CARACAS (Reuters) – Iraia Arrue chases a ball down the soccer field until she loses it near the goal line amid shouts from the bleachers and from her own team, sprinting for 90 minutes under the Venezuelan sun in a sports complex in eastern Caracas.
Arrue’s team, Deportivo Petare, is vying for a spot in the women’s Conmebol Libertadores tournament in March to represent Venezuela, where soccer has historically struggled to draw crowds.
Deportivo Petare’s 1-1 tie last week against rival Atletico Sport Club left it no closer to qualifying, but Arrue says there’s nothing more exciting than the possibility of playing against the best-known South American clubs.
“The emotion that one experiences from playing, for example, against Boca Junior, playing against Corinthians, from Brazil, it would be incredible,” said Arrue, a striker, at the Fray Luis de Leon Sports Complex in eastern Caracas.
Soccer has gained attention in the last two decades in Venezuela, which is traditionally dominated by baseball.
The Vinotinto women’s squad won a silver medal in the 2015 South American championships and striker Deyna Castellanos in 2020 joined Spain’s Atletico Madrid, showing the potential of Venezuela’s women soccer players.
Arrue, who plays in the Venezuelan amateur league, dreams of reaching the professional level with major European teams such as Olympique from Lyon, France.
The amateur league was created in 2004 and brings together about 30 teams and some 800 players, according to the Venezuelan Soccer Federation. Deportivo Petare was originally founded in 1948 by Italian immigrants.
Players living in Caracas have relatively easy access to the practice field in the upscale neighborhood of La Trinidad.
Others live in bedroom communities that require exhausting trips on run-down busses that are frequently out of service for lack of parts or fuel.
Yodanyelis Palacios, a tall 19-year-old mid-fielder remembers spending 10 hours a day in public transport to travel 57 kilometers (35 miles) from the suburb of Charallave to Caracas to train.
“If we add two hours of training, we are already talking about 12 hours, plus studies,” said Palacios. “It is already (so much) physical exhaustion that you start to think it is impossible, but it was not impossible.”
Palacios now dreams of “being an international player, being an elite player (… in) the United States, Spain” with powerful women’s leagues.
“Let it be known that in Venezuela, there is much more talent,” she said.
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)