The path from the Amazon basin to the banks of the River Irwell is, to put it mildly, seldom trodden.
For Antonio Valencia, however, it represents a fittingly unlikely route for a player whose career has been anything but conventional to date. Now starting his 10th year at Old Trafford, the Ecuadorian is a fixture at right-back and a regular captain of one of the world’s biggest teams; a far cry from his starting point.
Born in Nueva Loja, capital of the Sucumbíos Province of Ecuador’s Amazon Region, Antonio and his five brothers would scour their city and its surrounding villages in search of glass bottles for their father’s bottle deposit centre. He would also help his mother sell bags of fruit juice on matchdays outside the Estadio Carlos Vernaza, the local football stadium.
Initially spotted playing football with his friends by ex-player Pedro Perlaza, Antonio enrolled with 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 was also the Ecuadorian Armed Forces’ team, requiring Antonio to move to Quito.
The youngster’s stint of national service and football training had a swift and lasting 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.”
“When you're only 15 years old and you leave your family behind to go to the capital and play for one of Ecuador's top sides, Nacional, it's a brilliant experience,” said Antonio.
“It was really great. I'd do it again without a shadow of a doubt, both for my family and for the club, Nacional.”
It would prove a whirlwind few months. Just 12 weeks after scoring twice on his international bow, and still only 19, Valencia was whisked to Villarreal by Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini. In almost no time, 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 sent out on loan to gain action at Recreativo de Huelva, in Spain’s second flight.
“Initially my big aim was to play for the national team and after that, who knew? To be totally honest, it hadn't crossed my mind to go over to Europe quite so soon, but God blessed me enough and I was able to make the big step of joining Villarreal for a year and that was it. I'd arrived in a country which didn't have the same customs as Ecuador, I'd left my family and everyone behind and I found myself somewhere where it was very cold, so I was a bit down in the dumps at first.
!I was there for six months and then went on to Recreativo de Huelva for another six months. I guess that time was fairly difficult but thanks to God again because he had a good plan in mind for me, and I think he delivered everything that I really wanted.”
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 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, and it was in the tournament proper in Germany where his career took another unlikely twist as he played his way into the attention of Wigan Athletic manager Paul Jewell.
“I went to watch Ecuador against Poland and this lad stood out, playing in central midfield,” Jewell said.
“I thought he was a good player and when I found out he was 20 I couldn’t believe it. I watched him for the rest of the tournament, pursued it and we got Antonio on loan with a view to buying him. The daft thing is that there was no competition for him. I think he definitely slipped through the net of the big clubs. I was really impressed when I saw him because he had such a great understanding of the game.”
The language of football proved Jewell’s most effective method of communication with his new signing, who had little knowledge of English and needed a dressing room interpreter to convey tactics before matches.
“It was an even bigger culture shock than Spain,” said the winger,
“because when I arrived I saw that you drove on the other side of the road! It was quite difficult in those early months. If you leave your home to go anywhere it can be difficult, and I did find it really tough. But I gradually got used to things. It helped me a lot.
”I was fairly lightweight at the time, and I hadn't been used to doing gym work or much else on the physical side, so when I got to Wigan, I thought to myself that if I wanted to stay in the Premier League for some time, I needed to work hard in the gym, train and prepare well and eat the right food. Straight away things started to go better for me.”
Antonio made a mockery of linguistic difficulties with a swift integration to the Latics setup.
“He was such an intelligent footballer that he just slotted in really quickly,” said Jewell.
“He‘s a very intelligent boy. He’d pick up on what I said, even though it was in a Scouse accent. Every day he worked hard, was very courteous, very tough and a terrific pro. As a manager you’d love a team of Antonio Valencias. He was suited to English football because he’s tough. Not many players come over from Ecuador with a silver spoon in their mouth, and you could see immediately that he was a hard worker and he flourished.”
The move had a knock-on effect back in Ecuador.
“The entire country was thrilled,” reveals journalist Oyola.
“Without any doubt, his presence at Wigan increased the interest of the Premier League, which was already followed closely by many people. People wanted to follow his development. Unfortunately, because Wigan were a small team, their games were not broadcast regularly, so fans used to wait the release of special reports in order to see how he did. However when a Wigan match was announced to be broadcast, the whole country was there to see him in action, regardless of the time.”
