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Brazil 2014: Valencia key to Ecuador in Brazil

Brazil 2014: Valencia key to Ecuador in Brazil

Posted by Juan Gavasa on April 11, 2014

A year ago national team coach Reinaldo Rueda referred to him as "the main reference point for Ecuadorian football, as a result of everything he has achieved".

A British readership might be unaware how special it is for Ecuador to have one of their own playing at one of the world's major clubs, and in action in the closing stages of the Champions League. Less than 30 years ago Ecuador was a Latin American Luxembourg in footballing terms.

The game was introduced to the country by the Wright brothers - but it took a long time to take flight. Juan Alfredo Wright brought football back from England at the end of the 19th century, and together with his brother Roberto pioneered the practice of the game.

But when the Copa America began in 1916, Ecuador were not in it. In fact, they sat out the first 14 versions of the tournament before entering in 1939 - and after half a century their record made pretty grim reading: 75 games, four wins, 14 draws and 57 defeats, with 69 goals scored and 254 conceded.

In 1989, however, they showed the first flickers of promise, beating Uruguay and drawing with Argentina, Maradona and all. And such promise has since been confirmed. This year they go to their third World Cup - their third in the last four - and for the first time they will play the competition in their own continent.

They will make the short journey to Brazil with a few misgivings - their current crop of centre-backs do not inspire confidence - but they are boosted by the presence elsewhere in the team of much more international experience than there used to be.

These days there is a market abroad for Ecuadorian players, even if most of them go no further than Mexico. Making it to a big European club is more difficult - but, as Valencia has shown, not impossible.

The first time an Ecuadorian player moved to a European club was as recently as 1986, when centre forward Ermen Benitez had an unhappy few months with Xerez in the Spanish second division. These days Ermen is most remembered as the father of Christian Benitez, once of Birmingham City, who died so tragically last July.

The loss of Benitez was a hammer blow to Ecuador's World Cup hopes. It deprived them of a top player, their senior goalscorer, who was also sufficiently versatile to work back in midfield and help balance the side.

And it also took away one of the most popular members of the squad. The consequence, in both senses, is that Valencia is having to take on more responsibility.

Before the death of Benitez, Rueda paid tribute to the importance of Valencia to the national team. "He is well balanced mentally," said the coach, "he's down to earth and gets on well with those around him. His team-mates hold him in very high regard because of the way he is. He's very charismatic."

All of this acquired an extra value when Benitez died. Rueda recently told me that it came as "a huge blow to the group", and that he had to think long and hard about how to respond.

The outcome of his thinking was that Ecuador had to change their captain - left-back Walter Ayovi, the only player in South America to play in all 16 rounds of the World Cup qualifiers, stepped down, and Valencia was appointed in his place.

Benitez and Valencia grew up together in the youth ranks of the El Nacional club in Quito. Having Valencia lead out the side was a way of making the point that, in some way, Benitez was still a part of the process.

"It was hard on Walter Ayovi, who is 500% excellent," said Rueda. "But Antonio Valencia was closest to Benitez - they were like twins - and so making him the captain was a way of rallying the group.

"Valencia was reluctant initially, out of respect for Ayovi, but it ended up being, from a psychological point of view, a change that gave us a boost in the final straight."

Some may question whether Valencia will feel comfortable with these extra tasks - not only captaining the side, but also carrying the Ecuador attack.

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