In the 49th minute of the Women’s U-17 Sudamericano final, Deyna Castellanos struck a gorgeous goal against Brazil. That goal ultimately lead Venezuela to victory in front of 41,320 cheering fans. The crowd at Cabudare’s Metropolitan Stadium set an attendance record, but although the hosts were favorites in the tournament, they weren’t just there to cheer the trophy. The Venezuela U-17 win was so much more than a piece of silverware.
The squad was an absolute beast in the latest South American tournament, playing like there was no tomorrow. They scored 24 goals in seven games, a rate of 3.4 goals per game. With her speed and amazing style, combined with her incredible control of the ball, it is no surprise that Castellano scored the highest number of goals in the tournament, with 12. Venezuela’s attack was fantastic, but their defense was also from another world, conceding just three goals in the tournament.
But winning the tournament was not the team’s greatest achievement. Although Brazil is always the reference point, no matter the gender, age group or the quality of their performance, Venezuela had won the continental tournament in 2013, so they were simply retaining their title. No, the Venezuela U-17 team are heroes because of everything they went through to simply be able to play in the tournament, never mind winning.
The fact that more than 41,000 cheered them on at the final is due to the extreme political, economic and social crisis in which Venezuela is involved. Electricity blackouts are widespread — as unbelievable as it seems, people are often without electricity for four hours per day. A water crisis means many neighborhoods and urban areas do not know what a drinkable water supply even is. Some go up to six months without running water. As for food, a lack of it means people can spend up to three hours in line just waiting to buy bread.
No electricity. A lack of access to running water. Not enough food. These crises force people to look for some sense of achievement, and they look to their sports teams. This is the reason these teenage girls are heroes. Each of these teenagers gives hope to millions who have little reason to smile.
But after the tournament, the government of Venezuela used these girls for political gain, saying the victory was possible thanks to the investments of the so-called “revolution.” Just like a mediocre parent who never supported his children’s dreams, but attempts to profit from their success, the government tried to make the girls’ victory its own. Mervin Maldonado, secretary of sport, said, “This victory was possible thanks to our investments. We not only invested money, we also invested hard work, because this is a priority in our politics.”
After the government attempted to grab credit for the victory of the teenager warriors, top scorer Castellanos went public with a few hard truths about the path they had to walk to reach the top. The squad captain said that two months before the South American tournament started, they still had no field on which to practice. The government had invested plenty of money in the men’s U-20 squad, who were already training outside Venezuela to prepare for the 2017 South American Youth Championship.
The economic crisis in Venezuela also affected the players’ personal lives. Coach Kenneth Zseremeta stated, “I am very affected when the girls come to me asking for help because they don’t have money to eat or to buy medication.”
The reality of life in Venezuela is reflected in the life of Yulianny Goyo, who lives in extreme poverty. She and her family live in a tiny house built from zinc sheets. Like thousands of other Venezuelans, Goyo’s family squats on public land, which has become increasingly normal over the past 14 years.
Nor is she is not the only player of the team living in these conditions. Daniuska Rodriguez, who wears the number 7 shirt, also lives in a house made of zinc, in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Carabobo State, in the north of the country. Daniuska opened the doors of her house to media reporters to show the conditions in which she lives. As a result, both players and supporters demanded help for these girls. But when Daniuska’s family asked for assistance, the local government only sent a bit of money, which does not solve the problem and, in fact, shows a lack of commitment to helping the players.
Although the government attempted to take some of the glory from these girls and use it for their own purposes, the supporters know who the true heroes are. The performances of the Venezuela U-17 team, and the strength it took for the girls to not only reach the tournament but win it, have inspired the country. Thousands of supporters, living in similar conditions, have found figures to admire, allowing them to dream big, and to believe anyone can become a winner, no matter where they grew up. Their force of will, the passion they showed in every game, make Venezuela’s U-17 women the hidden heroes fighting for their country’s people.