How the Venezuelan National Team went from zeroes to heroes in a decade...
Not so long ago, Venezuela was everybody's favourite victim in South America. Every four years, visiting Caracas or playing against 'los vinotintos' (the red-wine ones) at home, was a three-point blank cheque valid for the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers in turn. In popularity terms, football wasn't even near baseball; Venezuela's national (and most popular) sport. Nevertheless, Venezuela has come closer and closer to the so-called 'King of sports'. With the vertiginous improvement of Venezuelan football, the popularity of the sport in this South American nation has risen. Thirty years ago, very few Venezuelans were interested in watching a Copa America. Nowadays, one out of three Venezuelan homes (one out of two if we are optimistic) watches football. Venezuela has stopped being a flyweight in Latin American football to become a serious middleweight contender.
The reasons behind the Venezuelan improvement are no-brainers. The arrival of Richard Paez to the Venezuelan NT hotseat represents a before and an after. For six years, Paez achieved through hard work and patience (fully-supported by the Venezuelan Football Federation) a remarkable improvement of the vinotinto squad. In the 2006 CONMEBOL WC Qualifiers, Venezuela ended 8th, suprassing Peru and Bolivia; two nations with much more tradition in the sport. This was a small first success for Venezuela, leaving South America's football basement to establish themselves as a team with a bright future.
On 2007, Venezuela hosted the Copa America. Venezuela delivered good performances in front of its people, classifying first in a group that included Uruguay, Peru and Bolivia. Sadly for the vinotintos, Uruguay took revenge in quarter-finals and kicked Venezuela out of the tournament. Nevertheless, qualifying to quarter-finals was a milestone for Venezuelan football; which they hadn't done since 1967. Besides, the 2007 Copa America had good organisation and left the Venezuelan crowds avid for more football. Also, the torunament left a fair legacy of quality complexes to practise football (stadiums, training grounds, etc.). And last, but not least, we should take into account the support that many public and private entities have given to boost Venezuela's domestic league. Twelve years ago, Venezuelan clubs preferred to literally sell Mexico (the CONCACAF invitee) their Copa Libertadores' berths. But then a head-to-toes reform of Venezuelan football appeared, which included rebranding, improvement of football-related infrastructure, changes in the form of competition, and increasing the numbers of teams. This has made that Venezuelan clubs compete with a lot more dignity against other South American clubs. An example of this are the recent participations of Maracaibo, Deportivo Tachira and Caracas FC on both, Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana (the Caracas FC's magical performance on the 2009 Copa Libertadores, being the first Venezuelan squad to reach quarter-finals in a club competition, is the measuring-stick for other Venezuelan clubs nowadays). Without a shadow of doubt, Venezuela has done its footie-homework.
Paez resigned after a lousy start in the 2010 WC Qualifiers. Now, it was turn for a young local coach named Cesar Farias to take over the Venezuelan NT. The Venezuelan Football Federation recieved a rainfall of fierce criticisms for the appointment of Farias, who at the time was 33 years-old. Farias was recieved with everything against him, and skepticism could turninto media and public pressure soon if results weren't met. The new National Team coach's baptism of fire came during the Qualifiers for the 2009 U-20 World Cup to be held in Egypt. Farias and Venezuela not only delivered results, but also dazzled South America with the performance shown during these U-20 Qualifiers; eventually classiyfing to their first U-20 World Cup (let alone their first qualification to ANY World Cup), and leaving in the road squads like Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina. With great managing skills from Farias, and with the magical Salomon Rondon playing beautiful football, Venezuela managed to classify to the Round of 16, being kicked out of the competition later on by the United Arab Emirates. Since that tournament, the World realised that Venezuela was producing fine footballers with great athletic condition, technique and skills.
Again, Venezuela finished 8th by the end of the 2010 WC Qualifiers. But that 8th place is quite deceitful; a work of football's unpredictablility. The vinotinto boys still had chances for a direct berth, or at least a place in the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL play-off, at the very last minute of the last qualifying matchday. At the end Venezuela finished with 22 points, while Uruguay, that finished with 24, managed to obtain a place in the play-off against Costa Rica. Never the 'Clockwork Beetroot' were so close of classifying to football's ultimate tournament. Venezuela although finishing 8th, was miles ahead of the 9th place which was occupied by a Bolivian NT that onlly managed to get 15 points. The great performance of Venezuela in both, the 2009 U-20 World Cup and the 2010 WC Qualifiers, made Farias earn extra credit as Venezuela's coach. The promising future of Venezuela in the pitch and in the hotseat is slowly materialising. Just look atthe superb 2011 Copa America the Venezuelans have just made, reaching semifinals and a historical 4th place. Without a doubt, looking down on Venezuela for the 2014 WC Qualifiers is something only a madman can do.
It would be unfair to ignore the names of those players that have built, are building, and will build with their talent, magic and lionheart the past, present and future of Venezuelan football. The veteran Jose Manuel Rey (Deportivo Lara), Venezuela's most capped player (111); the eternal Renny Vega (Caracas FC) under the crossbar; excellent defenders on the peak of their careers such as Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Anzoategui) and Gabriel Cichero (Newell's Old Boys); the always-captain and brain of the National Team Juan Arango (Borussia Monchengladbach); and great talented forwards such as Nicolas 'Miku' Fedor (Getafe), Giancarlo Maldonado (Atlante FC) and Alejandro Moreno (Chivas USA).This backbone consisting of experience, talent and quality is completed with a brilliant generation of youngsters formed by the already mentioned Rondon (Malaga); the exquisite Tomas Rincon (Hamburg); Yohandry Orozco (Wolfsburg), an explosive raw talent; the secure and reliable Roberto Rosales (Twente); and Farias's most recent discovery, Alexander Gonzalez (Caracas FC). With such an squad, Venezuela blends the best of experience and youth, so necessary for building a team with bigger aspirations. It's just a matter of time to see the whole country celebrate a World Cup qualification. Venezuela no longer lives in the shadow of its neighbours Colombia and Ecuador; they now shine with their own light. Congratulations, vinotintos.
Tell'em 'Potro', tell'em.