Optimism has been the watchword of Venezuela’s ongoing FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign, most of which has seen them occupy one of the four places offering a direct berth at Brazil 2014.
Lately, however, their bid has faltered, to the extent that with just one game remaining at home to Paraguay next Friday, La Vinotinto need results elsewhere to go their way if they are to have a chance of making their cherished World Cup dream a reality.
The Venezuelans now lie sixth in the CONMEBOL table on 19 points, three behind Uruguay and Ecuador, who both have a game in hand. Their only chance of clinching a place in the intercontinental play-off against Jordan in November is to defeat the Paraguayans and hope that either of the two teams above them fail to score a point in their last two games.
“We’re still fighting for this country,” coach Cesar Farias said after his side’s defeat of Peru on the last matchday in September. “Fear not. Don’t give up. We’re not on one side or the other. We’re Venezuela and we’re united.”
Despite the change in their qualifying fortunes, the recent performances of Farias’ side have been encouraging, as reflected by their rise to 36th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, which equals their highest ever position, achieved only last April.
That first climb was followed by a draw in Bolivia and defeats in Uruguay and Chile, results that dampened the euphoria in the Vinotinto camp.
Last month’s victory over Peru revived their qualification hopes and moved the Venezuelans three places up in the Ranking, with memories of their all-time low of 129th in December 1998 now very distant to say the least.
Fear not. Don’t give up. We’re not on one side or the other. We’re Venezuela and we’re united.
The catalysts of change
So what triggered the dramatic turnaround in their fortunes? As far as the players are concerned, there are three people who deserve more credit than most.
“The first is the Argentinian Jose Omar Pastoriza (national team coach from 1998 to 2000), who brought in totally new ideas in terms of tactics and professionalism, which allowed us to take a different approach,” explained central defender Oswaldo Vizcarrondo in an interview with FIFA.com earlier this year.
“Then came Richard Paez (who was in charge of the team from 2001 to 2007). He was a revolutionary who had this unshakeable belief that Venezuela could take on and beat any team in South America. And finally, there’s Cesar Farias, who thinks a lot and is a strong leader who has been able to get his message across to us. He’s absolutely devoted to the game and a great student of it.”
Concurring with that view is the team’s talismanic skipper Juan Arango, who said: “The team’s got better and better since Pastoriza’s time in charge. Venezuelan football’s come on leaps and bounds from 1999 onwards. Pastoriza was a coach who stressed the need for the team to be well organised on the pitch. Then along came Richard Paez, who preached good football.
“Farias has taken the best of those two eras and combined the legacies left by Pastoriza and Paez and added to them too,” he continued. “He’s also doing a great job at searching out talented young players and bringing them into the fold.”
In addition, the country’s clubs are also paying more attention to their youth set-ups, while the introduction of professional standards in skills training, tactics and fitness and increased support from the authorities have led to footballers being valued for their work and to the Venezuelan game offering better career prospects.
Reflecting on that turnaround, Vizcarrondo said: “When I started out, my family and friends would ask me, ‘But can you make a living from football?’ You don’t hear that question any more. We also had to face psychological and mental limits.”
These factors have all combined to bring about a profound shift in the mindsets of players and fans alike, with football now beginning to rival the national sport of baseball in the popularity stakes.
With each victory on the field of play, Venezuelan football takes a step forward, makes a little more space for itself in the hearts of fans. And should La Vinotinto pull off the seemingly impossible and reach Brazil, football might just hit baseball for a match-winning home run.