Copa America 2019: From being whipping boys to cusp of landmark moment against Argentina, Venezuela have come long way

Rio de Janeiro: The idea that Venezuela could compete in South America has long been considered absurd. They were the whipping boys of the continent and wherever they travelled — from Santiago to Bogota — they carried that reputation like a chain around their necks. It was never a question of losing, but simply how many they would be conceding on the day? Argentina, Brazil and other traditional teams had little time for the Venezuelans.

 Copa America 2019: From being whipping boys to cusp of landmark moment against Argentina, Venezuela have come long way

File image of Venezuela team. Reuters

Today, the regional minnows no longer roll over that easily. In one of the stand-out results of the Copa America group stages, the Venezuelans drew 0-0 with hosts Brazil, and that scoreline was no coincidence. The genesis of Venezuela’s rise is twofold: in 1996 Conmebol reformatted World Cup qualifying in South America by introducing the ten-team marathon format. It meant competitive football for the smaller nations and a chance to benefit from playing the big boys on a regular basis. Ecuador and Peru have played in the World Cup since.

Venezuelans are still dreaming of a ticket to the big time, but they have shown intelligence by not forcing the issue. A fast-track ticket to the World Cup doesn’t exist in South America. Instead, they have focused on developing their youth development, copying the models of Argentina and Uruguay, who have been successful in bringing through new generations. In 2017, Venezuela finished runners-up in the U-20 World Cup in South Korea, falling to a single English goal in the final. It was a huge achievement: the U-20 level is of paramount importance in a continent that can’t compete with Europe’s riches. The win also proved that Rafael Dudamel was ready to take the next step and lead the senior national team.

During his playing days, Dudamel was a goalkeeper and he was often on the wrong end of South American strikers. In 1993 he conceded seven times at home against Bolivia. Three years later, Ivan Zamorano scored five against Venezuela’s number one in a 6-0 win for Chile. The Venezuela coach can count on a good goalkeeper in Wuilker Farinez, pace on the wings and a powerful striker in Salomon Rondon. In March the centre forward was a scourge in Venezuela’s 3-1 friendly against Argentina, their opponent in the quarter-finals.

A mature performance from Dudamel’s team exposed Argentina’s defensive fragility. It was a hugely encouraging result for Venezuela and yet Dudamel offered to resign after the game. In isolation that would have been a very bizarre move, but not so in the politically-charged environment of Venezuelan football. Antonio Ecarri, the Spanish representative for self-and-US declared president Juan Guido, had visited the dressing room before kick-off and that had reeled Dudamel.

“Everything has been politicised,” Dudamel said. “I am the manager of a team that represents the whole country. We have received the ambassador's visit, with respect, because we are the Venezuelan team that covers the whole country. In Rancagua, we also attended a meeting with Mr [Nicolas] Maduro's ambassador, but the visit has been used, sadly, for other purposes.”

In the past Rondon, Roberto Rosales, and captain Tomas Rincon have all criticised the Maduro regime, but at the Copa America, the players and staff have been under strict orders to not talk politics and weigh into a sensitive domestic and international issue. Wuilker did slightly defy that order, stating that ‘the situation in Venezuela is an incentive to perform well and keep on improving.’

The regime has been keen on utilizing football as a propaganda tool. In 2007, Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor, staged the Copa America in Venezuela for the first time. State oil company PDSVA sponsors the national team, but in times of economic and humanitarian crisis, PDSVA has struggled to comply with its obligation towards Dudamel’s team.

But on Friday his charges will be focused on what could become a landmark moment in Venezuela’s football history. Indeed, South American football has progressed so that the mere suggestion of a competitive Venezuela against Lionel Messi and Argentina can’t be ridiculed anymore. Argentina endured a torrid group stage, but remain favorites to prevail in the last eight. The last time Messi visited the Maracana, Germany defeated Argentina in the final of the 2014 World Cup. Since that fateful July day, Argentina have regressed. That is the reality Messi and Co face, along with the vast improvement of their opponents.

Updated Date: Jun 28, 2019 17:56:17 IST