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 By Tim Vickery

Antonio Valencia continues to set the standard for Ecuadorians abroad

Antonio Valencia in action for Manchester United against Arsenal at Old Trafford.
At Manchester United since 2009, Antonio Valencia continues to set the standard for Ecuadorian players abroad.

Born in Argentina, goalkeeper Esteban Dreer spent a couple of years in Lithuania before moving to Ecuador in 2009. So well has he adapted that he has taken out citizenship and become Ecuador's first-choice goalkeeper, featuring in five games of the current World Cup qualification campaign, including all of the past four

Dreer, then, is well placed to put his adopted country into perspective. He says: "The Ecuadorian player is at a top level in South American football. They have technique, speed and power. What they lack is the mentality of the Argentines, the Uruguayans and the Brazilians."

To the extent that this is true, there might be a socio-cultural explanation, to do with the quantity of European immigrants who poured into the south cone of South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it would seem clear enough that there is also a considerable difference in terms of footballing tradition. The game caught on with remarkable speed in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. By the 1920s and 30s it had already become an important part of national identities in these countries.

Jun 4, 2016; Pasadena, CA, USA; Ecuador goalkeeper Esteban Dreer (12) drinks during an injury against Brazil during the second half during the group play stage of the 2016 Copa America Centenario at Rose Bowl Stadium. The game ended in a draw with a final
Esteban Dreer played two seasons in Lithuania but now plies his trade in Ecuador with Emelec.

Further north, football made slower progress. Ecuador, for example, did not even qualify for a World Cup until 2002. And whereas Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have been exporting players to the top European clubs for decades, the same does not apply to Ecuador. The first recorded instance of an Ecuadorian being sold across the Atlantic is as recent as 30 years ago. In 1986, striker Ermen Benitez spent an unhappy year with Xerez in the Spanish second division.

His son, Christian, had a glittering international career, and spent a season in England with Birmingham City. Tragically, he died in 2013 at the age of 27.

Christian Benitez came through the youth ranks at the El Nacional club of Quito together with his great friend Luis Antonio Valencia. After Benitez died, then-Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda made Valencia captain of the team, in a move aimed at improving the morale of the side, and making sure that the squad felt that Benitez was in some way still part of the process.

And Antonio Valencia has also done more than anyone else to put Ecuadorian players on the European map. It is no longer unthinkable for the country to export, especially to England. Antonio Valencia is by no means the only one. His namesake Enner is at Everton, on loan from West Ham -- though his form has suffered in recent times. Jefferson Montero is at Swansea City, where he has enjoyed some magical moments, but has also displayed the infuriating inconsistency which has dogged his career. And Juan Carlos Parades is at Watford, though he now seems surplus to requirements.

Antonio Valencia, meanwhile, holds a steady course. Not only does he get a regular game, he also features for arguably the biggest Premier League club of them all in Manchester United. So on Saturday morning local time, Ecuadorians can gather in front of their TVs and watch him play for Manchester United at home to Middlesbrough. The visitors may field playmaker Gaston Ramirez and support striker Cristhian Stuani, current representatives of the long Uruguayan tradition of exports. Valencia, in contrast, is at a highpoint in the history of his country's game. This gives him an extra importance. It means that he is setting the bar higher for all of the youngsters who might be watching him, giving them a concrete example of what is possible.

If mentality is still a weak point in Ecuadorian football, then surely part of the problem is that previous generations have been unable to enjoy and take advantage of the role model example supplied by Luis Antonio Valencia.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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