- Venezuela and Santos' Yeferson Soteldo speaks exclusively with FIFA.com
- The diminutive midfielder gained global attention at the 2017 U-20 World Cup
- He talks about his challenging upbringing, Messi's influence on him and much more
The Venezuelan Yeferson Soteldo is one of the most electrifying players competing in South America today, and while he may be only 1.58m (5’2) tall, it would be a mistake to underestimate him, as plenty of teams can attest.
The 23-year-old attacking midfielder is currently excelling with Brazilian giants Santos and is one of the reasons Venezuela are daring to dream of a maiden FIFA World Cup™ appearance at Qatar 2022.
Curiously, he made his full national team debut (under Noel Sanvicente) before being called up to the U-20 side. Unperturbed, he went on to gain global attention as part of Rafael Dudamel's historic team that finished runners-up at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017.
Which is not to say his journey to that point had been easy. He endured a tough childhood and challenging upbringing in El Muertico, a disadvantaged neighbourhood, where he managed to escape some bad company, but to which he returns whenever he can.
Soteldo spoke with FIFA.com about those early years, the influence Lionel Messi and Jorge Sampaoli have had on his career, as well as the South American qualifiers – in which he is currently competing for the second time after playing five games in the previous edition.
FIFA.com: How and when did your love affair with football begin?
Yeferson Soteldo: At a very young age. Other sports were fashionable in my neighbourhood, but all I wanted was a football. My dad soon noticed this, and so footballs were what I got for presents. At nine I joined a team that used to compete against older kids, and I quickly realised it was my passion.
Do you remember your first ball?
Yes, it was a futsal ball! We used to play in the street with stones marking the goals. That helped develop my style a little bit, being able to dribble in tight spaces and put my foot on the ball. Until I was 12, I played more five-a-side than anything else. In fact, I still play it whenever I go back to my neighbourhood.
You’ve said on more than one occasion that football saved your life. How so?
I grew up with some friends – well people I called friends at the time – and we’d been hanging out together since I was six. By the age of 11, they were starting to go off the rails and by 12 were already robbing. Suddenly they could afford lots of things while I had nothing. That’s when I began heading in the same direction. However, when I was 13, one of them got killed, and that was when I asked myself: 'What am I doing here?'
Around that time, I had the chance to play in a game that would be attended by a scout from Caracas FC, but as my football boots were busted, I decided not to go. Then on the day of the game, my team were losing and came looking for me. 'We’ll lend you a pair of boots,' they told me, and so off I went. We were losing 2-0 when they sent me on in the No10 role, and we turned it around with two goals and an assist from me. That's how I got my chance to join Caracas, which was the best thing that ever happened to me.
How did you feel the first time you were told you wouldn't succeed because of your size?
A lot of things came from that moment. I’d been let go by Caracas and I was looking to start again from scratch. I was having a trial and doing well, only for one of the staff to tell me that they’d decided against me on account of my physique and that I should forget about a career in football. If you're an impressionable, submissive kid, then maybe you quit, and I almost did. But I wasn't weak and understood that I couldn't let those words get to me. Then I went to a state tournament in Barinas, attended by 'Chita' Sanvicente, who’d just been appointed Zamora coach. I was just about to turn 15. He saw me play and the rest is history.
Is it true that Messi was your inspiration back then?
Yes! I looked at him as another small guy and thought, 'If he can become one of the best in the world, what’s to stop me making it?' Besides, we had similar styles. I felt that, while maybe I wasn't going to be the best, at least I could excel like him. I named my first son, who I had at 18, Thiago Mateo after him. [Editor's note: Messi’s eldest son is called Thiago and his second-born Mateo.]
Following successful spells at Zamora, Huachipato and Universidad de Chile, you were signed by Santos and given the club’s No10 shirt famously worn by Pele. Did you worry that might be a burden?
Actually, it was me who asked for it! The first thing I did when I arrived was to ask if the No10 shirt was available. I know what it represents, but it never burdened me. What's more, on the day of my unveiling, I was given a shirt with no number, so I reminded the president I wanted the No10. I think he thought I was joking! Then they printed it, and when I turned my back to show the crowd, the stadium erupted.
Jorge Sampaoli brought you to the club, but then one day he says to you, "You don't play for me again until you learn to defend." How did you deal with that situation?
I made my first appearance soon after signing and scored on my debut. But after three or four games, he stopped putting me in the team. Before the classico against Palmeiras, he gave me that ultimatum, which was when I understood what was going on. As I’m someone who heeds my coaches' advice, I worked hard and changed. Now, I could run 10 or 11 kilometres per game. He's one of the coaches who has taught me the most thus far.
Your explosive form for Santos also coincided with some of your best performances for the national team. What does La Vinotinto mean to you?
It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and one of the best things in my life, because it helped teach me not to look back. I also wear the No10 for my country, which is something I dreamed about from the moment I first pulled on a shirt with that number. I will always do my best to be available for the national team.
Ahead of the qualifiers, there were high hopes that this squad could make it to Qatar. How would you assess the start of your campaign, which has yielded just three out of a possible 12 points?
It was hard… difficult and not exactly what we expected. We quickly realised that, performing like that, we weren't going to qualify, so we talked it out behind closed doors. We have the talent and players needed to qualify, but we had to change quickly and put our egos to one side, among other things. That was noticeable against Brazil, despite losing that game, and against Chile. I can assure you’ll see it again in the upcoming FIFA qualifiers. The goal is to be in Qatar.
What was the key to that first win over Chile in your most recent qualifier?
Understanding that we can't go out to defend when at home. Nor can we do it on the road either, although it can also depend on the opponent. Respectfully, I’d rather lose while taking on opponents than while defending against them. I want the wingback to spend more time marking me than I do him. Against Chile we kept a higher line, we were better at getting into their box and created more scoring chances.
Several of your former team-mates that were U-20 World Cup runners-up in 2017 are also in the senior squad. What role have you guys been assigned?
We contribute by doing whatever’s asked of us, although the message should be: "If these youngsters could do it, then so can we." The fans are also excited now that they’ve experienced the final of a World Cup, and they let you know that. But it's more of a motivation than a burden.
Ecuador and Peru are next on the horizon for Venezuela. How would you assess those opponents?
Ecuador are very tough, especially when at home, but this time they have to come to Venezuela, which we need to capitalise on. With Chile, our plan to press them and play a high line worked, so I imagine something similar, although Ecuador can be very quick on the break. Peru haven’t had the best of starts, but they qualified for the last World Cup and reached the final of the 2019 Copa America. Thinking they’re now ‘a bad team’ would be a big mistake.
Are you obsessed on seeing Venezuela finally make their World Cup debut at Qatar 2022?
It's a clear goal and something that’s on my wish list, so I'll give everything possible to make it happen. But I’ve learned not to get obsessed about things, otherwise I'd go crazy and wouldn’t be able to make a career from football.
Experiencing fatherhood at such a young age. "At 18, the prospect of becoming a father scared me, but it helped me mature, and my career progressed. It was God's blessing."
Coping with fame. "In Venezuela it’s more low key, but in Brazil it’s intense. If you’re recognised, then you can be suddenly surrounded by people. With my children, Thiago Mateo (5), Rihana (3) and Oliver (2), I explain to them that it happens because Daddy’s playing football well."
His foray into e-sports. "I like to play Fortnite, and during the pandemic I practiced a lot. That's when I decided to create my own team. I play for fun, but my players are professionals."
The future. "Today I can say that I’m ready to take it to the next level, although I feel good here at Santos. We’ll see after the Copa America. I’ve always liked the English league."