Rafael Dudamel is one of Venezuela’s greatest players of all time. A born leader and larger-than-life character, the goalscoring goalkeeper won 54 caps for his country and was an esteemed member of the generation that changed the face and the mindset of La Vinotinto forever and put them on an equal footing with their rivals.  

Having now turned 40, the former custodian is in charge of the national U-17 team, which has just qualified for the world finals in the age group for the very first time.

“Our main objective was to give our footballers the preparation they needed for competitive football,” he told FIFA.com. “We improved the system and we’ve provided the players with all the tools they need to progress and be successful.”

As he went on to explain, Dudamel believes the great strides made by Venezuelan football can be put down to improvements in training: “Football has grown as a product. Corporate investment has given the national football association the resources it needs to train players and give them the necessary skills to be competitive.

“It was essential for us to get physically stronger. We’ve always had the talent but our physical preparation has improved now and that’s enabled us to take a competitive approach to our work.”

It was in that spirit that Dudamel approached April’s South American U-17 Football Championship in Argentina, where Venezuela finished runners-up, the best ever performance by one of its national teams in an official competition.

Naturally, the coach was delighted with the efforts of his players: “We’re very fortunate as a coaching team because we were able to work on the three most important aspects: the psychological, tactical and football side of things. We planned our work in advance and we saw both quality and quantity from the players selected for the South American championships. Individual talent is not enough. The important thing to create a unit and we achieved that.”

Playing to win
Bringing about a change in mentality was one of the main objectives of the work Dudamel and his team have carried out with Venezuela’s youngsters.

“We’ve taught them to play to win,” he explained. “That puts more responsibility on them and they have to know that every time we put the shirt on before we play that our Vinotinto is above all else. We tell them that they are playing for the country. We’ve drummed that into them and they understand what playing to win means. That’s been the big change in Venezuelan players.”

Their performance in Argentina earlier this year has raised the bar very high for the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates™, a fact acknowledged by the ex-custodian: “We achieved a really high standard that was good enough for us to finish runners-up. We’ve got big expectations but we need to see how the players develop. Nevertheless what we’ve achieved up to now leads us to believe we’re good enough to win the World Cup.”

Dudamel ran out for clubs in his home country, Colombia, Argentina and South Africa during his playing career, picking up a vast amount of experience along the way. In doing so he absorbed new methods, tactics and systems, which he is now applying to his coaching work.

“Experience is essential in instilling the right values in players,” he explained. “I’ve worked with different coaches in different countries and that’s given me the opportunity to learn and get an alternative view of how to prepare and the game itself.”

The much-travelled keeper is also a veteran of the France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, the second of which saw Venezuela climb off the bottom of the group for the first time in their history, a feat they repeated four years later.

On top of that, Dudamel also had an eye for goal, scoring no fewer than 25 times in his career, one of those goals coming against Argentina in a France 1998 qualifier.

He hopes one day to take charge of the senior national team: “The thing that’s really satisfying about being part of the national side is that you keep on learning. I feel great admiration and respect for Cesar Farias, and we’re all working together in this development process. God willing I’ll be with the senior team one day, but at the moment the right people are there.”

A charismatic figure with a hunger for success and a painstaking approach to his work, Rafael Dudamel is thinking big and looking forward as a coach to something that eluded him as a player: a tilt at glory in a FIFA World Cup competition.