By Kevin Affleck
Right, let's cut to the chase. We can talk later about breaking a record set by Lionel Messi, we’ve got plenty of time to reflect on how the one Premier League ground Adalberto Peñaranda is looking forward to playing at is Vicarage Road, and how he relocated his parents to Madrid the first time he banked a serious pay cheque.
The real story here, the one that will make your jaw drop is the one about the time when Peñaranda was shot and saw a bullet pass clean through his left thigh. Yes, really. It takes some believing so we’ll let him take up the story.
“When I was 17 I got shot in the leg,” he said. “I was in a friend’s house in Barrio with a few other football players and we were just chatting when these guys came in with weapons and just started shooting us.”
“My friend [Charlys Ortiz] was shot in the arm and I was shot in the leg. The bullet went through here [the inside of his left leg] and out here [the lower left side of his thigh]. It was a very painful moment.”
Painful? That must be the understatement of this season or indeed any other season. Peñaranda was lucky the bullet didn’t make contact with the femoral artery as he could quite easily have bled to death.
“I was lucky it wasn't a big injury,” he said. “I went to the hospital and there was a lot of blood. They cleaned the wound, I had anti-inflammatory tablets and bandages – no surgery. That was it. Fortunately, it didn’t touch the muscle.”
The details on exactly why it happened are sketchy, not because the then 17-year-old was up to no good. It’s largely because this interview was conducted through a translator and we were keen not to push Peñaranda hard on what must have been a terrifying ordeal.
“Some people are just jealous of football players as they see them as rich people,” said Peñaranda. “We were just having a discussion and then they pulled out these weapons and started shooting.”
Such lawless violence is, sadly, all too common in Venezuela. In February last year, The Spectator published a story detailing how the people of the chaotic South American country in the north of the region are largely better off in prison. There you get fed and are relatively safe. They report that 26,600 people met a violent death in 2017 and how 1.5 million Venezuelans rummage through bins every day. The minimum wage equates to £2 per month and you can barely find a toilet roll anywhere.
“It’s always been tough to live in Venezuela, especially over the last few years,” said Peñaranda. “Things have got worse. It’s very difficult, full of crime. When I used to live there it wasn’t that bad, but it was still tough and dangerous for a kid to grow up in. Barrio is a dangerous neighbourhood. Luckily, I didn’t touch any weapons or drugs, but I’ve seen lots of things.”
Roberto Pereyra, who grew up in Argentina in the south of South America, tells a story about how he used to sell cans of copper and fruit on street corners just so he could buy a sandwich.
“I can’t say the same as Pereyra,” said Peñaranda. “I was in a poor family, but not that poor. Luckily, my dad and mum always worked so they could afford to buy us food, clothes and football boots. My dad did everything possible for me to play football because he knew it was my passion.”
Peñaranda’s father was a mechanic and his mother was a cleaner, but they were told to pack that up by their youngest son, up sticks and move to Madrid once he was signed by Udinese in 2015. One of his elder sisters went to Madrid with them while the other moved to Mexico. The very real fear was they would be taken hostage in Venezuela had they stayed and Peñaranda would be ordered to pay a ransom.
“I told them to quit,” said Peñaranda. “They made such sacrifices for me, working a lot. They borrowed money from friends to let me travel with the team and go to training sessions. They made everything possible. This is why when I became a footballer, I told them not to work anymore as I’m going to take care of them. It’s my turn to look after them.”
Peñaranda was given his passport out of life in Venezuela in 2015 by the Pozzos, whose network of eagle-eyed scouts spotted his prodigious talent at the Under-20 South American Championship. But his path would have been very different had he not taken a bullet.
“Before I was shot, I was ready to go and sign for Malaga,” said Peñaranda. “I just needed to sign the contract, but as soon as they heard about the shooting accident, they just wanted to get me on loan – they didn’t want to buy me. Luckily, I had more options. Porto and Granada wanted to sign me, but I chose Granada as they believed in me as they wanted to sign me permanently.”
The move to Granada via Udinese did not fluster the then-17-year-old too much as he had already flown the nest in El Vigia to play for Deportivo La Guaira in Caracas, a nine-hour drive away.
“I was used to being on my own since I was 15,” said Peñaranda. “I was used to living in another city. My parents managed to come and visit me a few times in Spain, but I was on my own. It wasn't too difficult to adapt to a new reality, though.”
