At 5'2 (1.58m), Yeferson Soteldo is the second shortest player at Korea Republic 2017
The midfielder was one of the stars of Venezuela’s defeat of Germany
He has made three appearances in the qualifiers for Russia 2018
At first sight from the stands in Daejeon on Saturday, Venezuela’s Yeferson Soteldo looked slightly out of place, a little boy taking on giants. A mere 5'2 tall, he had to crane his neck to look up at Germany’s towering defenders, who stood an average eight inches taller than him. Yet what he lacks in physical stature, Manzanita ('Little Apple') more than makes up for with his devilish talent, as he proved by giving the German rearguard a torrid 90 minutes.
"They were all pretty tall, but I like being small because it makes it harder for them to get a hold of me," the Venezuela No10 told FIFA.com after starring in his side’s comprehensive 2-0 win in their opening match at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.
Though Soteldo did not get on the scoresheet, he drove his markers to distraction from his withdrawn position just behind the strikers, not least in the second half.
"It’s hard for them to stop me there," he said. "I like to be facing the goal when I get on the ball. It makes it much harder for them to get their hands on me than when I have my back to goal."
Soteldo found it hard to make much of an impact in the first half, mainly because of the suffocating heat, with temperatures feeling distinctly higher than the 28ºC on the thermometer. "The weather didn’t help me much. I felt very tired," he explained. "Whenever I got on the ball, I had two or three around me and I didn’t even have time to think. We had a chat at half-time, I freshened up for the second half and things worked out better for us."
Though Soteldo usually operates down the flanks – mainly the left on account of being left-footed – Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel and Miguel Ponce, his coach at the Chilean club Huachipato, have been deploying him in a more central role. The idea is to minimise the physical disadvantage he normally faces by giving him shorter distances to cover. It is a switch that has made him a real threat to opposing defences.
I come from a very dangerous part of town, but luckily football saved me from a life of crime.
"He’s an explosive player, which makes him very hard to stop when he’s one on one against a defender," his national team coach told FIFA.com. "We’ve worked hard on teaching him how to play in the centre of the pitch, where he can link up more and get the team playing. He’s learning where he can take people on and where he can’t, and having him around makes us stronger as a whole."
Manzanita chasing match fitnessThe attacking midfielder is still striving for full match fitness after falling victim to a hefty challenge sustained in a Chilean league match a month ago, which almost caused him to miss the tournament. "I was crying when I went down because I was scared I wasn’t going to make the World Cup," he recalled. "Luckily God is great. He’s always with me and I was able to recover."
Missing out on the first major tournament of his career would have been a cruel blow for Soteldo, who has already represented his country on three occasions in the South American qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Born in 1997 in the city of Acarigua, in an underprivileged neighbourhood called El Muertico, the diminutive playmaker owes his life to football. "I come from a very dangerous part of town. By the time I was 11 I was already on a slippery slope, but luckily football saved me from a life of crime. Football and wearing the Venezuela jersey have saved me more than anything else."
There were tears in his eyes as the national anthem sounded before the meeting with Germany.
"Playing in a World Cup is a dream for me," he said. Not content with having terrorised German giants, however, he is aiming for more: "We’ve set ourselves a goal: to be the champions."