- Deyna Castellanos, Venezuela's 18-year-old rising star, is one of the finalists for FIFA's Best Women's Player in the World award, which is shocking to plenty–including herself–but a testament to her potential.
Deyna Castellanos was just as surprised as everyone else.
It was a typical morning in August and Florida State’s 18-year-old Venezuelan forward was getting ready for training with her teammates when her phone buzzed.
"I was having breakfast with the team before training, in the physiotherapy room, and I got a notification about a tweet from FIFA.com saying I'd been nominated," said Castellanos last month. "I was absolutely buzzing when I read it; I started shouting and running around the treatment tables."
Castellanos had just been nominated for The Best FIFA Women’s Player award and eventually became a finalist, joining USA star and two-time reigning winner Carli Lloyd and Netherlands' Women's Euro 2017 hero Lieke Martens.
Additionally, her incredible goal against Cameroon in the 2016 U-17 Women’s World Cup was also nominated for the Puskas award. Both honors will be among those doled out in London on Monday at FIFA's annual gala.
She became the third female player to make it to the final three of the Puskas nominations and the second Venezuelan teen in successive years after her Vinotinto teammate Daniuska Rodriguez was also nominated in 2016.
“I am so, so happy to be nominated, and I’m so excited for the day of the awards ceremony to arrive. I try and enjoy my soccer as much as I can, whether it’s with Florida State, Venezuela or Santa Clarita (Castellanos spent her summer playing with this second-division team from the United Women’s Soccer League) and every single experience is so important to me as a player," Castellanos told SI.com this week.
There is no doubting the young Venezuelan’s ability or talent. Castellanos is an outstanding player, one with a tremendous future ahead of her, but given the number of more experienced players on the international stage who also deserved the nod, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that her nomination was a bit puzzling.
"I am extremely surprised to be nominated amongst these incredible players, and if you’re asking me if I expected this at 18 years old, then the answer is no,” she said, “But I will take this as an honor and a source of inspiration as these are the goals I expect for myself for many years to come.”
FIFA has long had perception issues when it comes to voting for women's honors (could you imagine a youth men's player being a finalist for The Best at the expense of accomplished, senior-level players, for instance?), and overall there's a ways to go for the women's game to be treated like the men's in all facets.
Castellanos believes that there is plenty of work left to do, but to also not completely ignore the achievements and steps that have already been made.
“There is still a lot to do with the women’s game, and FIFA can definitely do more to help it grow, but we have to remember that the most important thing is that at least, little by little, we’re moving forward and not backwards, so let’s keep shining a light on the women’s game.”
Castellanos uses South America as an example, where this year in Colombia launched the country’s first professional women's league, making it the fourth country on the continent to have a women's domestic league.
“South America and Latin America still needs to grow, and you can see how many steps behind we are from the U.S., but thanks to these new leagues that are turning pro, steps are being taken nonetheless.”
Castellanos is most certainly a success story, but her future most likely resides across the ocean, thousands of miles from home.
Born and raised in Maracay, Venezuela, a city about an hour and a half from Caracas, Castellanos's dream was to play college soccer in America.
Her dream began in 2013 at 14 years old, when she attended Juan Arango’s youth academy, named and founded after the legendary Venezuela national team player who currently plays for the New York Cosmos.
Almost immediately after joining, she was receiving recognition in the national setup. That same year she joined the U-17 Venezuelan squad and was part of the team’s first South American U-17 championship title. A year later, in 2014, she helped her country reach fourth place at the U-17 World Cup and won the Golden Boot, scoring six goals in the tournament alongside her teammate, Gabriela García.
She was also the highest scorer (seven goals) at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics in China, earning a silver medal for La Vinotinto.
Two years later, Castellanos helped her nation once again win the South American title, scoring 12 goals and winning the Golden Boot and MVP award. That same year, at the U-17 World Cup, Castellanos was awarded the Bronze Ball and Bronze Boot as Venezuela came fourth for a second consecutive time.
She currently holds the all-time scoring record in the tournament with 11 goals.
After last year’s World Cup, Castellanos could have gone pro, but her dream of playing soccer in the U.S. while continuing her education was her top priority. It was then when the young striker and her family met Guillermo Zamarripa, founder of CMAS Group, an educational and athletic organization based in Mexico and the U.S. that connects international–most notably Hispanic–young athletes with America colleges.
A few months later, Castellanos and her family had received dozens of college offers and ultimately went with Florida State.
“When I met Deyna and her mother for the first time, I learned very quickly she was very special,” Zamarripa said. “Her confidence is as big as her talent and yet she excels so much at being so humble. I think it’s really difficult to find that emotional balance in a teenager but she has that special 'something.' I really think she was born to change the landscape of women’s soccer worldwide.”
Arango, who says Castellanos can be a 'natural heir to Marta or Carli Lloyd,' also realized how special she is after her performance in Jordan at the U-17 World Cup last year.
“I can’t remember how many years ago it was when I first saw her play, but I do remember that I was impressed,” he said in 2016. “It was just amazing to see a girl of her age play with such skill and power, hit the ball with either foot and have such an explosive turn of pace. She’s studying in the U.S. right now and her studies are important too, because she’s still young. I don’t think it’ll be long before she’s off to Europe, though.”
Castellanos may be proving Arango’s point in the next few years, as playing for a Manchester City Women or Barcelona Femini is her ultimate goal.
“I am truly enjoying my time here in the U.S., but after FSU, the next step is Europe. No doubt. It’s something my family and I have discussed," Castellanos said.
Whether Castellanos deserves the FIFA nomination at such a young age is still up for debate, and while she might not be "The Best" just yet, she certainly appears to have the drive and tools to be on her way.