Enner Valencia ruined the celebration for Qatar, as the Ecuador striker scored a brace to hand his team the first win at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, 2-0 against the hosts, minutes after the glamorous opening ceremony took place on the “Al Bayt” Stadium, some 44 kilometres away from capital Doha.
Valencia, one of the most tenured and decorated Ecuador players ever, continued his amazing streak at the FIFA World Cup, scoring the fifth goal in a row for the South American side and becoming only the seventh player in history to build such a run, entering the record books alongside Italy’s Paolo Rossi or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
But who is Valencia, the unlikely hero of Ecuador, whose journey in football started at local club Emelec, took him through Mexico and England, only to see him spend the last two years at Turkish club Fenerbahçe?
Born in Esmeraldas, a small city of 160.000 inhabitants, Valencia always had a passion for football and started playing at Caribe Junior, one of the biggest feeder teams in the country. Signing for Emelec in 2008, he was always destined to be a great striker, thanks to his speed, strength and ability on the ball. His start, playing football barefoot on the Ecuadorian beaches, just helped him refine the innate skills he already had.
Yet becoming a professional football player was not always a slam dunk for Valencia, who is now the captain of Ecuador and the national team’s all-time top scorer, with 37 goals, the player with the best ratio of goals per number of games played, 0.49, in ten years representing the team.
In fact, his story is an amazing one of grit and strength, rising from the ashes to become a true star in Ecuador, a football-mad country, which has always stayed in the shade of other South American powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina.
“Yes, it’s true that I come from a very poor background. In order to buy my first boots I had to go and work with my dad on the farm milking cows. I had to sell the milk and stuff in order to afford to buy my first boots and play football,” he told the “Daily Mail” when he was featuring for West Ham United in the Premier League.
Confronted with the hardships of life from a young age, Valencia knew that he had to work on a day-to-day basis in order to improve, but this made him even more motivated to become a football player.
But his family supported him from a young age, even when he decided to pack his bags and go play for Caribe Junior, when he was only 16 years old.
“He did all his chores when he came home from school – milk cows, pack and load products and clear water from the canoe – and then would not eat to go and play soccer,” said his father, Segun Roberto Valencia.
The big break came in 2008, when Enner moved to Emelec Guayaquil, one of the most decorated sides in Ecuadorian football, with the scouts from the club earmarking him as a possible star in the making, due to his excellent shot and dazzling speed and skills.
“I was forced to sleep at the Capwell Stadium. I had often to go without eating because I did not have any money. It was just my love of football that kept me going. “It was so hot and there were mosquitoes, that sometimes I had to go out to the field at dawn because it was cooler there,” said the Ecuador striker.
His salary was so low, he could not afford a flat or food, instead relying on the lunch provided by the club. Yet the fortunes changed in 2010, when Jorge Sampaoli, the current Sevilla FC coach, handed Valencia his debut in the Copa Libertadores. Three years later, the striker became a regular in the Ecuador national team.
“This is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid, when I was out in the countryside selling milk to buy football boots. Luckily for me, now it’s coming true. It’s an amazing feeling. Words can’t express how I felt when I got my head to the ball and realised it was going in. I couldn’t stop screaming, I had such a rush of emotion,” said Valencia after scoring his first goal for Ecuador in 2013, in a friendly match against Honduras.
After helping Emelec win their first domestic title in 11 years, he moved to Mexican club Pachuca, and one year later he was featuring for West Ham United, who signed him for for a fee estimated at £12 million.
He scored only 11 goals in the Premier League for West Ham and Everton between 2014 and 2017, moving back to Mexico in 2017, where he played for Tigres UANL, before returning to Europe in 2020, signing on a free transfer for Fenerbahçe.
The days of milking cows and not having food on the table are long gone, but Valencia still is modest and became a hero of his country, shapeshifting from a what-could-have-been to a certainty.