AVOn the world stage, Antonio Valencia is unarguably the most famous Ecuadorian footballer of all time. He is the only man from his country to have played in a Champions League final and the only one to have won a pair of league titles in one of Europe’s biggest leagues. His achievements are a great source of pride for his countrymen and it is Valencia who will lead Ecuador into this summer’s World Cup as national team captain.

The honour was bestowed on him in the wake of the tragic death of his close friend Christian Benítez last July. National team coach Reinaldo Rueda felt that handing the captaincy to Valencia would bind the squad together and help push them over the line to qualification.

Valencia has rarely let his country down. Sparkling performances at under-20 level saw him parachuted into the senior team at the age of 19; he impressed immediately, scoring twice on his debut in a 5-2 win over Paraguay. He went on to star at the 2006 World Cup – where has was shortlisted for both the best young player award and FIFA’s ideal XI – and has been a fixture at national team level ever since.

The Amazonian Express, as Valencia is known in his homeland, is one of a bevy of lightning quick wingers and forwards in the Ecuador ranks. He is usually stationed on the right flank in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation and his brief is simple: receive the ball, take on the full-back and deliver crosses into the area. His powerful forward running plays a key role Ecuador’s transition from defence to attack, while he also does his fair share defensively.Ecuador underwent a generational renewal during the qualification process, with younger players stepping in to take the places of many of those who were involved in the World Cup campaigns of 2002 and 2006. As one of six members of the current squad to have previously played in a World Cup, Valencia will have an important role to play in guiding his less experienced colleagues through the tournament.

“We have tough opponents,” Valencia said as the squad bade farewell to their countrymen in Quito. “But we have a team that is hungry for glory and the goal is to reach the next phase. We plan to make history.”

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