Valencia, the £20m boy from Ecuador's army, is now on the march with Wigan
Last updated at 1:57 AM on 27th January 2009
First to go was his good friend Wilson Palacios, then England striker Emile Heskey.
But it looks as though Antonio Valencia is one prize asset Wigan will hold on to beyond the end of the January transfer window.
Not that the Ecuador winger is short of admirers. When doubts first began circulating at Old Trafford last year about Cristiano Ronaldo’s long-term commitment to Manchester United, Valencia’s name figured prominently on the list of possible replacements.
Community worker: Wigan star Antonio Valencia
Since then, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Aston Villa have joined United in the queue, such is the reputation he has established in the Barclays Premier League
since giving up life in Spain and moving to Lancashire two-and-a-half years ago.
Manager Steve Bruce knows he cannot hold on to the 23-year-old for ever, but it would
require an offer in the region of £20million to persuade Wigan to sell, just as it took a bid of £14m from Tottenham to land Palacios.
‘Come on, we have to be sensible about this, ’said Bruce. ‘If Manchester United come knocking, how the hell can we refuse him?’
For Valencia, the chance to join a top club would satisfy his craving to play in the Champions League.
He said: ‘It’s a dream for any player to play at a high level and the Champions League is the pinnacle in European football. You sit there at home watching it and think, “Why
couldn’t I do that?”
'Even hearing the theme music at the beginning gets you excited. The ideal situation
would be to play Champions League football with Wigan.’
As unlikely as that wish is to be fulfilled, Valencia has never done things the easy way.
This, after all, is a young man who showed the mental toughness to leave home at the age of 16 for a military lifestyle in his country’s capital Quito and matured into an
explosive right winger more than capable of matching his ball skills with a touch of steel.
Clash of the titans: Valencia (left) brings Manchester City's Robinho down to earth
Two red cards for club and country this season are testament to that. It is hardly surprising when you consider he grew up in Lago Agrio, a town centred on the petrol industry in the north-east of Ecuador, close to the Amazon rainforest and Colombian border that has become a haven for thousands of refugees fleeing the drugs war.
Valencia used to play barefoot on the pitch next to the bungalow he shared with his parents, five brothers and sister. It was two days before his father Luis Antonio
realised he had gone to Quito to join Club Deportivo El Nacional, a club run by the Ecuadorean army.
‘We thought he 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 courage to tell him 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, but I knew it was something I had to do.’
Valencia recalled: ‘It was very regimented there, a barracks situation. Before going to training or school in the morning you’d make your own bed and in the evening a
sergeant-type figure would come and check you’d done it right.
‘It’s a huge difference now. I’m an adult, I have time to myself and I’ve got a partner and daughter.’
His girlfriend Zoila gave birth to Domenik (her name is tattooed on the inside of his right arm) at the end of the 2006 World Cup, where Valencia was spotted by former Wigan boss Paul Jewell, with Ecuador beaten by England in the second round.
He spent 18 months on loan before Wigan secured their most valuable asset on a permanent deal a year ago from Villarreal, where he had endured an unhappy spell.
He is more settled now, having struck up a close friendship with the club’s Honduran pair Maynor Figueroa and Palacios before the latter’s move to Tottenham last
Best of mates: But Valencia (left) will now have to make do without Spurs-bound Wilson Palacios
The three have been taking English lessons together (although Valencia still requires an interpreter) and have also welcomed two other Ecuadoreans, Manchester
City’s Felipe Caicedo and Segundo Castillo, of Everton.
‘It’s much better now that I’m not on my own,’ said Valencia. ‘We see each other quite often and it helps. It’s a little piece of home.’
Valencia does work in the community with Wigan and made an appearance for Ability Counts as part of the Premier League’s Creating Chances scheme. Having started with coaching sessions for youngsters with physical and mental disabilities, Wigan
Community Trust runs three teams in the Greater Manchester Ability Counts Football League.
It gives people who would otherwise be left out of organised football the chance to be part of a team and mix with others of a similar disability.
‘I always believe you can learn a lot from kids,’ said Valencia. Those who have observed his progress in English football believe the time is right for the boy from
Ecuador to continue his learning curve on a bigger stage.
Besides, United, Chelsea and Real Madrid cannot all be wrong.