Venezuela’s ice-cool hero

For many people Venezuela's 1-0 defeat of Nigeria last Friday was the first major surprise of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009. The tournament debutants' unexpected triumph against one of the powerhouses of African football was greeted with delight back home, with thousands of jubilant fans celebrating on the streets of Venezuela's major towns and cities.

The man who triggered those celebrations was Yonathan del Valle, whose goal on the stroke of half-time helped his country secure a historic win in their first match in a FIFA tournament. And as the Vinotinto hero tells, he has taken all the excitement in his stride. "I got a good night's sleep that night. I'm a striker and I knew that I'd get a chance to score at some point of the match. Deep down I expected it. So when I went to bed my head hit the pillow and that was it."

And as he goes on to explain, the fearless finisher, who lists Samuel Eto'o among his idols, also had the presence of mind to remember a very special request on scoring the all-important goal. "As soon as I saw the ball go in I thought of my mother. She's always supported me and she's the main reason I'm here. She even called me on the morning of the game and asked me to keep my shirt on if I scored a goal. And like the good son that I am, I did what she told me."

The 19-year-old Del Valle first started showing an interest in the game when he was six. After taking up indoor football he joined an academy, moving on from there to his first club, Carabobo FC, where he made his debut at the age of 17. "I was told by a few people that I had what it took to become a great player but I wasn't so sure. I followed my family's advice though, and here I am."

As soon as I saw the ball go in I thought of my mother. She's always supported me and she's the main reason I'm here.
Jonathan Del Valle, Venezuela forward.

A nerveless display
For the speedy front man, who made his full international debut in a friendly against Syria last August, the key to victory over the Nigerians was the way he and his team-mates approached the game.

"We managed to handle our debut nerves," he explains. "We told ourselves it was just another match and that we needed to play a relaxed game. We hit the post early on, which gave us confidence, and as time went by we loosened up completely. That's why we went on to win."

Despite their successful start, Del Valle believes his side have plenty of room for improvement. "We missed a lot of chances and although they were a man down they still managed to create plenty of chances of their own. We've already put in some work to ensure that those things don't happen against Tahiti."

Venezuela face the Pacific islanders on Monday evening and the Deportivo Tachira man is refusing to underestimate them. "Some will say they're the weakest team and that Venezuela should win easily, But if we start believing things like that, we'll be in trouble. This game is vital to our hopes of going through and we have to go out with the same mindset that we had against Nigeria."

Having made such a good start, many people are now asking just how far La Vinotinto might go in Egypt. Aware of the growing belief in them, Del Valle is anxious to rein in expectations and focus on the immediate task in hand.

"Venezuela have the ability to go far, but we prefer to go out on the pitch and do our talking there. The only way to achieve big things is to take things one game at a time. All the same, who doesn't dream of becoming champions?"