On 8 February this year, Venezuela's U-20 squad went down in Vinotinto footballing history by clinching qualification for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, thus becoming their country's first-ever representatives at a FIFA finals.
One of the key men behind that landmark achievement at the CONMEBOL U-20 Championship on home soil was Juan Salomon Rondon, who top scored for the hosts with three goals. Six months on, and with Egypt 2009 drawing ever closer, FIFA.com spoke to the front-man, who is currently at Spanish outfit UD Las Palmas. "How does it feel looking back? I'm still excited and happy for what we achieved," said Rondon. "The satisfaction you feel at helping your country reach its first World Cup is one of the biggest you can get as a footballer."
"That said, what we did should have sunk in by now. We now need to take the next step, which is to make sure we arrive in Egypt in good form and with the right attitude," he continued. "We must stay humble and prepare thoroughly to make sure we don't waste the opportunity we earned through so much hard graft."
Mum's the word
"I started playing football because of my mum. During the 1989 Copa America, Argentina and Diego Maradona were at their peak and she started following football, so I always had a ball close by," explained Rondon, who is part of a generation of young Venezuelans that have experienced football's gradual growth in popularity in a country where baseball and basketball still hold sway. "When I started school I put my name down for football, I liked it and I've ended up earning my living from it. It's a good job I did because I owe everything I've got to the game," said the Caracas-born player.
The up-and-coming striker made his top-flight debut at just 16 in the colours of Aragua FC, where his 15 goals in 49 matches earned him a move to Spanish football in 2008. "Playing in Europe has helped me develop physically, technically and tactically, so I don't complain (about not being a first-team regular). I just do everything I can to keep improving."
And how would he describe himself as a player? "I'm a tall forward, who shoots well with both feet and is good in the air. I'm a goalscorer, I don't mess around," said the 1.88m target man, a keen admirer of Brazil's Ronaldo as well as fellow Venezuelans David McIntosh, Giancarlo Maldonado and Juan Arango. "They've all done our country proud, they've made us a team to be respected."
Just as Rondon and his fellow U-20s did at the continental championship..."It's funny, I sometimes get recognised by non-football folk, who thank me for helping the team qualify for the World Cup. That never would have happened a few years ago. But I'm not losing sight of things: we've not won anything yet."
Practice makes perfect
"The team are in good shape and preparations are going well too. We've just won a four-team tournament including Colombia, Mexico and a Venezuela B side," said Rondon, when quizzed about how the Vinotinto intend to hit the ground running in September. "We're now set to play in a six-team round-robin tournament against Brazil, Egypt, Trinidad and Tobago, Paraguay and Costa Rica, all of whom have qualified for the World Cup. Those five are a class apart, a different challenge altogether. We'll then know where we stand and what needs improving."
"It's extremely tough," was Rondon's verdict on Group B, where Venezuela have been drawn at Egypt 2009. "Spain are quite a tactical team and are very technically gifted. Nigeria on the other hand are more physical, with very fast and dynamic players. Both are forces at this level. We don't know much about Tahiti yet but if they're there it's because they've earned it. We must tread carefully because there's a lot riding on every match. We'll have to study all three teams well so they don't catch us out and make us the laughing stock of the World Cup."
Not that the pressure is getting to a man who has already made his senior national team bow: "It's always there and you just have to know how to handle it. Particularly at a World Cup, where I imagine the footballing experience is very intense. You have to focus on what you want, what you're looking to achieve."
And that is? "Getting through the first round, at the very least. Our main goal is to treat every game like a final and see how far that gets us. You have to set your sights on being champions or finishing near the top."