CARACAS (Reuters) – Iraia Arrue chases a ball across the soccer field until she loses it near the goal line as the stands and her own team sprint under the Venezuelan sun for 90 minutes at a sports complex in eastern Caracas.

Arrue’s team, Deportivo Petare, are battling for a spot in the Women’s Conmebol Libertadores tournament in March to represent Venezuela, where football has historically struggled to attract crowds.

Deportivo Petare’s 1-1 draw last week against rivals Atletico Sport Club didn’t bring qualifying any closer, but according to Arrue, there’s nothing more exciting than the chance to play against some of the most iconic South American clubs.

“The emotions you experience when you play against Boca Junior, against Corinthians from Brazil, for example, would be incredible,” said Arrue, a striker, at the Fray Luis de Leon sports complex in the east of Caracas.

In Venezuela, traditionally dominated by baseball, football has gained attention over the past two decades.

Vinotinto’s women’s team won a silver medal at the 2015 South American Championships, and striker Deyna Castellanos joined Atletico Madrid of Spain in 2020 to demonstrate the potential of Venezuela’s women footballers.

Arrue, who plays in the Venezuelan amateur league, dreams of reaching the professional level with big European teams like Olympique from Lyon, France.

The amateur league was founded in 2004 and, according to the Venezuelan Football Association, brings together around 30 teams and around 800 players. Deportivo Petare was originally founded in 1948 by Italian immigrants.

Players who live in Caracas have relatively easy access to the practice field in the upscale neighborhood of La Trinidad.

Others live in shared dormitories that require strenuous journeys on rundown buses that are often out of order for lack of parts or fuel.

Yodanyelis Palacios, a tall 19-year-old midfielder, recalls spending 10 hours a day on public transportation traveling 35 miles from the suburb of Charallave to Caracas to train.

“When we add two hours of training, we are talking about 12 hours plus studies,” said Palacios. “It’s already (so much) physical exhaustion that you start to think it’s impossible, but it wasn’t impossible.”

Palacios now dreams of “being an international player, an elite player (… in) the United States, Spain” with strong women’s leagues.

“Let it be known that there is a lot more talent in Venezuela,” she said.

Reporting by Vivian Sequera, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Lisa Shumaker