Sunday 13 March 2016, 12:06

Castellanos, Venezuela’s teenage veteran

While calling a 16-year-old centre-forward a “veteran” might sound like a contradiction in terms, when the teenager in question in Venezuela’s Deyna Castellanos it makes perfect sense.

The happy-go-lucky Castellanos made her name in 2014, a year in which she finished joint-leading goalscorer at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica and then topped the scoring charts at the Girls’ Youth Olympic Football Tournament in Nanjing a few months later.

No sooner had Costa Rica 2014 come to an end than Castellanos, who was introduced to the game by her brother, was telling that she wanted more.

Two years on, that hunger continues to drive her, as she is proving at the ongoing South American U-17 Championships in Venezuela, where she scored seven goals in the first round to boost the hosts’ chances of claiming one of the three tickets on offer to the world finals in the age group in Jordan later this year.

Speaking once more to, on the eve of her side’s opening match of the final four-team phase against Colombia, the free-scoring Vinotinto forward said: “In 2014 I was a girl who wanted to be the best, but I’m more mature now and all I’m thinking about is my team being the best. I’ve got to do my bit to ensure that happens.”

As good as her wordCastellanos is certainly doing that. Currently the second-highest scorer in the continental finals – one goal behind fellow Costa Rica 2014 veteran Jessica Martinez of Paraguay – the Venezuela captain found the back of the net in each of her side’s four wins in Group A, which they topped with a perfect record.

The form she and her team-mates have found has come as no surprise to her, as she explained: “I’m not going to lie. We expected to do well and to go unbeaten in the first round. There was no reason why we shouldn’t. We’ve been together for a long time now and we work with that goal in mind: to keep on winning.”

The core of the current Vinotinto line-up features the players who made history in qualifying for Costa Rica 2014, Venezuela’s first ever appearance in a FIFA women’s competition, where they defied all expectations by finishing fourth. Having then gone on to finish runners-up at Nanjing 2014, the Venezuelans are firm favourites not just to nail down a ticket to Jordan but also to retain the South American title they won in 2013, objectives they are well on the way to achieving.

“It’s an honour that people think of us that way now, but we have the responsibility of ensuring it becomes a reality. The main goal is to reach the World Cup,” said the skipper of a Venezuela side whose two other final-phase opponents are Brazil and Paraguay, a team they beat 3-1 in the group phase.

Feet on the groundAnother factor giving Castellanos grounds for optimism is the fact that she and her team-mates have so far been able to handle the pressure of playing at home.

“We feel like we’re in a comfort zone,” said the No9, who plays for the Escuela de Futbol Juan Arango in the Venezuelan National Women’s Football League. “We’re making the most of the support we get from the fans and we’re so happy that our families and friends can watch us live.”

Despite the buzz the Venezuelans are creating, they are not losing sight of their objectives: “We’re aware that we’re the 'team of the moment’, but we’ve learned to shut ourselves away from things like that a little. We’re still teenagers after all, and it could affect us. We’ve been managing fine up to now though.”

While success on the pitch has brought changes to her life, Castellanos is adapting perfectly: “What’s changed most since 2014, and what makes me feel different, is that I sometimes get recognised when I’m out and about. As far as everything else is concerned, though, I’m still the same happy, sweet and sociable girl. I want to develop the ability to learn from my mistakes and not repeat them, and I’m growing every day as a person.”

How far does she think that growing maturity will take her and the generation of players she leads? “In football it’s all about the here and now, and our goal is to make it to Jordan.” And if they don’t? “We don’t think about things like that. I’ve got no idea what’ll happen if we don’t qualify.”