The journey every player must take from their first kick of a football to the international stage is long and fraught with obstacles.
So too, for Veronica Herrera, was the journey from the capital of Venezuela to the heart of Jordan, she and her team-mates having been sorely tested before booking their place at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2016. Put that down to a tough South American qualifying campaign, which opened up another arduous journey – for Herrera's family, who vowed to be at her side come what may.
"After the South American Championship, we started to look into the best way of getting here," her mother, Mary Carmen Souto, told FIFA.com during La Vinotinto's win against Cameroon at the Amman International Stadium. "To begin with we had a little trouble imagining how we were going to do it. We got more information and found a solution, but it wasn't easy. We travelled from Venezuela to Miami, then we stayed there for 24 hours before going from Miami to Istanbul and Istanbul to Amman. All in all, we were flying for 20 hours." No easy task, though she would not have had it any other way. "We were tired, but it was worth it," she added, pointing out her daughter on the pitch. Sitting next to her, all wearing Herrera shirts, the defender's grandfather and aunt both nodded in agreement.
"It's an extra motivation when I see them in the stands," the player herself explained to FIFA.com after the match. "Even before the South American Championship, I promised my mother and grandfather that if we qualified for the World Cup, I'd pay for their tickets to join me with the money I'd earn. As promised, that's just what I did." Her aunt then decided to join the adventure, and Herrera's beaming smile as she recounted the episode underlined how much she cherishes bringing joy to her loved ones.
Pride and joy
"I have a special relationship with her," said Herrera's aunt, Letty Hernandez, her face aglow as she talked about her niece. "Above all, because she's special. And she's been that way since she was born. She was born to be a winner. She's been a super girl ever since she was very little. Her energy and cheery nature are contagious for everyone around her. She makes us proud."
That pride extends beyond the family circle too, with Herrera's aunt noting that an entire nation has been swept up in the side's exploits. "The whole of Venezuela thanks them for what they're doing and the pride they've given us. Not just Veronica but the whole team. It's extraordinary what the girls have done, which unfortunately the men haven't. The people of Venezuela are united behind La Vinotinto."
Of all those millions of supporters, surely none are more attentive and demanding than Herrera's grandfather, Jose Souto. FIFA.com first met the 79-year-old at Costa Rica 2014 and he knows the defender better than anyone – which is why he was the least surprised to see her reach this level. "I've been taking to her every training session since she was five, and I always said to her that Venezuela would reach the World Cup one day," he told FIFA.com, his eyes glued to the Cameroon game.
Like the rest of the family, he cannot bear to miss a second. "After every match they come to see me at the hotel and tell me what I did well, what mistakes I made and what I can improve," explained Herrera, who has clearly had to hear a few harsh words over the years. "What advice do I give her? I just tell her that she always does everything badly," revealed Jose Souto with a grin, his eyes twinkling mischievously under a Vinotinto cap covering his silver hair. "That way, next time she does everything better."
Rolling with the punches
No sooner had he finished that sentence than his granddaughter came in for a clattering challenge which left her prone on the turf and requiring medical attention. While her mother and aunt bit their nails, Jose Souto remained calm. "That's part of football and I'm not afraid of taking a few knocks," stressed Herrera afterwards, having picked herself up and carried on. "Every time, my mother and my aunt get worried and tell me to be careful. As for my grandfather, he never worries because he knows that you're going to get knocks in every match."
Despite her concern, Herrera's mother knows the routine as well, having watched her daughter fall and get up hundreds of times. In that, she is like so many parents across the globe who have football-mad children, even if there still tend to be more boys playing the game than girls. Not that that ever mattered in Herrera's household. "People say it's a sport for boys, but above all it's a sport, and sport doesn't have a gender," argued her mother. "[Veronica] chose football at the age of five and since then we've got used to all the comments. But we've never seen it as a sport for boys, her least of all. It's never bothered me that she plays football."
Which is just as well, as it would surely have proved difficult living under the same roof. "She plays football, talks football and watches football," added her mother, with evident pride. "Football is her life."