local team Caribe Junior at the age of 14. So impressed was Perlaza with Valencia’s attributes, that he recommended the youngster to El Nacional, a local team keen on encouraging burgeoning talents. It also happened to be the Ecuadorian Armed Forces’ team, and required Antonio to move to Quito.
The youngster’s stint of service and football training had a profound effect. “Undoubtedly the work he did in the minor divisions with El Nacional helped him a lot to increase his strength and power,” says Ecuadorian football journalist, Rodolfo Mazur Oyola.
“El Nacional was the club that shaped him professionally. They honed his technique and also helped him in his personal training. He was always a special player due to his skills, but he used to be thin until he spent some time there. He began training with former members of the Ecuadorian national squad, who guided him and recommended he be taken to the first squad. It didn’t take long for him to gain the attention of Luis Fernando Suarez, the coach of the national team.”
It would prove a whirlwind few months. Three months after scoring twice on his international bow, and still only 19, Valencia was whisked to Villarreal by Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini. In the blink of an eye, the youngster had gone from Ecuador’s second tier to Europe’s top level, and a place on the bench when Villarreal held United to a goalless draw in the Champions League in September 2005. Playing time would prove elusive at El Madrigal, however, and he was hastily farmed out on loan to gain action at Recreativo de Huelva, in Spain’s second flight.
“He was young and maybe he struggled to adapt himself to European football,” admits Oyola. “Perhaps they were expecting a lot from him, but they did not consider that he was finding his feet in a new country. Then he did well at Recreativo. He had failed at Villarreal, but it was like he was taking a personal revenge on Spain with Recreativo.”
Though he had dropped a division, Valencia’s displays in Recreativo’s successful promotion push kept him in the frame for his country. Antonio was a cornerstone of Ecuador’s World Cup qualifying campaign, and it was in the tournament proper in Germany where his career took another unlikely twist.