This quality formed an indispensable part of Valencia’s upbringing and is a big reason for why he is a resilient, hard-working and self-sufficient personality. This is encapsulated in that blistering sprint in the dying seconds against Boro.
Paul Jewell, who managed the Ecuadorian during his three-year stint at Wigan Athletic, was surprised to see Valencia cope so well with a foreign culture and lifestyle despite some linguistic obstacles; Valencia did not know any English and was barely able to read Spanish when he joined the Latics on an initial loan spell from Villarreal back in 2006. Jewell told the Daily Mail in an interview in 2009: "He could easily have buckled but there was no moping in a hotel. Antonio, though his English was minimal, quickly got a house and a car. That self-reliance, which can be rare, impressed me."
His deprivations as a child from the Amazon rainforests have imbued within him an uncanny ability to make impeccable use of his strengths to overshadow his weaknesses, much like how Nueva Loja has managed to depend on itself even during turbulent times. His adaptability to his new right-back role was doubted by many; as if the questions that once surrounded him when he first came to England as a ‘nobody’ weren’t enough. But, his no-nonsense attitude towards the game and determination to do the job that he has been assigned have established him as a regular for Manchester United.
It can well be argued that Valencia was never meant to play for a club as big as Manchester United. Having been brought up in a house that would later comprise of five brothers, one sister, and his parents, the only job young Valencia had was to provide some company and help his mother sell drinks outside the Carlos Vernaza Stadium at Loja. Once a set of bottles got used up and he was done with that job for the day, Valencia would head off with his father to look for more empty bottles so that they could earn some money by selling them at a bottle deposit in the Ecuadorian capital city of Quito.
It’s fair to say Valencia’s family struggled to make ends meet. Yet despite everything he went through, the Manchester United player doesn’t feel that his childhood was riddled with hard times. “My childhood was very happy. While my dad worked, all the members of the family worked together to help bring food to our home,” he says.
Little Valencia always managed to take time off from his odd jobs to play football barefoot with his friends next to his bungalow in Loja. When he was 11, though, Tony V was spotted playing with his friends at a field by a scout called Papi Perlaza, who stood impressed by Valencia’s ability to run rings around the older players on the pitch. And Papi, who had experience of playing, having plied his trade with Ecuadorian second division club Colon, helped Valencia sign for a local sports academy in Sucumbios.
While the move now seems a minuscule one in Valencia’s career, it marked his very first steps of being a professional footballer. Playing conditions at Sucumbios weren’t good enough, but Valencia’s desire to play the game that he loves saw him take to a flooded pitch and have regular kickabouts at the academy. When the pitches weren’t flooded with rainwater, their general shoddiness were a barrier to Valencia’s progress, but to no avail. Perlaza still uses Tono (Valencia’s childhood nickname) as an example to teach young players about a lot of values that they must have, if they want to replicate the winger.
He once told an Ecuadorian daily El Universo: "Antonio is an example to follow. I tell them (his players), 'Look, you're better than Antonio was when he was your age.' That motivates them. I know it's an exaggeration, but I have to do it because there are football players here and they just lack motivation," he said.
Perlaza also tells the youngsters, “Antonio sat there. Like some of you, he walked with broken shoes, shabbily dressed, hungry, but his perseverance has made him get where he is. You can do it, too.”
After having played for over four years in Sucumbios, Valencia attracted attention from one of Ecuador’s most popular clubs - Club Deportivo El Nacional, who are a military administered side based in the capital city of Quito. Around 16 years of age at that time, Valencia decided not to tell anything about the offer to his father, but had made his intentions about leaving for Quito clear to his mother and elder brother, Carlos.
Valencia was handed the bus fare for travel by Carlos himself, and the decision to set off on the two-day journey for Quito was made. He was on his own in the capital of the country he came from, in a city where he knew no one. Valencia once said: "I didn't tell my father because I knew he wouldn't let me go.”
Valencia said, “It was the first time I ever left. I was nervous because I didn't know where I was going to sleep or where I was going to eat. But, if you have a dream and you want to make it come true, that is what you do."
Valencia started off at El Nacional by playing in central midfield, as he became accustomed to playing against and with players who lived in barracks and took regular part in military training. Playing and operating under stringent watch and commandment brought the best out of Valencia; it still does, considering how he refuses to get exhausted in a game, despite all the work he puts in. A famous instance from his time in Quito suggests that his will to succeed was strong ever since he began his journey to the top.
