The Amazing Metamorphosis of Enner Valencia

How Ecuador’s leading scorer at this World Cup transformed from a good midfielder to a red-hot striker—and Premier League target

If you are not following Ecuadorian football closely, you are extremely unlikely to have heard of Enner Valencia until very recently. For most of his career, the man who has scored all three Ecuador’s World Cup goals was a rather average right-sided midfielder.

He never had a chance of playing for the national team in that position, where his much more famous namesake, team captain Antonio Valencia of Manchester United, has made the role his own. Before the current run of matches, Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda had called Enner Valencia only once, back in February 2012, and gave him 10 minutes of international football in a rather meaningless friendly versus Honduras. That was it.

It took a few twists, including the worst tragedy Ecuadorian football has ever experienced, to change Valencia’s life completely. In the summer of 2013, Emelec, his club side, sold its star striker Marlon de Jesus to Mexico’s Monterrey. Two other forwards were injured, and coach Gustavo Quinteros asked Valencia to play up front.

At the same time, the country was mourning the shocking death of Christian “Chucho” Benitez. One of the best strikers in Ecuadorian history, Chucho scored 24 goals for the national team, and was an extremely popular and influential character in the dressing room. He had just moved to Qatar after six phenomenal years in the Mexican league when he passed away suddenly of cardiac arrest at the age of 27.

With his ace gone, Rueda was looking for a new solution, and he turned to Enner Valencia. The previously anonymous midfielder became a national team striker in a matter of weeks. It is difficult to think of a more bizarre metamorphosis, but it turned out to be a huge success. It took the 24-year-old a few games to adjust to his new role, but then he scored a brace—in another game against Honduras—and suddenly he was the first choice.

Mexico’s Pachuca signed Valencia in January, and his partnership with fellow Ecuadorian Walter Ayovi, a winger, proved to be nothing short of sensational. Valencia was crowned the top scorer of Clausura season with 12 goals in 17 matches. Remarkably, he scored more than half of Pachuca’s 23 goals, and the team qualified for the championship playoffs. Enner was almost unstoppable there as well, adding six more goals to his tally, eventually losing in the final.

“If they asked me to move back to midfield now, I’d say no,” he told reporters. “Chucho is an example to all of us. It is very difficult to fill his shoes, and I need to improve a lot. I am trying to do that.”

Valencia’s form before the World Cup earned him a certain place in the starting lineup. He scored the consolation goal in a friendly against Mexico, and then found the net again versus England—with Ayovi again providing the assist. The partnership has continued at the World Cup, with Valencia heading in the opener against Switzerland from an Ayovi corner. His second goal, against Honduras, was also a header from a free kick by Ayovi.

Now, with Newcastle United reportedly interested in signing him, the biggest challenge of Valencia’s career awaits as Ecuador meets France in the all-important final group game. Another goal or two will certainly help to ensure that there will be two Valencias plying their trade in the Premier League next season. And who knows—Enner could even outshine Antonio there, just as he has in Brazil.