Jóvenes – Where Are Venezuela’s Golden U20 Generation Now?

With the 22nd edition of the FIFA U20 Men’s World Cup approaching, it is time to look back at one of the most remarkable campaigns in recent memory – that of  Venezuela making their way to the final of the tournament. It would end in a 1-0 loss to England, but it was a remarkable achievement from a federation that had never participated in the final of a major international tournament or qualified for the World Cup proper.

Art by Onkar Shirsekar

The 2017 U20 World Cup was only La Vinotinto’s second appearance in the younger-level of the tournament. After a fascinating run through the group and knockout stages of the tournament, La Vinotinto faced an England squad full of talents like Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Lewis Cook, Dominic Solanke, Ademola Lookman, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

The run and burst of fame led to transfers to bigger clubs and leagues for the Vinotinto U20 squad, and the group to be named a golden generation. With Venezuelan footballers often struggling to break into the world’s top leagues, the burst of attention for this golden generation was indeed a game changer.

Where is that golden generation now? While some have found their careers largely cemented where they seemed determined to go prior to the world cup, others have managed to ride the wave to big clubs, big leagues, and international acclaim.

Prior to the 2017 U20 World Cup, only two Venezuelans had played in the Premier League, four in the Bundesliga, and nine in Serie A. In the year following the World Cup result, six Venezuelan youths, in addition to several older players, would make their way to Europe. From La Liga to the Bundesliga and Eliteserien, Venezuela would find itself on the map far more than ever before. In addition, a burst of Venezuelan talent would rush the top South American leagues in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.

The goal for almost any and all footballers from South or North America is to make it to Europe. It often proves too difficult for even the best talents, but several Venezuelan youths have found the way, though all are yet to break into the biggest clubs in the big five leagues.

A notable player at Zamora prior to his breakout summer with the U20’s, Ronald Hernandez has become a constant element in the senior national team, starting two games in late 2017 for Dudamel’s first team, along with an appearance in 2018 and 2019 each. He was on the bench for three additional matches. While not a definite starter due to depth in both fullback positions, Hernandez has had no problems breaking into the 18 and will surely be key for Venezuela in the 2019 Copa America.

His club career has also expanded, with a transfer in the August of 2017 sending him to Norwegian-club Stabæk. He’s made 38 appearances in the Eliteserien, recording four assists, and has become a regular face amongst the club’s matchday squad. While Stabæk have largely populated the lower and mid table, ninth and fourteenth positions specifically in the last two years, Hernandez has been able to build his portfolio as a starter in Europe in a way far beyond many of his fellow youngsters.

That struggle for first, or even second, division football has been one of the few question marks surrounding the progress of Nahuel Ferraresi.

Ferraresi has enjoyed a positive post-world cup career, one that has propelled him into the position of being a key centerback option for La Vinotinto at the senior level. He was sold to Torque of the Uruguayan top tier in the August of 2017 from Táchira. He would go on to appear for Torque seven times in 2018. However, with little promise of cementing his spot in the first team, he was sent on loan to CF Peralada of the Spanish third tier for the 18/19 season.

Despite a positive season for Ferraresi, Peralada seem set for relegation. The club are only ten points away from the midtable spot of 10th place, but a tight race for survival have left them bottom of the table. Ferraresi made 28 appearances for the club this season and has played in every single one of the club’s wins in that time, with the club going 0-6-3 when he has not played. He will return to Torque at the end of June.

Another player which will return from his current loan soon, thus returning to an unclear future, is Yangel Herrera. The U20 captain of La Vinotinto, Herrera was an immense stand out from the world cup squad. The midfielder had already moved to Manchester City and been loaned to New York City FC by the time the tournament had begun.

He would prove a key player for NYCFC in 2017 and 2018 but would not return for 2019. He would instead be loaned to Huesca, last place in La Liga at the time. He would prove a hugely useful addition for the club. The club’s record shifted from 2-4-12 prior to Herrera’s arrival to 3-6-6 when he played. The shift was simply not enough to prevent relegation, but Herrera will be pleased to have received strong minutes in one of the world’s top leagues. While in Spain, he played primarily as a central midfielder, though he also saw time as a right back.

Herrera has also become a must-have in the senior national team. Having made his debut as a substitute in 2016, Herrera became a cemented starter in late 2017. He has started 7 games since that shift, missing two via injury. Venezuela has only lost once when Herrera has started.

Herrera scored his first Vinotinto goal against Paraguay in the last day of 2018 World Cup qualifiers, killing their chances of qualifying. The sight of the young man running toward the booing crowd, hands cupped around his ears, left few doubting that Dudamel had indeed found the hard-knock midfield successor to the likes of Tomas Rincon.

While Herrera seems poised to become a star following his heroics for Venezuela, there is one player in the midst of a European adventure who had been a hope for the nation long before 2017 but has a quite foggy future. This is of course the much-traveled Adalberto Peñaranda.

Peñaranda, a key piece in the U20’s despite missing a penalty in the final, had been signed by Watford FC, via Udinese, over a year before the world cup in question. He did not, however, feature for the club until 2019. This is, above all, due to a series of work permit rejections which made the Venezuelan unable to work in England. Unable to play for his club, Peñaranda would be loaned out to Granada CF, Udinese, and Málaga CF over the course of two years. This would help the Venezuelan collect 39 La Liga appearances and six Serie A appearances. The forward would finally receive his permit in 2018 and take part in Watford’s 2018-19 season. He has since made two FA Cup appearances and been on the bench for two league matches, though depth and a minor injury have prevented the player from appearing further.

