Mourning Valencia on mission to impress
Antonio Valencia has had a tough season on and off the pitch but still faces high expectations when he leads Ecuador at the World Cup finals.
The 28-year-old will have an added incentive to see Ecuador at least emulate their 2006 heroics, when they reached the last 16.
Playing against France, Switzerland and Honduras in Group E, the wideman will hope to stake a place in the plans of whoever becomes Manchester United's new manager.
He will also be competing for the memory of his closest friend Christian Benitez, Ecuador's leading scorer in the qualifiers with four goals, who died aged just 27 last July when playing for Qatari club Al Jaish.
Valencia, who had known Benitez since they were teenagers in the Ecuadorean Army side Deportivo El Nacional and the Under-20 national side, immediately had a tattoo artist design a tribute to him.
"I wanted to share with you this tribute in honour of my brother 'Chucho'," posted Valencia on his Twitter account. "We'll never forget you."
The tattoo has Benitez's nickname 'Chucho', alongside three stars, his date of birth, his shirt number and date of death.
Benitez's death left a vacuum in the national side but coach Reinaldo Rueda moved to end part of the mourning process by replacing Walter Ayovi as captain with Valencia.
"It was hard on Walter Ayovi, who is 500% excellent," Rueda said.
"But Antonio Valencia was closest to Benitez - they were like twins - and so making him the captain was a way of rallying the group," he told the BBC.
"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."
Valencia, one of the few members remaining from the Ecuador squad from the 2006 edition, happily for the squad won't be in charge of their culinary diet given an anecdote recounted by Benitez of their days in the Nacional side.
"I remember one day a trainer advised us to eat pasta and a lot of iron to keep fit, but Tono (Valencia) misunderstood.
"In South America pasta means sauce and it is also what they call toothpaste. The next day I find Valencia tucking in to a tube of Colgate."
Valencia, scorer of eight goals in his 60 international appearances, it is hoped will react positively to shouldering so much responsibility certainly better than when he was handed the legendary Number 7 shirt -- worn by among others George Best and Cristiano Ronaldo -- at Manchester United for the 2012/13 campaign.
He admitted defeat and handed it back after that season and resumed wearing his original number 25 shirt.
However, the steel and courage he showed when at just 16, aided by his mother and his elder brother, who paid for the bus fare, he left his home village of Nueva Loja in the Amazon forest for Nacional should stand him in good stead for the challenge ahead.
"We thought he (his father) would never say yes because he wanted me to stay with the family and finish my studies,' said Valencia.
"He was looking around the house asking where I was. Eventually, they plucked up the courage to tell him after two days and when he calmed down he realised it was for the best. I was in tears when I went. It was so young to be leaving home."
Indeed there is something within Valencia despite his sometimes carefree attitude on the pitch that has impressed his English coaches, such as Paul Jewell who brought him to Wigan on loan from Spanish side Villarreal in 2006 -- Jewell's successor Steve Bruce was to make the move permanent two years later.
"He could easily have buckled but there was no moping in a hotel," Jewell told the Daily Mail.
"Antonio, though his English was minimal, quickly got a house and a car. That self-reliance, which can be rare, impressed me."
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