On their return from August’s South American qualifying competition in Rio de Janeiro, the Venezuelan national side were greeted by a raucous welcome party at Caracas airport and a clutch of journalists eager to speak to the players and coaching staff. And it was not just their third-place finish, which brought with it a first ever passage to the finals of a FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup, that earned La Vinotinto squad such acclaim.
To discover why, we must go back to 2009, when Venezuela reached that year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt to qualify for a FIFA finals for the first time in their 57-year membership of world football’s governing body. The following year it was the girls’ turn, by appearing at the FIFA Women’s U-17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago.
The FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Ravenna 2011 makes it three consecutive years that Venezuelan national sides have qualified for elite global competitions, and it is that success which brought the fans and media out in droves. “It was only two weeks previously that our national side had reached the semi-finals of the Copa America (in Argentina), and there was still a media fervour in the country about that,” said coach Roberto Cavallo to FIFA.com.
“Even so, we were really surprised by the attention we started to get and by how many people came to the airport. That’s why I’ve just got the whole team together after training to have a chat about that and keep the lads’ feet on the ground. They’re not used to it.”
Fruits of a 13-year project
It should also be noted that Venezuela’s qualification for September’s showpiece event in Ravenna was the result of a long-term project and not some sudden breakthrough. Indeed, Cavallo’s story in the sport goes all the way back to 1998, when the then ex-11-a-side player was taking part in a promotional event for the fledgling discipline in a shopping centre in Caracas.
With Cavallo part of the side, La Vinotinto were involved in the Beach Soccer World Championship - the forerunner of the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. This experience help paved the way for qualifying near misses in 2007 and 2008, when Venezuela came within one step of reaching the global finals in Rio de Janeiro and Marseilles respectively.
“In 2009 a national league was set up, and we decided that the winning squad’s coaching staff would take charge of the national side in qualifying for Dubai 2009,” said Cavallo, who had taken the helm in 2008. “The team didn’t click though, so I took charge again. This year at the Copacabana we knew what was at stake: it was either putting the seal on 13 years of work or letting everything implode.”
Fortunately, the team did reach Ravenna 2011, where their opening opponents in Group C are fellow debutants Tahiti. “Now that things are starting to change, the people of Venezuela are getting a boost because of football,” said Cavallo as the interview concluded. “At the end of the day, it’s a question of national identity and pride. And that’s now starting to become part of our make-up.”