Enner Valencia had every right to be happy with his contribution to Ecuador’s thrilling friendly win over fellow Brazil 2014 finalists Australia in March. The front man provided an assist, won a penalty and scored a goal to help his side recover from 3-0 down to win 4-3, doing his chances of making La Tricolor’s 23-man squad for the world finals no harm whatsoever.
No relation to Manchester United wide man and international team-mate Antonio, the lesser-known of Ecuador’s two Valencia's was understandably delighted with his contribution to La Tri’s thrilling comeback against the Australians, as he explained in conversation with FIFA.com.
“I was really pumped up because it all happened in a rush,” said the 24-year-old, who plays his club football for Mexico’s Pachuca. “I need to keep focusing on my job, though, which is to perform well for the benefit of the team. That’s the only way I’m going to earn a place at the World Cup”
The classiest of cameos
A right-sided midfielder turned striker, Valencia repaid national team coach Reinaldo Rueda’s faith in him with that performance against the Socceroos. After overlooking the player for most of the qualifying competition for Brazil 2014, Rueda handed him starts in three of the last four games, including the decisive matches against Uruguay in Quito and Chile in Santiago.
The two-footed Valencia triggered the fightback against the Australians by bursting down the left and setting up Fidel Martinez for Ecuador’s opening goal. Then, after seizing on a loose pass in the opposition half, he sped away to win a penalty that led to the dismissal of the Aussie keeper and allowed Segundo Castillo to make the score 3-2.
He then capped a hugely influential performance by grabbing his side’s equaliser, which came about when he collected the ball on the right, exchanged passes with his namesake Antonio and stroked the ball home with his left foot, completing a virtuoso 20-minute spell that put his side on the brink of a notable win.
“The fact I started out as a midfielder gives me a little more vision, especially when I’m making runs from further down the pitch,” explained the Ecuadorian livewire, who in 2010 made his first division debut for Emelec under Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli, now in charge of Chile.
The fact is that if we’d been able to choose a group then we probably would have gone for this one.
“I changed position because they’d sold Marlo de Jesus and the other striker, Carlos Quintero, was injured. So they put me up front, I did well and I stayed there. If they asked me to move back to midfield now, I’d say no,” he added with a laugh.
Rueda called him up for the first time for a friendly against Honduras in February 2012. An unused substitute on that occasion, Valencia got his next call a year and a half later, for a friendly against Spain in August 2013, with Rueda looking for attacking alternatives following the tragic and untimely death of Cristian Benitez.
Fresh from winning the league title with Emelec and well on his way to top-scoring in the Copa Sudamericana with five goals in four games, Valencia started against the Spanish andimpressed.
Brazil on the horizon
Like any young goalscorer, Valencia has designs on playing in Europe and named the Italian and English leagues as his destinations of choice. Yet while Brazil 2014 could provide him with the best possible showcase in that respect, he is determined to focus on his immediate objectives for the time being.
“My priority right now is to perform for my club, and then give my all for the national team and the coach. Everything else can wait,” said Valencia, whose role models include former Brazilian legend Ronaldo.
The softly spoken forward admitted that he is surprised to be in the reckoning for a place at the world finals: “I’m not sure if I was expecting it. I still remember getting up early in 2002 to watch Ecuador in their first ever World Cup and that Round-of-16 game against England in 2006, when we came so close. I do hope I can make it [into the Brazil 2014 squad] though.”
The younger of the two Valencias, who said he feels no extra burden because of his surname, went on to acknowledge that he and his team-mates are somewhat anxious about the need to acquit themselves well on the big stage.
“I think it’s obvious that we feel that way, not just about going to Brazil and experiencing the tournament but about doing things right,” he explained. “We’re aiming at the very least to get past the group phase, and it would be great to go beyond the last 16. How far can we go? Who knows? We’re not one of the favourites, that’s for sure.”
Facing Ecuador in Group E, in order of appearance, are Switzerland, Honduras and France. Summing up that challenge with the directness and precision he is becoming known for on the pitch, Valencia said: “The fact is that if we’d been able to choose a group then we probably would have gone for this one, even if there are two European teams in it. It’s a cliché but it’s true: the first game will be key to our aspirations.”