Under normal circumstances, if a visitor were to unexpectedly turn up at someone’s doorstep laden with gifts, most people opening their door would tend to wonder what the catch was. Venezuelan U-17 defender Sandra Luzardo thought exactly that the day that Lady Luck came calling.
Instead of a knock at the door, however, the twist of fate took the shape of a Venezuelan international sending the following message to Luzardo’s Instagram account: “Hello, my name is Francisco Pol; I’ve been capped for La Vinotinto, and now I play my club football in the Greek second division. I would like to be your sponsor and help you in any way that you might need.”
Luzardo rubbed her eyes, initially wondering if she had read the note incorrectly. She responded: “I don’t know you. Is this serious or just a joke?” A check of the calendar revealed that it could not be an April fool or a Christmas present. A quick call to the Venezuelan national team’s press officer revealed that Pol’s offer was as serious as they come.
At the same moment, and on the same social network, Dayana Rodriguez received a similar message from Meche Diaz Albertini, a Venezuelan player living in the United States. “She got in touch, we chatted, and she told me she wanted to support me so that I could have a better future,” the 14-year-old told FIFA.com. "She’s Venezuelan like me, and as there’s not a lot of support for women’s football in Venezuela, she was keen to help me out and get involved."
These players are just two examples of the beneficiaries of a project launched by Venezuelan international Christian Santos. The Alaves striker decided to sponsor a defender in the U-20 women’s side, Barbara Serrano, after she wrote to him describing the difficulties facing women’s football back home, where the lack of support and resources makes it very difficult for young female players to aspire to emulate their male idols.
Touched by her sentiments, Santos subsequently became the first sponsor of a Venezuelan women’s youth international, and encouraged his Vinotinto team-mates to follow his lead.
A few months later, Luzardo and Rodriguez now find themselves in Amman, where they cannot stop smiling. This is not just because their team has managed to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016, but also because the aforementioned supportive messages have changed their lives. “When I realised that it was a serious offer, we began to talk and to get to know each other better,” said Luzardo, who quickly built a trustful relationship with her sponsor.
“I’ve contacted him a few times, and he’s got back to me and has given me more advice each time. As he’s also a footballer, he understands me, and he’s always there when I need him. He tells me that I have to work hard, try to do everything well, and take a disciplined approach. He motivates me and shows me the way,” she continued.
The relationship that Rodriguez has developed with the woman she describes as 'Queen Mage' is similar, with one key difference. “I’ve got the honour of having the only female sponsor involved in the project, and that’s a special feeling,” she said proudly. “She encourages me and advises me, and tells me to never give up because things don’t always come easily, and you have to make a lot of sacrifices to be successful.”
As well as daily psychological boosts, the benefactors supply useful material support to their protégées, who often come from difficult backgrounds. “Francisco has sent me boots, jerseys, t-shirts and shorts: everything you need to play football,” said Luzardo, whose face lights up at the mention of the packages that she receives from Greece in her home in Merida.
“The first time a package arrived, I took off all the wrapping and screamed for joy!” she recalled, acting out the scene by animatedly throwing her arms around. “I brought the boots and shinpads that he sent me to Jordan. I’m being very careful with them!”
“These gifts help us a lot and motivate us to do our best,” said Rodriguez, who goes through the same emotions when packages make their way from Florida to Guarico, one of Venezuela’s poorest provinces. “If we continue our run here, maybe we’ll get more presents,” she joked, laughing out loud, but nevertheless convinced that she and her team-mates are capable of beating Korea DPR in the semi-finals and of going on to lift the U-17 Women’s World Cup.
That potential success would bring the two young players closer to their dream of packing their bags and playing in a foreign league. “Francisco is living the life that I would like to live,” said Luzardo. “He’s playing abroad, but he still wants to give something back to his own country, and I would love to follow in his footsteps by moving to another country and getting to know another culture.” Rodriguez, meanwhile, describes her sponsor as a “role model”.
In fact, Luzardo had already emulated her sponsor even before he got in touch with her. And while she enjoys the support he has offered her, she also knows what it is like to fulfil the role of benefactor. “In my neighbourhood, there’s a little football pitch below our flat, and there are always kids out there playing. I always try to give little gifts to those that need them the most,” she said with a broad grin.
“Sometimes they knock on the door and tell me they’ve got a ball and would like me to play with them. I’ve always tried to help whenever I could, and when my sponsor got in contact, I was able to understand how those kids feel when I give them presents. I’d like to thank my sponsor for that, because not many people take the time to take an interest in others.”
Not many, perhaps, but some do - as both Luzardo and Rodriguez can confirm.