For several years now, there has been growing recognition within the international football community of the progress made by Venezuela. Little by little, the country’s national teams have shed their also-rans tag to become dangerous opponents, capable of giving any adversary a run for their money, both at regional level and further afield.
All of which is clearly a positive step towards their next and possibly greatest objective: to qualify for a FIFA World Cup™ for the very first time. What few people will realise, however, is that it is now 30 years to the day that Venezuela won their first international football title – when claiming gold at the Central American and Caribbean Games Havana 1982.
It was that feat which, according to the coach of that side, Manuel Plasencia, helped pave the way for football in a country whose sporting passions are dominated by basketball and baseball. “There’s no doubt whatsoever that was how La Vinotinto really got started,” he told FIFA.com. “That planted the seed that has grown over time and is now receiving widespread recognition.”
In the view of Plasencia, the foundations for that 1982 success were laid four years earlier. “I assembled that group of players in 1978, when I took charge of the team, and that very same year we came runners-up at the [Central American and Caribbean] Games in Medellin,” said the supremo, who is currently at the helm of Deportivo Petare.
“We then went on to finish fourth in the Pre-Olympic Tournament for Moscow 1980, even ahead of Brazil," he continued. "Due to the North Americans' boycott of the former Soviet Union, Argentina and Peru decided not to attend either and Venezuela were able to take part in their first and only [Men’s] Olympic Football Tournament.”
Yet even despite their silver medal from Medellin in ’78, Venezuela were not considered among the title contenders come Havana 1982. The favourites for that year’s golden crown were host nation Cuba – winners of the previous three editions of the Games – and Mexico, the region’s dominant force and then led by former El Tri international Alfonso Portugal. “Beforehand, it wasn’t at all clear how we’d get on,” said Plasencia. “But once we kicked off our campaign, I realised we were capable of winning a medal.”
That said, La Vinotinto were unable to go beyond a 1-1 draw with Nicaragua in their Group B opener, though they then cut loose during a 6-1 thrashing of the Netherlands Antilles, the goals coming from Carlos Betancourt (2), Rodolfo Carvajal, Iker Zubizarreta, Douglas Cedeno and Jose Castillo. Their final game in the section ended in defeat, however, with Mexico winning a very physical encounter 2-0 to go through as group winners.
Conquering the hosts
This meant Venezuela were pitted against Cuba in the semi-finals, with the hosts finishing first in Group A after three wins from three games. “Just imagine what the atmosphere was like in the Estadio Pedro Marrero: there wasn’t room for another soul, and even Comandante Fidel Castro was in the stands!” recalled Plasencia.
“It was a very tight game and it looked like it was going to extra time, until we got a free-kick on the edge of the box in the 88th minute. Douglas Cedeno went up to take it and bent a shot in at the far post. It was a great goal.”
Come the final, Venezuela once again found their path barred by Mexico, 2-1 extra-time victors over Bermuda in their semi-final. “Though a lot of attention went to our keeper Daniel Nikolac, everybody had a good game,” said Plasencia, his emotions clearly stirred even after so many years. “Jose Chirri Gamboa was outstanding and he was the one who made our winner. He beat four men, got to the byline and played it across goal for Bernardo Anor to score the goal that won us gold.”
The experienced strategist also has vivid memories of the aftermath of that triumph on Cuban soil. “Yes, it’s true that on the TV they broke away from the programmes to bring the country the news, but that aside it was a more small-scale, family affair,” he explained. “It wasn’t turned into a national occasion like it would be nowadays. On the one hand that’s because the media was very different back then. On the other, the country wasn’t as keen on football at that time.”
Even so, Plasencia highlighted that “it was the first team sport in which Venezuela had won a title” and expressed his delight that he and his charges are “finally” getting the credit their achievements deserve.
“What matters most of all is that every Venezuelan wears the Vinotinto colours with pride, whether we win or lose,” added Plasencia as the conversation drew to a close. “If not, we’ll have to start all over again.”