Peñaranda threw himself into life as a footballer in La Liga, something he had dreamed of since watching his idol Ronaldinho bamboozle defences in Spain on YouTube. He became Granada's youngest ever player when he made his debut at 18 against the notoriously uncompromising defence of Athletic Bilbao. Aymeric Laporte, the linchpin of the Manchester City defence, was in the Bilbao team that November day. “I remember the match perfectly” said Peñaranda. “We won 2-0. I remember Laporte as he kept seeing the back of my number,” he joked.
Four matches later and Peñaranda was celebrating his first goals, scoring both in a 2-1 away win at Levante to become the youngest player to score twice in a La Liga game since the great Messi. “We were losing 1-0 and I scored the equaliser and then the winning goal,” said Peñaranda. “The first goal was fantastic, I really liked it.”
Peñaranda went on to play 27 times that season, including against Messi, Neymar and Andrés Iniesta in the Nou Camp, as Granada pulled off another act of escapology to beat the drop by a single point. The form of the freewheeling Peñaranda and Isaac Success on the break was a big factor.
Midway through that season, which feels a lifetime ago now, Peñaranda completed the full set of the Pozzo clubs by signing for Watford. He had to wait more than two-and-a-half years to secure a work permit, though.
“It was amazing to sign for a Premier League club,” said Peñaranda. “It took a while to get the visa, longer than we thought. Things were difficult for me as obviously I really wanted to play for Watford, for my club. That’s who I signed for. I ended up playing on loan for Malaga, Udinese and then Granada. It wasn’t pleasant for me, I really was looking forward to coming to Watford and playing for this club.”
Peñaranda admitted his career stalled during the intervening period. He has only played 22 club games in two seasons and only 12 of those were starts. His last competitive goal came in April 2016.
“Yes, I agree,” Peñaranda, now 21, said. “It wasn’t an easy period for me. That's why I came here to take revenge for that period, I want to show my capability, my skills.”
And when Peñaranda was given permission to work in this country, in November, when he was ready to show everybody what all the fuss and hype was about, would you believe it, he was sidelined by a foot injury. He had to wait until January 6 to pull on a Watford shirt in the unlikely setting of the Laithwaite Community Stadium in Woking.
“I am a professional football player so I took it very seriously,“ said Peñaranda. “It does not matter if it was a Premier League club or a non-league club. It does not matter if it’s Manchester Untied, Arsenal or Woking. It doesn’t change. I take every game seriously.”
Most foreign players come over and are licking their lips at the prospect of playing in some of the great citadels in this country: Old Trafford, Anfield, the Emirates or Stadium Bridge, but Peñaranda does not even hesitate when asked which ground he wants to run out at.
“Vicarage Road,” he said without a trace of being media trained. “This is the club I signed for. Growing up I appreciated the Premier League and now I’m here. Hopefully I can make my debut soon and show what I can do.”
In his brief appearances so far, at Woking and at Newcastle, it is obvious to see Peñaranda plays with a lovely balance, has plenty of poise, is direct and is a good size for a forward. He has the kind of natural talent you can’t develop through coaching, so where does it come from?
“From my father and my uncle,” he said. “I think it's from them. My father was a very good forward, but he decided not to become a professional as he did not have time to work and take care of the family. There wasn't much money in football, so he preferred to do another job. I was playing football since I was five, but my mother thinks I was kicking a ball in her tummy.”
His parents will be glad their son is in safe hands in south-west Hertfordshire. Peñaranda is well looked after and a lot of the senior players have his back.
“Maxi, Miguel, Masina and Deulofeu all help me and tell me what to do and what not to do,” he said. “I try to think more about the things I have to do to improve and I enjoy spending time with the experienced players. I spend lots of time at the houses of Deulofeu, Britos and Maxi, but they have wives or girlfriends so I cannot be there all the time, so I see Navarro a lot as we are both single. We play PlayStation, watch movies and eat together.”
Peñaranda, who has been on the Premier League bench for the last two games, should get to play at least some part for real on Friday night at Queens Park Rangers. Loftus Road can be one of the more intimidating grounds in England, especially under the lights with a place in the quarter-final of the FA Cup at stake. The home fans are certain to give him stick about his peroxide blonde mohican hairstyle (“I've always dyed it this colour since I was 15,” he said), but it will be water off a duck’s back for Peñaranda. He has dealt with far, far worse. If you can recover from being shot, then you can cope with just about anything this life has to throw at you.