Venezuela is more famous for competing in Miss World competitions than FIFA World Cup’s – thanks to their national team – who currently hold the undesirable record of being the only Conmebol nation to have never qualified for the finals of football’s biggest prize, a record set to stretch for at least a further four years.
Yet amidst the typically hysterical reaction of the country I currently call home and the clamour for coach Cesar Farias’s head there are signs that this once South American whipping boy is now a serious player when the continents ten football nations get together.
Venezuela has an infamous passion for beauty pageants’, they are indeed the joint most successful nation in history when it comes to Miss World and Universe contests, yet when it comes to sport it is traditionally baseball and not football that is the source of their affections.
Football had long suffered from underinvestment and disinterest until the turn of the millennium when the country was awarded the 2007 Copa America and investment subsequently went through the roof.
It was a turning point for a country with a bleak football history, from their first appearance in South America’s WCQ campaign for the 1966 World Cup in England, to their attempts to qualify for USA ‘94, Venezuela took part in seven qualifying campaigns (They withdrew from ’74), playing in 36 games in all. Their record read 2 wins, 3 draws and 31 losses, with a goal difference of -99, they were the Andorra of South American football.
Yet a revolution of a football kind instigated by Richard Paez in the early 2000’s has allowed current coach Cesar Farias to transform this once national embarrassment into a force to be reckoned with.
Paez changed the perception of Venezuelan footballers, installing a belief in their ability and adopting a more ‘risk taking’ approach to matches as opposed to the damage limitation policy of decades gone by, results started to arrive and Venezuela hasn’t looked back.
It is a nation that can often amaze – a full tank of petrol costs far less than a pint of milk and despite being oil and gold rich there’s a bizarre dearth of paper – a national shortage of bog roll often culminating in round-the-block queues when gossip gets around that the local shop has a delivery on its way from the states.
Similar style queues can be seen whenever the countries football team play at home and back in March of this year I was fortunate enough to be in an extremely lengthy queue that took me inside Estadio Cachamay in Puerto Ordaz – just ten minutes from my home - as ‘La Vinotinto’ welcomed Falcao, Colombia and their 8,000 strong army of yellow wearing, horn blowing fanatics.
It was no ordinary game, the first on home soil since the death of President Chavez and one week prior to the national election called suddenly in order to decide his successor.
A prematurely halted minute silence pre-match provided everyone with just a 40 second bite-size view of the Venezuelan peoples’ diversity of political opinion. Thousands honoured the silence of their hero, many more thousands jeered loudly, whilst others looked up at the political leaflets floating down from the tinted windows of the private boxes on the second tier, it felt more like a political rally than a crucial World Cup Qualifier.
Two minutes in and a standing ovation erupted nearby – not for Venezuela’s most decorated player Juan Arango – but for a group of a dozen or so Chinese men and Women in Venezuelan jerseys making it to their seats.
The fuss? Locals were merely proud to see that the local Chinese community were coming out to support the local football team and wanted their delight to be seen, for the Venezuelan football team had long been a source of national shame but no longer was that the case.
When focus on the match wasn’t intermittently paused by loud explosions and commands from the local armed forces that patrolled the stadium I witnessed Salomon Rondon’s 13th minute goal that inspired the home side to a famous and deserved 1-0 win – one that was met with fireworks above the floodlights at the games completion.
Rubin Kazan’s Rondon – the symbol of the ‘New Venezuela’ – is tall, quick and in the Benteke/Lukaku mould, his goal a snippet of the 90 minute bullying the former Malaga man gave the Colombian defence at the apex of Venezuela’s attack.
Joining Rondon are Fulham’s Fernando Amorebieta , Hamburg’s Tomas Rincon, Anderlecht’s Ronald Vargas and FC Twente’s Roberto Rosales, they make up a new exciting group of players that are benefitting from playing in Europe’s most competitive leagues, leagues shown day-in-day-out in highlights and live matches on Venezuela’s DIRECTV Sports, further enhancing football popularity throughout the country.
Venezuela is a heavily media driven nation, reference the weekly radio and television speeches from President Maduro and previously Chavez that – without warning – intercept the airwaves and fill every channel and station until they finish.
When awarded the 2007 finals the Socialist Government sensed an opportunity to further enhance national pride and were determined to have a team that would hold their own and whilst at it, allow the party to ride on the wave of a promising football team and improve their own reputation whilst showing off their policies to the watching public.
The tournament – won by Brazil – was a big success with Venezuela reaching the quarter finals, losing 4-1 to Uruguay having drawn 0-0 against them in the previous group stages.
Off the pitch, several new purpose built football stadiums were constructed and the national league was expanded from 10 teams to 18, providing a platform both physically and structurally for the national game to continue to take strides.
In the 2011 edition of the tournament ‘La Vinotinto’ – meaning red wine, a nickname derived from their burgundy coloured kit – stunned everyone to come 4th overall, drawing with Brazil and beating Ecuador and Chile before losing to Paraguay 5-3 on penalties in a semi-final that they dominated.
This performance did much to make people sit up and take notice of the national side and at youth Level the country began making waves , the 2009 U20’s World Cup seeing Venezuela reach the last 16 and just this week the countries impressive U17’s side are taking part in the World Cup in the UAE.
A feature of Venezuelan culture is their ‘all or nothing’ approach to life and it is this attitude that has often hindered them in their progress in the sporting arena.
Daily Newspapers and sports channels have been rife with articles and opinion against coach Farias since La Vinotinto missed out on Brazil with a 1-1 draw in San Cristobal against Paraguay as the nation looks to point the finger at the scapegoat for Venezuela’s perceived failure.
Yet victories against Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia (twice) and Peru as well as away draws in Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador indicate that Venezuela are fast moving in the right direction.
Their current FIFA ranking of 37 is their best of all time and shows that this campaign – whilst not culminating in a ticket to Brazil – is a building block in a long-term project that will see Venezuela continue to compete with the Argentina’s and Colombia’s of this world.
With the coach’s future being considered we are at a crucial juncture in the progress of Venezuelan football, sack Farias and the building blocks he has put in place with the semi-final finish in 2011 and the 19 points amassed in qualification for Brazil could be permanently damaged, keep him and this young side he is developingcould and should achieve greater things.
With the emergence of Rondon and the retirement of legend Juan Arango the country with a flag featuring eight stars has gained and lost one at the end of a campaign that promised much and delivered just that.
After decades of underachievement Venezuela’s reputation as South America’s football joke earned them the cruel nickname of ‘Cenicienta ‘ – the translation – Cinderella – for they never went to the ball.
Yet in a country synonymous with revolution a fascinating sporting revolution is taking place, South America’s traditional whipping boy is closer to having his day in the sun.