When the shortlist of nominees for FIFA’s The Best Women’s Player award, one member of the final trio stood out for all the wrong reasons. While USWNT and Manchester City star Carli Lloyd has her bonafides, and Barcelona’s Dutch talisman Lieke Martens rightfully won the award, it was Venezuela’s relatively unknown striker Deyna Castellanos that raised eyebrows. Sure, Castellanos was also nominated for the Puskas Award–given to the best goal of the year, eventually won by Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud for his insane scorpion kick–but many who follow the women’s game felt that the Maracay-born 18-year-old was simply not at the level of her competition. At least, not yet.
Outspoken US sparkplug Megan Rapinoe said as much in her comments about FIFA’s perceived disrespect of the women’s game: “The award just doesn’t hold a lot of weight when you’ve got someone on the list I’ve never heard of,” said the 33-year-old USWNT standout. “If some random male player, who was not even a full professional, was nominated, I’m sure they would step in for that, so it’s disappointing that the same hasn’t been done for us.”
While Rapinoe is right that there were other qualified candidates–such as Germany’s Dzsenifer Marozsán or Denmark’s Pernille Harder–that should have leapfrogged Castellanos in the top 3, it is willfully ignorant of her to say she’s never heard of the Venezuelan. Aside from her world-class goal (Rapinoe’s national teammate Lloyd scored a similar goal and was rightfully praised, it must be noted), Castellanos has been at the head of an emergence for Venezuela’s women’s soccer team, one that could still beat the men’s team in the unofficial race to be the country’s first representative at a senior-level World Cup.
Castellanos first truly emerged on the world scene at the 2014 Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica. Alongside teammate Gabriela García, Castellanos finished the tournament as top scorer, with 6 goals in 6 matches. Venezuela finished in 4th place, losing in the semi-finals to eventual champions Japan and then in the third-place match to Italy on penalties, but it was the country’s best finish at any level of international tournament ever. Maybe the craziest part of what Castellanos accomplished in Costa Rica is this: she had yet to even turn 15 during the tournament.
Of course, the great talents don’t just have one stellar tournament and fade away; international soccer has plenty of names that flamed out after shining bright in one competition. Josimar at the 1986 World Cup, for example. But Castellanos would repeat the feat at the 2016 U-17 World Cup in Jordan, where she put 5 goals in the back of the net as Venezuela, once again, finished in 4th place. While she wasn’t the top scorer that time–Spain’s Lorena Navarro tallied 8 on the way to a third-place finish–Castellanos proved that the bubbling hype about her wasn’t ill-advised.
Once again, Venezuela had surprised at a major tournament, losing only to the eventual champions, North Korea, in the semi-finals. In the process, Castellanos also became the all-time leading goalscorer in the history of the U-17 World Cup, with 11 scores; since most players only get one shot at the tournament before aging out of the bracket, it’s doubly impressive that she was able to not only play at the age of 14, but even lead that edition of the tournament in goals.
While U-17 successes don’t necessarily translate to senior team accolades, in the case of Castellanos and La Vinotinto, there’s reason for optimism as the cycle for the 2019 Women’s World Cup truly begins in earnest. Despite missing out on the 2015 edition of the tournament due to a last-match draw at the 2014 Copa América Femenina, Venezuela should be favored to, at the very least, make the last round of the 2018 Copa América. And this is where CONMEBOL’s quirky qualification process for both the World Cup and the Summer Olympics comes into play.
Venezuela has something few others in CONMEBOL can claim to have: a superstar-in-the-making.
South America’s 10 teams fight over 2.5 spots for the World Cup via the quadrennial continental tournament known as the Copa América. The countries are split into 2 groups of 5, where the top 2 in each group advance to a final stage. In that final stage, consisting of the 4 teams that advance from the group stage, the top 2 advance directly to both the following World Cup and the following Summer Olympics. The third place team advances to a continental playoff against CONCACAF for a slot in the World Cup. Venezuela, in the 2014 edition of the Copa América Femenina, needed a victory against Peru in their final match to advance into the final stage, as long as Uruguay beat Ecuador in those countries’ final match–which they did. Unfortunately for La Vinotinto, a 0-0 draw left them out, but not without hope for the future.
Heading into the 2018 Copa América, the hierarchy of South America appears clear: Brazil will surely at least finish in a World Cup qualifying spot (the Seleçao have won every iteration of the tournament except the 2006 edition held in Argentina and won by the hosts; Brazil finished 2nd). Behind them, Colombia had a strong showing in 2015 and looks to still be the best of the rest. But the other 8 teams are as much of a crapshoot as can be, and Venezuela has something few others in CONMEBOL can claim to have: a superstar-in-the-making in Castellanos. Tournaments are won by team talent as much as individual moments of brilliance, and if the 18-year-old can take a leap during the Copa, it could be enough to get Venezuela to the 2019 World Cup in France.
Since her successes at the 2016 U-17 World Cup, Castellanos has been called up to the U-20 squad that will look to qualify to that age group’s World Cup in France next summer; first, she will play in the U-20 South American U-20 Women’s Football Championship in early 2018. Castellanos is also starring at both her college team of Florida State University–21 goals in 28 appearances for the Seminoles–and her pro-am side, the Santa Clarita Blue Heat of second division league United Women’s Soccer. With the commitments to her club, her university, and both the U-20 and the senior team for her country on the horizon, Castellanos’ top 3 finish could be premature but telling; she could soon be good enough to put doubters’ minds at ease.
While Rapinoe might be willing to plead ignorance in order to make a larger point, those paying attention to more than just FIFA’s generally worthless award ceremonies will know that, if Venezuela is to build on its youth success, it will be in part due to Castellanos’ meteoric rise. And if Venezuela does qualify for the senior World Cup in 2019, one hopes that they will be drawn against the United States, so Rapinoe won’t be able to ignore the generational talent lining up across from her.