Peñaranda had already appeared for the senior national team 10 times prior to the U20 World Cup and has continued to be a part of the roster, though his struggles with Watford did lessen his presence due to a lack of club play. He has made the recent 40-man roster and appeared against the UAE in 2018.

Another stand out in Europe has been Peñaranda’s partner on the other wing during the final, Sergio Córdova.

One of Venezuela’s biggest threats in the U20 World Cup, Córdova was an unstoppable goal scorer and won goal of the tournament for his slick moves against Mexico. His heroics won him a move to FC Augsburg from Caracas, becoming the fifth Venezuelan to play in the Bundesliga. Making 46 league appearances over the following two seasons, Cordova has scored five and assisted two goals. This low rate is best explained by his lack of playtime. The Venezuelan, usually used as a substitute, has only played roughly 1,000 minutes over the course of those two seasons. The forward has also missed 15 matches over the last two years due to injuries.

This hasn’t stopped him from becoming a notable face amongst the Augsburg squad, where he will remain on contract until 2022. Córdova will not be involved in the 2019 Copa America due to injury, but his eight senior team caps over the last two years reflect that, when healthy, he is part of Dudamel’s plans.

Success is not exclusive to Europe, however, and some would argue that the most potent of the U20 veterans are still in South America, developing their talents in anticipation of a major move to Europe.

Prior to the U20 World Cup, Wuilker Fariñez had created a platform for his career at Caracas FC. He made 52 competitive appearances for his hometown club before leaving. A rare example of a player who had made their senior national team debut before their U20 debut, Fariñez would soon earn the spot as the clear number one for La Vinotinto following his success at the U20 World Cup, where he went four games without conceding a goal.

Fariñez is now the undoubted starting goalkeeper for Millonarios in the Colombian first division. The transfer came in the first day of 2018, at which point the player was valued at 1.35 million pounds, according to Transfermarkt. Fariñez won a trophy, the Superliga Colombia, in his second appearance for Millonarios. 46 appearances in, Fariñez has proven a huge asset for the club and has kept 19 clean sheets in all competitions, leading Millonarios to a domestic cup final and deep into the Copa Sudamericana.

As of the writing of this article Millonarios had finished top of the table in the Apertura season and were at the top of their playoff group. On May 9th, 2019, AS.com reported that FC Barcelona were looking at the Venezuelan as a possible replacement for Jasper Cillessen.

Fariñez is joined amongst the ranks of Venezuelans at historic South American clubs by Yeferson Soteldo, one of Venezuela’s most skilled young prospects. Though only appearing as a substitute, Soteldo has perhaps found himself at the biggest club of the entire golden generation.

A short yet deadly attacking force, Soteldo was a standout in every way for the U20’s. His role as a substitute in several matches didn’t stop him from kicking off a strong career. Rumors emerged following the world cup that winger was a target for Europe’s biggest clubs, though this proved fruitless. Instead, Soteldo began a career in the spotlight of South America, with strong spells at Huachipato and Universidad de Chile setting him up for a major move to Santos FC. Soteldo has played all of Santos’ six league games at the time of writing, starting all but one and scoring once.

Now an immovable part of the Brazilian giant’s squad, Soteldo dawns the famed number 10 shirt once worn by the likes Pelé. His form of 7 goals and 12 assists in Chile has carried over well and he scored his first Santos goal in his fourth appearance, with the club winning all three games he has started as of the writing of this article. He has also seen his Vinotinto profile expand and now has 9 caps to his name, though most have come as substitutes.

While Soteldo proved a major face of the 2017 campaign, Venezuela now places many hopes on a player who was far away from the spotlight for much of the tournament. His name? Samuel Sosa, the freekick specialist.

Sosa would prove a bigger piece for the 2018-19 rendition of the U20 Venezuelan National Team, but his last-minute free kick equalizer against Uruguay in 2017 would foreshadow the development of a great player. Sosa was granted a move to Argentinian-side Talleres in the beginning of 2018, where he has made five first team appearances and scored a goal, while being more active in the club’s youth squad. At the young age of 19, Sosa is already being incorporated into the senior Vinotinto side and was named to Dudamel’s 40-man early roster for the Copa America.

Sosa has received attention for his stylish free kick goals and was recently named one of South America’s top young talents by Bleacher Report.

Another shining young star of Venezuela can be found in Argentina, in the form of Jan Hurtado. Given little playing time in the 2017 tournament due to a high level of depth in the forward positions, Hurtado has since proven one of Venezuela’s most promising young strikers.

He moved from Táchira, where he was mostly a reserve team player, to Gimnasia in 2018. The Argentinian side has become a good home for the 19-year-old, who has become a must-have in the matchday squad and scored league two goals. He helped the side to a 2018 Copa Argentina final, while also scoring in the 2019 Copa de la Superliga. He also debuted for La Vinotinto at the senior level in their 3-1 win over Argentina in 2019.

Linked with the likes of Newcastle and Porto, Hurtado recently stated an interest in staying in Argentina. His future is not clear, though the development of the player and his recent breakout into the senior Vinotinto roster all seem to be headed in a positive direction.

While Venezuela’s golden generation has not produced as many globally known names as their opponents in the final, they have indeed changed the narrative for la Vinotinto. They have brought the flag of Venezuela to new clubs and new nations. Time will tell how many, if any, become stars of the world’s game.