• Yangel Herrera scores history-making winner for Venezuela against Japan
  • Herrera has captained all the national teams he has played for, from the U-15s up
  • He signed for Manchester City in February and was loaned out to New York City FC

There were 108 minutes on the clock, and Venezuelan legs were weighing heavy with the heat, nearly two hours of exertion and the tension created by the chance to make history and reach the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarter-finals. But with penalties looming, Yangel Herrera kept a cool head to win the day. Having seen that the Japanese players were waiting for him at the near post at every corner kick, he decided to hang back, finding the space he needed to nod home the winner.

“I told Nahuel (Ferraresi, one of Venezuela’s centre-halves) to attack the space and take my marker with him to the near post,” the cool-headed Herrera told FIFA.com after scoring the goal that took his team through to the last eight at Korea Republic 2017, the first time Venezuela have gone so far in the history of the competition. “That left me on my own and all I had to do was get my head on it. When I saw the net ripple… I just can’t describe how it felt. It’s a huge dream. I’m so happy.”

It is not the first time Herrera has scored a crucial goal. His 89th-minute equaliser against Peru at the U-20 South American Championship ended up taking his side through to the final phase. Asked what his secret is, Herrera chose to speak instead about his team-mates: “We do a lot of work on set-pieces in training and we’ve got a few routines up our sleeve. (Ronaldo) Lucena is really good at taking free-kicks. The ball always comes in at a nice pace and in the right place too. I know where it’s going to end up and I really attack it. I go in there with a lot of belief.”

A ball-playing midfielder in Rafael Dudamel’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Herrera is Venezuela’s linchpin. “He’s a natural leader. That’s why he’s been team captain in every age group: U-15s and U-17s,” said his coach, who took him to the 2016 Copa America Centenario and has given him two senior caps in the South American qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. “And here he is setting the seal in brilliant fashion on his youth career as the U-20 captain.”

“I’ve earned it. I’ve worked hard for this and I enjoy being captain,” said Herrera, still only 19. “I really take a close look at people who command respect, people who are leaders on the pitch and off it. We’ve also got a coach who really motivates you, who really motivates the more senior players in the squad. He’s always talking to us about leadership so that we know how to handle ourselves in the squad.”

Learning from legends
Herrera’s talent, nurtured with Atletico Venezuela, was spotted by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City scouts. The English Premier League side signed the player this February and then loaned him out to New York City FC. In the lead-up to a match at the end of April, two months after moving to the MLS, his club coach Patrick Vieira told him he would be starting ahead of Andrea Pirlo. He went on to score in his side’s victory that day.

“Vieira and Pirlo have helped me so much,” said the young midfielder. “I’ve learned that the standard is much higher abroad and that I’ve got a lot of improving to do if I want to cement my place here.” Herrera went on to reveal that Vieira, Spanish striker David Villa and Argentinian midfielder Maxi Moralez texted him before the tournament, wishing him good luck. “It’s exciting that they’re following me and my career.”

Though things could hardly be going better for him at this moment in time, and though he is a big believer in taking things one step at a time, Herrera believes Venezuela have what it takes to maintain their momentum: “We’ve got a great squad, some fantastic players, and we’re dreaming. We have faith and we know we can become the world champions.”