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Yeferson Soteldo: The small guy with big skills

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Here’s the story of Yeferson Soteldo, as told by Venezuelan soccer fan Rodolphe Wilhelm.

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Venezuelan player Yeferson Soteldo celebrates his goal against Colombia during their South American Championship U-20 football match
(RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP via Getty)

The story of Yeferson Soteldo from the start corresponds to a fast path in every step of his life. He had his first child at 18 years old, made his senior debut in Venezuela at 16 years old, and scored his first professional goal at 17 years old.

But let’s start from the beginning.

Soteldo started his football career with Caracas FC’s U-14 side (one of the biggest clubs in Venezuela), but unfortunately, he didn’t last long because of behaviour problems.

“In Caracas they threw me out for indiscipline, something that I earned because of my behavior, I do not deny that, because all those bad influences were not over yet,” said Soteldo in an interview via google translate. “When I arrived in Zamora, the coach told me I had a lot of talent, he made me understand it, and I listened to him.”

Noel Sanvicente, one of the most famous Venezuelan managers, decided to take a chance on Soteldo when he saw ‘Manzanita’ (little apple) playing in a local match. Zamora FC, located in the west side of Venezuela, was another important club that had emerged over the past 10 seasons.

For Soteldo, that move—the second chance—meant more than just an opportunity to make it as a professional in football. You see, Soteldo’s upbringing was far from ideal. In fact, the Venezuelan international versed how much football saved him from the streets, from gun violence, and maybe even death.

“I lived in a very dangerous neighborhood in Caracas, my family still lives there,” explained Soteldo. “If it hadn’t been for football, I would have ended up in a bad way, maybe dead. I must thank football for getting me out of there.”

In an interview with FIFA.com, Soteldo elaborated on his troubled childhood.

“I grew up with some friends—well people I called friends at the time—and we’d been hanging out together since I was six,” said Soteldo. “By the age of 11, they were starting to go off the rails and by 12 were already robbing. Suddenly they could afford lots of things while I had nothing. That’s when I began heading in the same direction. However, when I was 13, one of them got killed, and that was when I asked myself: ‘What am I doing here?’”

From the U-16 side to the first team at Zamora, he played extremely well and helped the club win the two league titles in 2015-2016 (an impressive feat for a club that was founded in 2002). It was at Zamora where Soteldo met his current teammate Erickson Gallardo, as the two became good friends.

His strong play sparked interest from clubs in Europe, Columbia, and in Mexico, but it’d be Huachipato, a Chilean side, that peaked Soteldo’s interest. Huachipato would sign the talented youngster for €1.5 million in 2017—the club’s record transfer fee to date.

2017 was Soteldo’s year: an impressive U-20 World Cup with the Vinotinto (nickname of the national team) where Venezuela made a strong run all the way to the final, unfortunately losing to England 1-0. But during this World Cup, alongside fellow attacker Adalberto Peñaranda, Venezuelan soccer fans witnessed a polished diamond, key passes, technique, and strong and clear identity throughout the competition from Soteldo. There was hope.

Like many international tournaments, this competition also served as a showcase for him, as shortly after, Soteldo ended up going on loan in January 2018 to U de Chile—one of the biggest clubs in Chile—to play in the Copa Libertadores. More visibility and more eyes on the young player helped him to continue his journey upwards to a new league.

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When fans talk about South American football, they can’t miss Brazil and after weeks of negotiation, Soteldo decided to join one of the biggest clubs in Brazil, Santos FC, a staple for producing world-class talent like Pele and Neymar.

Soteldo, who asked to wear the iconic No. 10, was convinced to join Santos by Jorge Sampaoli (former U. Chile coach). The well-regarded manager really helped Soteldo evolve into a ‘football player 2.0’ (a mix of intelligence and technique) that can attack with venom, yet 20 seconds later, still be willing to counter press or track back without the ball to support his defenders.

He learned this the hard way from Sampaoli—who managed the Argentinian national team prior to joining Santos: that football is not just attacking. Despite a strong start offensively, Sampaoli insisted that if Soteldo wanted to play for Santos and continue to earn minutes, he would have to learn the defensive side of the beautiful game.

In the aforementioned interview with FIFA.com, Soteldo credited Sampaoli, who is currently the manager of Ligue 1 side Marseille, for his revamped work rate.

“I made my first appearance soon after signing and scored on my debut,” said Soteldo. “But after three or four games, he stopped putting me in the team. Before the classico against Palmeiras, he gave me that ultimatum, which was when I understood what was going on. As I’m someone who heeds my coaches’ advice, I worked hard and changed. Now, I could run 10 or 11 kilometres per game. He’s one of the coaches who has taught me the most thus far.”

In a short time, Soteldo went on to captivate the demanding Brazilian fans with his dribbling, key passes, and free kicks. In 2019, he was runner-up in the Brasileirao championship, something that served—in a way— as motivation to conquer the Libertadores 2020, a cup where he showcased his full arsenal of talent and was at the gates of touching the Eternal Glory after losing 1-0 to Palmeiras in the final.

Despite all those flashes of quality, the Vinotinto has yet to win a title outside his country.

Maybe his time will come with Toronto FC? Time will tell.

@globrod
@fvenezuelien