Luis Valencia: You never stop learning
2006 was not just any other year in the life of Luis Antonio Valencia . As well as making the switch to European football, the young midfielder was also a key component of the Ecuador side that contested last year's FIFA World Cup™ finals in Germany.
After his speedy rise to international prominence, the 21-year-old product of Ecuadorian military club El Nacional has an exciting new goal to reach: to secure a first-team place with Premiership outfit Wigan Athletic after joining on a year-long loan deal from Spain's Villarreal.
The task awaiting the recent recruit is far from easy. As he gets to grips with an unfamiliar language thousands of miles from the bosom of his family, the football and film fanatic is focusing all his efforts on what he does best: running with the ball at his feet.
Still acclimatising to the rigours of the English winter, Valencia gave his views to FIFA.com on an amazing Germany 2006, the unique culture of his new surroundings and his hopes for one of the biggest challenges of the year ahead: the 2007 Copa America.
FIFA.com: Luis Antonio, a lot of things have happened to you in your short footballing career. What have the last two years been like?
Luis Antonio Valencia: Sometimes it feels like these things never happened to me. Everything has gone by so fast. To be honest, I never expected so many changes in such a short space of time, but I'm just trying to stay calm. Even though I'm finding it a little hard to adapt fully to my new life in England, I'm pretty sure I'll get used to things here before long.
What things are you finding it hard to adapt to?
The fact that I'm so far away from my family is particularly hard. They were here for a couple of months but they had to go back to Ecuador and that's been tough for me. I have five brothers and sisters, my parents and my niece, and I'm not used to being so far from them. I'm trying hard to come to terms with that though.
Is there anything else you miss about Ecuador?
The fritadas (fried pork with garlic and onion)! The pasta dishes are great here though, especially with bolognese sauce. I can't complain about that (laughs).
You left Ecuador for Spain, you played in a FIFA World Cup and now you are in England. All this at the age of 21. How do you manage to resist all the temptations you face along the way?
You do get tempted from time to time. I've been lucky enough to play in a World Cup and to receive offers from a number of clubs, but in my case I owe everything to my family. They're the ones who drummed into me when I was young that you have to work hard and have clear goals in life. That's the only way you can keep your feet on the ground. Luckily, I've been able to do just that and I hope I can keep working towards my goals.
You talk about your family a lot. Do they tell you when you make mistakes?
You bet (laughs). My parents and my brother ring and tell me if I've done something wrong or said something I shouldn't! I always listen to them in those type of situations.
You played in your first FIFA World Cup last year. What was that like?
It was brilliant. Playing in Germany gave me a wonderful chance to play against the best teams in the world. You have to give your all and concentrate really hard. It was a wonderful experience and I hope I can do it again in 2010.
What is your happiest memory of Germany 2006?
The opening game against Poland in Gelsenkirchen. I remember arriving at the stadium, which was full, and seeing all those people cheering us on. Just talking about it gives me goose bumps.
Many people feel you could have beaten England in the Round of 16. Did you all think you could have gone further?
Well … (pauses for a moment). When you watch the video of the game you think, "Ah, we could have gone through". I feel we did pretty well and could have won. But it didn't turn out that way and we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves.
How important has Luis Suarez been to your career?
Very. I wasn't performing well in the U-20s but even so he called me up for a friendly match with the senior side. I did well against Paraguay and he kept putting his faith in me. I'm just hoping things carry on that way (laughs). He's a coach you can rely on and he likes his players to look after themselves and work hard. I owe him a lot.
Talking of Ecuador, the Copa America in Venezuela is just around the corner. What was your view on the draw in Caracas?
We know it's going to be tough because we're in the same group as Brazil, Mexico and Chile . But we're going to do everything we can to achieve our dream. After the draw I spoke to some of the other players who are abroad, like Edison Mendez and Ulises de la Cruz, and they were in a positive frame of mind. In fact we've done quite well against Brazil recently. We've managed to beat them and when they've beaten us it's only been by a narrow margin.
It is fairly obvious that your mind is already on the tournament?
I've been working hard to settle in at the club but naturally my thoughts have been turning to Venezuela. Because of the teams we're up against there'll be more people watching us and we know that. That's an extra incentive for sure. We'll be giving it everything and battling for every ball.
How do you react to being described as one of the standard bearers of Ecuador's new generation?
It's a real source of motivation. It's something that's making me keep working as hard as I did when I started. Ecuador have come on a lot thanks to the continuity between coaches like [Francisco] Maturana, [Hernan] Bolillo Gomez and Suarez. We've been using the same system and we're thinking big while giving the youngsters a chance to come in. The blend of younger players like me and the more experienced guys is already paying off.
Let's turn now to life in English football. Where do you feel you need to improve to adapt to the game here?
I've got to work on my aerial game but it's tough here and the first to the ball wins. The next thing is to speed my game up. There are always new things to learn. As for my strong points, I know I can shoot well from distance and I'm good on the ball, and that's something that's going to help me a lot - typical South American football if you like.
Did you ever imagine you would be playing against such big clubs at such a young age?
Never. I've always had a soft spot for teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, but I never thought I'd have the chance to play against them so soon. It's really exciting.
Have you been able to swap shirts with some of your heroes?
Not yet. Up to now I've only swapped jerseys with Nolberto Solano of Newcastle, but I'd love to get the chance with [Frank] Lampard and [Steven] Gerrard. They are two players I really admire in my position as they're strong, goalscoring playmakers. And naturally I'd love to change shirts with Carlos Tevez.
How is your English coming along?
I have a one-hour class after each training session but it's not easy. I'm having a little trouble with verbs, but I'm getting on great with my numbers (laughs).
One last question. Ecuador's status in South America is improving all the time thanks to recent results and players like you moving abroad. How far do you think you can go?
We're hopeful of winning the Copa America one day. We're moving forward and achieving our goals step by step. We've got a golden opportunity this year and although it won't be easy, we be doing all we can to make it happen.