Red Red Wine – Drinking To Venezuela’s Upswing

They’ve had thirteen attempts but on every occasion Venezuela has fallen short. This litany of failure has given the nation the unfortunate tag of being the only South American team to never qualify for the World Cup finals. That may change with FIFA’s generous expansion of the 2026 tournament to 48 teams, a development which will likely see many first-timers reach football’s holy grail.

But the reality is the team cruelly dubbed ‘La Cenicienta’ (The Cinderella) is a victim of geography. If Venezuela could do as their neighbours Guyana are able to and compete in the CONCACAF qualifying section, there’s a chance they could emulate footballing lightweights Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Haiti and Panama by featuring in the finals. Instead they’ve been forced to stay at home while continental rivals Bolivia and Ecuador played on the biggest stage.

There may be no fairytale ending to this story, but at least ‘La Vinotinto,’ – as they are more affectionately known on account of their red wine jerseys – are currently a more potent force than at any time in their history; supplying players to top European leagues, and proving more of a threat in both the continent’s seemingly never-ending qualifiers and the Copa America.

Late Developers

Like many emerging Latin American states, British rubber and mining companies exported the game to its shores in the 19th century. And yet Venezuela displayed a lackadaisical attitude to the world’s most popular sport: the Federacion Venezolana de Futbol was established in 1926 and the national side only played its first international match 12 years later.

Their first World Cup qualification campaign wasn’t undertaken until 1966 (though they entered, then withdrew from the 1958 qualifying tournament). It took four campaigns and 16 games until a first victory was recorded, against Bolivia in March 1981. There were some harsh lessons along the way: at the 1972 Brazil Independence Cup, a virtual mid-term World Cup, they were demolished 10-0 by Yugoslavia. 

Worse followed three years later with an 11-0 humiliation by a Kempes, Killer and Ardiles-inspired Argentina in the Copa America. This remains their heaviest defeat to date. Needless to say there were further tough defeats as the nation suffered the ignominy of finishing tenth (of ten teams) in the continent’s premier competition six times in succession. 

The nation has flopped at football in part due to the presence of a rival sport. During the early part of the 20th century, American oil workers brought with them their baseball gloves and bats. The popularity of the sport quickly ballooned and the national team won the Baseball World Cup three times in the 1940s. Venezuela even claims to be ‘El Pais de Béisbol’ – the country of baseball – and no fewer than two hundred of their players have competed in Major League Baseball. What chance football then?

Revolution

Since the turn of the century, Venezuela has stemmed the tide of perpetual failure with some relative success. It’s been a team effort with government assistance and a change in the way the national team plays. The footballing revolution can be traced back to the appointment as coach of Richard Páez in 2002, this coming at a particular lowpoint in the team’s fortunes. Last in the 10-team qualifying pool, the position they were now accustomed to, Páez came in after Jose Pastoriza’s almost inevitable resignation.

Richard Paez

Páez steered the capsizing ship out of danger by recording four consecutive wins over Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Paraguay. This represented a remarkable turnaround for La Vinotinto. Páez drew on a pool of talent that included Giancarlo Maldonado, José Manuel Rey and the country’s most capped player, (with 129 appearances) Juan Arango, but he also altered the thought process from a defensive formula with the sole purpose of avoiding a thrashing, to one with more emphasis on passing and moving the ball upfield.

This trio typified the type of footballer that had rarely existed in Venezuela’s past: striker Maldonado has appeared for several top clubs throughout the Americas, Rey was the first player to gain 100 caps and Arango spent ten years in Spain and Germany with Real Mallorca and Borussia Moenchengladbach respectively.

Progress was gradual: Páez’s Venezuela gained 18 points and eighth place in the 2006 World Cup campaign and reached the knockout stages of the Copa America for the first time when it was held on home turf. The coach resigned in late 2007 and his successor Cesar Farias continued the improvement in qualifiers, gaining 22 points this time which included a brave draw in Brazil and a rare win for a visiting team at high altitude in Bolivia’s capital La Paz.

Giancarlo Maldonado

All national senior teams need an infusion of youth and Rafael Dudamel, who took over in 2016, provided that by promoting some of the stars from Venezuela’s shock run to the final of the 2017 U-20 World Cup. The socialist government in conjunction with the private sector had channelled millions into football to ensure the success of the 2007 Copa America, the first time the tournament had been hosted in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez’s administration built three new stadiums and upgraded six existing ones. There was the expected knock-on effects to the national league with bigger crowds and ultra groups creating a passion that had previously been associated with baseball.

It is now not uncommon to see Venezuela in the knockout stages of the Copa America and the team has stars such as Tomas Rincon of Torino, the country’s top scorer Salomon Rondon, MLS record-breaking goal machine Josef Martinez, and Yangel Herrera who caught the eye of Manchester City, though he’s been loaned out continually since 2017. The coach can now call up players from around the world with current internationals based far and wide in the United States, Belgium, Spain, Slovakia, Scotland, Portugal and Russia.

Salomon Rondon

The start of the 2022 campaign to reach Qatar has not begun promisingly however with two defeats from two games. But with the talent available it’s feasible that Venezuela could still sneak into the fifth and final automatic qualification spot; or finish sixth, and with that a second chance in the inter-continental play-offs. That’s where a maturing red wine could face the vintage from New Zealand, an eminently winnable contest in Caracas and Wellington. What a boost that would be for a country ravaged by years of anti-democratic protests and violence, and right-wing coup attempts.

CRAIG STEPHEN

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