• 19-year-old Sergio Cordova leads scoring charts with four goals
  • Full of confidence again after fine display in opening match against Germany
  • Suffered a serious injury in 2016: “It made me a better player.” 

July 2016 was not a good month for Venezuela striker Sergio Cordova, nor August, September or October. La Pantera (“The Panther”) had broken the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and was still in pain, despite having undergone surgery. Even the hardest times are an opportunity to learn and develop, however, and Cordova took this one to become a more mature and fully rounded player.

“The recovery was very tough but the injury helped me improve an awful lot,” the 19-year-old told FIFA.com, sitting quietly in a chair and projecting the exact opposite image to who he is on the pitch: an explosive goalscorer who is the leading marksman at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 and one of the revelations of the tournament.

“It made me understand the game more, and it made me learn more skills and more things,” added Cordova. “You sit there and think about why this has happened to you, and it’s made me a better player. Before, I liked to get hold of the ball and run with it. Now, though, I like to link up more. I understand the game more, about being tactically organised, and I pay attention to the coach. That’s what I call growing up.”

That awareness of what the team needs has played a crucial part in Cordova becoming every defence’s worst nightmare at Korea Republic 2017 and in Venezuela top-scoring in the group phase, all without conceding a single goal. “Our prime concern is to be organised in a tactical sense, and then we try to open up a little and express ourselves,” he said. “We can do that because we’ve got a great squad, as we’ve shown here.”

In expressing themselves, Cordova and Adalberto Penaranda wreak havoc down the flanks, while Ronaldo Pena spins and probes, with Yeferson Soteldo creating. Lethal in the group phase, the attacking quartet are also inseparable off the pitch.

“We’re known for our speed. We’re all very quick,” said Cordova. “Each of us, in our different positions, understands the game and that makes us strong in attack. We also stick together, which is crucial. We always sit on the back seat and we joke around and have a laugh. We’re friends and you can see that on the pitch.”

The feline Cordova, who measures 6’2 (1.88m) tall, is as mentally strong as they come. He made his debut with Caracas FC in 2015 thanks to a rule introduced by the Venezuelan FA (FVF) that season, namely that teams have to have one player eligible for U-20 selection on the pitch and another on the bench.

Cordova, who has been stationed down the right in Korea Republic, has remained a centre-forward with his club but has played only 186 minutes of football for them this season: “I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t in my best shape mentally.” By the time Venezuela ran out face Germany in their opening match at Korea Republic 2017, however, he was ready to seize the opportunity: “You look around you and you think: ‘Wow!’ You’re at a World Cup! We have to make the most of it. The 21 of us have to give our all in representing my country, my team-mates, my family and my town and go as far as we can. That’s what’s got me dreaming.”

His goal against the Germans and his overall performance helped him regain his confidence, as he acknowledged. Next up for Venezuela are Japan in the last 16. And Cordova is determined to stay focused for the occasion: “Good times come and go in football and if you go up then you’re bound to come down at some stage. That’s why I like to keep my feet on the ground.”

Also helping him in that task is Rafael Castrillo, who was his coach back in his hometown of Calabozo: “It’s a very down-to-earth place. He reminds me of where I’m from and he always follows me closely. He sends me messages, which means a lot to me. It really motivates me."