It didn’t take too long for Valencia’s audiences to grow. Wigan exercised their option to sign the winger permanently from Villarreal in January 2008 – for a meagre £4million fee - and a year on, Latics manager Steve Bruce revealed that Antonio had rejected the chance to join Real Madrid. Six months later, however, he couldn’t resist the chance to be part of United’s rebuilding exercise after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I was on holiday when I heard that United were interested in me,” Valencia recalled.
“My agent told me we had to travel over here because they wanted to speak with me and I couldn't believe it. I can remember calling my mum and dad, we had a chat and they were delighted. They are moments that you are never going to forget. I think that as a young lad, I was so keen and so excited to play for the club, I didn't even look at the figures or anything. The only thing I wanted to do was put on the United shirt and play for the team, so the negotiations did not last very long.
“I remember being in Ecuador and being really nervous. It was Manchester, and I had to make sure I was good enough to be at United. I had to make sure I was fit and well prepared. When I arrived I was nervous, but I was with friends who loved me and rated my ability, and who told me to relax and that everything would turn out well.”
Valencia immediately struck up fruitful relationships with his new colleagues, and his arrival coincided with the most prolific season of Wayne Rooney’s career – the striker was on course to double his previous season’s tally before injury decimated the final eight weeks of the 2009/10 campaign. The form of his supply lines – Nani and Valencia – was central to his success.
Antonio’s second season with the Reds failed to reach the levels of his first, but through no fault of his own. Having suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle in an early season draw with Rangers, he missed six months of action. Despite a rapid recovery to finish the 2010/11 term in devastating form, Antonio found his start to 2011/12 similarly disrupted by both an ankle blow and a pressing need to operate as an auxiliary right-back. He played his way into form, however, and swept the board at the Reds’ end-of-season awards, taking home player of the year awards from peers and supporters, as well as the goal of the season award for a thunderous effort at Blackburn.
The winger inherited the Reds’ no. 7 shirt at the start of the 2012/13 season. Yet, while he ended the campaign with his second Premier League winners’ medal, he was unhappy with his form, feeling burdened by the pressure of the historic shirt, and reverted back to his no.25 after just one season.
“I think it turned out to be a very good number for me when I first arrived at the club as I was just given the no.25 more or less,” he explained.
His frustration continued for much of the 2013/14 campaign as his involvement was reduced, but the arrival of Louis van Gaal and a ravaging run of injuries across the Reds’ defensive ranks conspired to hand Valencia a sustained run of involvement as a full-back. His first five seasons at Old Trafford had yielded a dozen sporadic outings as an auxiliary defender, but from 2015 onwards the move became permanent.
Having previously stressed that he was only doing his job for the team and preferred operating as a winger, Antonio conceded at the end of the 2014/15 term:
“I quite enjoy it, I’m happy there. It works well and I’ve played a lot there this season.”
He did admit, however, that he still had work to do in order to master his new role.
“When I go forward to overlap, I’ve always got to be conscious about getting back and it’s a lot more dangerous,” he conceded.
“If you do leave room for people, they can hurt you. This is different to the position I’m used to playing in, where you can be less cautious when attacking. It’s been a hard position to learn, but the key is to keep your concentration for the entire 90 minutes. You’ve really got to be on the ball for all that time.”
While he has steadily picked up the tactical nuances of the position, where he has remained a fixture under the management of Jose Mourinho, the key to Antonio’s successful conversion has been his athleticism; providing the invaluable insurance of his staggering pace and power. With arms the size of legs and legs akin to tank tread, the Ecuadorian is a physical specimen the like of which Old Trafford has seldom seen, and he remains a benchmark of professionalism and diligence even after nine years at the club.
“He’s so responsible, dependable and committed,” said Valencia’s eminent forebear, Gary Neville.
“He’s done brilliantly well. He’s got the temperament to be a defender and the ability and strength to cope with most things. He’s a very good tackler, very good at taking the ball off you. As a full-back, there were some attackers you could try and take on in your own defensive third, knowing full well that you could take them on, but you would never take on Rooney, Valencia or Giggsy because they were very good defenders. We’re seeing that now with Antonio as a full-back. It’s been a very good transition.”
Another distinguished former United defender, Patrice Evra, once joked that he thought Antonio had eaten a motor, such was his energetic approach. Even as he starts his 10th year at Old Trafford, after taking a long and winding road to this point in his career, our longest-serving current player still has plenty left in the tank.