For years Venezuela were known as the Cenicienta (Cinderella) of South American football and their meteoric rise in the last few years is very symbolic of a Walt Disney tale. Despite a less than stellar Copa America in general, the latest edition of CONEMBOL’s premier tournament played host to Venezuelas finest moment in football to date.
Baseball still remains king back at home, mainly due to a strong American presence during the early parts of the 20th century but football is fast catching up. Who can blame the public for turning a blind eye to it’s football team when it had managed less Copa America match wins (four) than Miss World (five) and Miss Universe titles (six).
From 1975 to 2004 Venezuela had never made it past the first round of a Copa America, but 2007 changed all that. A quarter final berth was swiftly followed by fourth place last month but what’s happened? Why have the Cinderella of the continent all of a sudden turned up to the dance?
The quarter final spot in 2007 could be attributed to home advantage. President Hugo Chavez and his government put in an awful lot of money for Venezuela to be fit to host the tournament. Along with building and improving football stadia the development of grassroots football in the country was seriously looked at too but even before then a squad was being assembled at youth level.
Half-way through qualifying for 2002 Ricardo Paez took over national team duties and guided Venezuela to four wins and for the first time ever avoided bottom spot in the section.
In 2004 Ricardo Paez had a plan to take Venezuela forward, he stated, “In the old days, we knew we were going to lose and the target was to avoid a thrashing. Now we try to play with balance, to attack as well as defend.” perhaps for the first time in it’s history, La Vinotinto started to bring together a philosophy of how to play football. After the 2007 Copa America Cesar Farias continued on with Paez’s work.
The Under 20 South American championships also proved a major turning point for Venezuelean football. It was the tournament that allowed some of the more established names of today such as Tomas Rincon to play football for the national team, reaching the final stages before going onto the more prestigious Under 20 FIFA World Cup. Current coach Cesar Farias has a big say in the youth sides and took the Under 20 team to Egypt, eventually exiting at the last 16 stage but La Vinotinto were on the up.
For the first time in Venezuelan history not only was a solid team being put together but a squad with depth was being formed. The Copa America was a real test of this squad and with the help of Cesar Farias and his youth players, Venezuela exceed expectation and awoke as a competitive nation.
Two draws and one win in the group stage, including a stunning comeback against Paraguay secured La Vinotinto’s route to the latter stages. Chile faced dismissal next losing 2-1 before Paraguay put Venezuela out on penalties in a bad tempered semi-final. Venezuela had hit the woodwork three times in that match but luck had deserted them on this occasion.
Farias was clearly upset at his team’s exit but is already looking ahead “We had a very settled team and came so close. We dominated against Paraguay but didn’t quite make it. Perhaps we committed the sin of paying too much respect to our rivals, but that’s a hurdle we’ll be looking to overcome in the upcoming qualifiers,”
Just being within touching distance to the final was a major milestone. Farias had managed to mould his youth team from a few years ago along with some of the mainstays like Juan Arango and merged them into a team that will give everyone things to consider going into World Cup qualification phase.
Following their fourth place finish Venezuela swiftly moved up 29 places in the FIFA World Rankings to a new all time high of 40th place. With everyone now looking ahead to World Cup 2014 Cesar Farias has clearly made qualification the target proclaiming “This is our World Cup”.
Why shouldn’t La Vinotinto be looking to qualify? With Brazil named as hosts and four automatic spots up for grabs it leaves plenty of room for everyone else in the region. Farias has cobbled together a good squad with established players throughout, from one of the stars of last month Tomas Rincon to Orozco and Randon who are both looking to set Europe alight this season with Wolfsburg and Malaga respectively.
They start with a trip to Ecuador next month, a team they defeated in the recent Copa America. A win there would really bring the dream of a first World Cup just that little bit closer and there is no reason why the Auge Vinotinto (Rise of Venezuela) should stop anytime soon.
Craig is the Oval Log’s co-editor and can be found on Twitter at @Craigshields9.