Upon being advised to increase his pasta consumption, Valencia confused the word ‘pasta’ with ‘toothpaste’, since the latter translates into Spanish as ‘pasta dental’. Such was his obedience that a young Valencia somehow managed to swallow tubes of Colgate, without realising that he had committed an error out of determination.
That determination began paying off quicker than he could have ever imagined, as Valencia was handed a debut in the El Nacional Under-20s side. A year before being called up to the Ecuadorian national side, Valencia had become a regular for his club side and was already playing alongside one of his role models, Édison Méndez. It was during this time that Valencia also developed a bond with late Ecuadorian striker Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez, someone who he later played against as a United player.
After winning the Serie A with El Nacional in 2005, appearing on 14 occasions and scoring four times, Valencia’s performances had began attracting interest from Europe. Manuel Pellegrini, who was then in charge of Villarreal, decided to move for the winger, and the Yellow Submarine shelled out €2 million to acquire his services.
He was handed only two senior appearances in Castellón, and there came a time when it was clear that Valencia wasn’t being given the right platform to succeed. Subsequently, he completed a loan move to Spanish second division outfit Recreativo Huelva, appearing 12 times for the first team and helping them finish at the top of the league.
It was during the 2006 FIFA World Cup, though, that the world witnessed the rise of a star who continues to perform in a no-nonsense manner much as he did as a child. Valencia played every single game for his national side, and his performances inducted him into the Best XI of the World Cup, pitting him alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lukas Podolski in the race for the Gillette Best Young Player Award. Podolski ended up picking up the award, but it was Valencia who had garnered the most number of votes in an online poll. He may not have received the prize, but the World Cup did enough to help him earn a massive amount of recognition on the international stage. This was when Paul Jewell and England came calling.
Jewell says, “I was in Germany scouting and went to Poland v Ecuador looking for interesting Poles. Ecuador won and Valencia's was the first name in my notebook. I liked his reading of the game, his understanding of the play."
The move was initially a loan, but was later made permanent by Steve Bruce, after the former Manchester United defender took charge in 2007. Before his move to Manchester United came about and Valencia rejected a chance to ship off to Real Madrid, there were doubts about whether the work-horse would be able to stay in England for long, with the culture and lifestyle starkly contrasting to the one that he was accustomed to living in. Ten years on, he is still going strong, enjoying a dream season under José Mourinho at a time when many were asking him to be offloaded for a more ‘quality’ player. It is surprising how the definition of ‘quality’ changes and is likely to change in the coming years.
In modern-day football, there’s no inadequacy of flashy, glamorous, and skilful wingers, who use just a flick of their feet to leave everyone dazzled with their flair and panache. In a world that has taken a strong liking to these kinds of players, Valencia has done all that he has been doing throughout his career to make a name for himself. He may not be a showboating winger with a bag of tricks, hairstyles, or tantrums up his sleeve, but he does double the amount of work that a player like that would do.
The injury he suffered back in 2011 at the hands of the then-Rangers defender Kirk Broadfoot threatened to hinder the immense amount of progress that Valencia had made up until that point. But he managed to defy expectations once again. Due to the fracture and dislocation in his left ankle, he was expected to remain away from action for about an year - Valencia pulled off a miracle in making a comeback just five months later. "When I saw my leg, it was horrible.
I was in a lot of pain so the first challenge after returning was a bit of a concern. That tackle came against Marseille. I went in on my left foot and it did hurt a little but then I forgot about it and got stuck in,” he says.
David Moyes’ ill-fated reign at the Theatre of Dreams saw Valencia become one of the scapegoats for United’s consistent failures during the 2013-14 season along with Tom Cleverley and Marouane Fellaini, yet he refused to succumb to criticism and came back stronger. At a time when he was falling short of match time on the right flank, he made the right-back position his own.
During the time when he was being compared to Cristiano Ronaldo, Valencia addressed the point by saying, “He’s Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m Antonio Valencia. My way of playing is different. We don’t have anything in common.” His comment oozed the modesty that he has been born to live with. It also showed how happy he is in being himself.
You’ll never see Valencia celebrate a goal as if it’s his first or his last, and all he seems to care about after a goal is rushing back to his position and starting again. He is never seen seeking the attention of the cameras, and it’s his media-shy nature that has drawn comparisons with United legend Paul Scholes, who led a similar low-profile life as a player.
One way or another, players with stories such as that of Valencia come few and far between. It’s their struggle that makes them unique, but the manner in which they rise, despite all odds, transforms their story into a one that everyone just has to bow down to. After all, players like Valencia belong to a rare breed of footballers, who may well die out sooner rather than later.
By Kaustubh Pandey.