LONDON, August 6 – As if joining Manchester United as Cristiano Ronaldo's replacement wasn't enough of a challenge for Antonio Valencia, the Ecuador winger must also live up to his billing as the figurehead of the Premier League's Latin invasion.
When Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid for a world record 80 million pounds in June, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to spend 17 million pounds of that fee on luring Valencia from Wigan.
Valencia, 23, first caught Ferguson’s eye during a 20-minute cameo for Wigan against United in 2006.
That substitute appearance made Ferguson aware of how Valencia’s dynamic runs and incisive crosses could hurt opponents and he regularly dispatched scouts to check on his progess over the next two years.
By the time it became obvious that Ronaldo was destined to leave this close-season, Ferguson had already settled on Valencia as his replacement.
"Antonio is a player we have admired for some time now, having spent the last two years in the Premier League with Wigan," Ferguson said. "I am sure his pace and ability will make a significant contribution to our team."
One area in which Valencia may struggle to emulate Ronaldo is on the scoresheet. While the Portugal star scored 71 goals in his last two seasons with United, Valencia only found the net seven times in 89 appearances for Wigan.
However, the Ecuadorian opened his United account on his debut in a pre-season friendly against Boca Juniors and Ferguson hopes to get his new signing into areas where he can score more often.
"We were looking at his record and it’s not a good one in terms of goals," Ferguson said. "But we can assess individual parts of his game, ie, his athleticism, his power and the power of his shot, and we have to think: ‘Why hasn’t he scored more goals?’ And maybe he will score more goals with us."
The Valencia deal confirmed the rise of a group of players who have had to fight harder than most for their place among English football’s elite.
While Brazil and Argentina internationals will always be high on any top club’s wanted list, it is only in the last two seasons that players from less glamourous Latin countries like Ecuador, Honduras and Paraguay have started to make their presence felt in the Premier League.
Valencia was born deep in the Ecuadorian jungle in Lago Agrio and didn’t kick a ball until he was 10. That didn’t stop him becoming Ecuador’s most expensive player and several of his compatriots are ready to follow in his footsteps in the Premier League.
At Birmingham, there are three Ecuador internationals in Alex McLeish’s squad, with Christian Benitez, a club record eight million pounds signing, expected to score the goals that secure survival.
Benitez arrives with a reputation as a predatory goalscorer after scoring 10 times in 17 appearances for his country, while his veteran Ecuador team-mates Giovanny Espinoza and Ulises De la Cruz add experience to McLeish’s defence.
The man mostly responsible for triggering the deluge of Latin talent in England is Steve Bruce.
During his spell at Wigan, Bruce – now in charge at Sunderland – became frustrated by his inability to persuade players to join his club so he turned his attention to an untapped market.
Using scouts with expert knowledge of Latin America’s lower-profile countries, Bruce was able to sign Valencia and Wilson Palacios, who both became key members of his team before leaving for big fees.
He also signed Maynor Figueroa, a Honduras defender with 45 caps who has proved a resounding success, while Colombian forward Hugo Rodallega has shown flashes of potential.
Bruce continues to mine the Latin market for bargains and snapped up Paulo Da Silva, an experienced Paraguay defender, just weeks after arriving at Sunderland.