Outside of World Cups, the most notable incident in the career of Enner Valencia perhaps came as he lay on the back of a golf buggy and was chased, cartoon style, out of a stadium by police over allegations of unpaid alimony to his ex-wife. In World Cups, however, Ecuador’s record goalscorer has now made his mark at two tournaments, scoring the opening goals of Qatar against the hosts to trigger thousands to leave their seats and consigning the curtain-raiser to a rather drab formality.
Valencia did not quite make World Cup history. Only two players, and none since 1934, had scored a hat-trick in the opening match of the tournament and for over an hour it was a record that was in reach. After winning and scoring a penalty, and then powering a brilliant header into the corner, he may have even had a first-half hat-trick if Ecuador did not have an opening goal disallowed by Fifa’s semi-automated offside system by VAR - which came much to the confusion of everyone watching at the stadium and at home.
The 33-year-old also departed early, on the 75th minute, as a result of some bruising challenges from Qatar in the opening half. By that point, Ecuador’s captain had done his job, with an opening victory allowing La Tri to go into matches against Netherlands and Senegal without the same pressure of needing to win.
More significantly though, across both 2014 and now eight years later in 2022, Valencia now finds himself an unlikely part of World Cup heritage. A former West Ham and Everton striker who has spent the past four seasons quite happily scoring goals in Mexico with UNAL and Turkey with Fenerbahce, he rose to the occasion and prominence once again to steer his country to an opening win when the eyes of the world turned to the Al Bayt stadium.
It was a reminder of how World Cups remain unique, even as the money involved in European football leads to the talent gravitating towards one continent and while technology allows the sport to be viewed on a truly global level.
Maybe players are less likely to emerge, unknown, into our imaginations than they once were. Ecuador, for example, had two players in their starting line-up who have already caught the eye for Brighton in the Premier League this season in Moises Caicedo and Pervis Estupinian. But apart from his infamous buggy escape, Valencia had largely disappeared from our attention since leaving Everton in 2017 - and after a loan spell that returned three goals in 23 appearances.
It was Valencia’s three goals at the 2014 World Cup, which included a brace in Ecuador’s 2-1 win over Honduras, that earned him a £14m move to West Ham. In Brazil, only James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Robin van Persie finished the tournament having scored more than his three goals - and they all featured in the knockout stages of the tournament while Ecuador failed to make it out of the group stages.
Qatar, in fairness, did not offer much of a challenge. The goalkeeper, Saad Al Sheeb, brought down Valencia for the penalty after being fortunate that the opening goal was disallowed. The most fight the hosts put up was in nibbling at Valencia, resulting in him hobbling off before full time. He departed as the early and unexpected leader in the Golden Boot standings and, if he keeps this up, a move to West Ham in January may follow too.