The records are falling like dominos for César Farias and his inspirational Venezuela charges. The first Vinotinto team to win away to Paraguay, one year after becoming the first in the nation’s history to beat Argentina with that unforgettable victory in Puerto La Cruz. The first team to reach a total of 11 points in the first half of a World Cup qualifying campaign. And maybe, just maybe, the first Venezuela team in 48 years of trying to reach a World Cup finals when Brazil 2014 arrives in less than 24 months. Hopes could not be higher for the Cinderella of South American football.
Having finally put that disparaging tag behind them with a brilliant fourth-place finish in last year’s Copa America, which saw the nation reach an all-time highest Fifa ranking of 39th in 2011, further proof of the Vinotinto’s quality was plain to see in Asuncion. A 2-1 defeat away to Perú the previous Friday, having taken the lead through Juan Arango’s sumptuous free-kick, was a setback, and the team could not have been blamed for letting the loss affect them for their visit to Copa finalists Paraguay.
Instead we saw the opposite effect. A side galvanised by the need to take three points to keep their Brazil dreams alive, and inspired by a brilliant performance from goalkeeper Dani Hernandez who was given the gloves ahead of the shaky veteran Renny Vega, ran out 2-0 winners thanks to two goals from Salomon Rondon. The former Malaga forward broke a long run, some 450 minutes, without netting for his nation and he did it in style. The first saw Rondon break the Guarani offside trap and expertly kill a lofted pass, before slotting the ball past Justo Villar. In the second he took advantage of more than a little luck; Villar’s punch rebounded back off his own defender, and the striker was in exactly the right place to finish and secure victory for Venezuela.
Those 11 points picked up at the midway stage of qualifying put Farias’ men just one shy of Chile, who occupy fifth place and the play-off spot albeit having played one game more. If we look back to 1998, when the nation managed just three points in the entire competition, or 2006 when 18 in as many games left them well out of the running, this represents a consistent improvement to bring them to the same level as South America’s strongest outfits. And even the likes of Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay could stand to learn something from the team they have always considered whipping boys.
As well as enjoying the strongest generation of players in the history of a country that traditionally favours baseball – three Venezuelans, Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Miguel Cabrera, rank among the top 10 best-paid Latin American sportsmen for their Major League exploits – consistency and continuity has been the key for the Vinotinto. 39-year-old Farias has been at the helm since 2007, making him the second longest-serving coach in South America. Only Oscar Tabarez with Uruguay has been in his job longer; while in the same five-year period, Argentina have had four men on the bench, Colombia five and Paraguay three. César is a student of the game, having taken his first coaching job at the tender age of 20 and assuming national command at 35, and his record is testament to the organisation and clear thinking he has instilled in all levels of Venezuelan football.
Credit for the improvement in Venezuela must also go to that most controversial of figures, President Hugo Chavez. A football fanatic and close friend of Diego Maradona who often uses his twitter account to either congratulate or commiserate with his team, Chavez has poured investment into a game that, until the 2007 Copa America, barely figured on the population’s radar. $900 million of government money was put into that tournament held in Venezuela, improving and constructing stadia across the land, and the statesman was rewarded with an adventure to the quarter-finals which represented the Vinotinto’s best-ever finish in the tournament. As Rondon was leading his side to victory on Tuesday, Hugo was not far behind. “Brilliant Vinotinto! That’s how we do it Salomon! Viva Venezuela,” was his message for the more than 3 million Twitter accounts that follow his musings.
There are downsides to this recent surge of success. So much attention on the national team has almost inevitably harmed the domestic league, which remains by some distance the weakest in South America as the nation’s finest play elsewhere. The last squad contained players from 14 different countries, but only six of the 23 – and just two men who started against Paraguay, Franklin Lucena and ex-River midfielder Cesar Gonzalez – currently star in the Venezuelan Primera Division. But this is hardly a problem confined to the Vinotinto; all of South America suffers with the exodus of players to Europe and elsewhere, with the attendant harm it causes to local football.
All in all, there is reason to be happy for Arango, Rondon and the rest of Venezuela’s stars. Their next test is due on 16th October at home to Ecuador, a game which depending on other results could see the hosts leapfrog their rivals and take a place in the qualifying positions – and according to recent football odds it is a victory that they really should be seeking. Ecuador have surprised everyone in occupying third-place largely thanks to the attacking exploits of Christian Benitez, Antonio Valencia and Felipe Caicedo, but their Achilles heel is at the back and, against a team that boasts one of the best defences in South America, the potential is there for the Tricolor to drop points on the road.
Whatever happens from this point forward, however, one thing is clear. The days of Venezuela only being known for their prowess at hitting a much smaller ball with a piece of wood are long gone, and the likes of Arango and Rondon are now celebrated with just as much fanaticism as those multi-millionaire pitchers and hitters further north. Cinderella is gone, but in two years will the Vinotinto finally go to the ball? With a golden generation and one of the most accomplished coaches in South America, they have their best chance yet of making the nation proud on football’s biggest stage.