Over the last few years Venezuela have shown signs that they may yet become a force in the game. In addition to some excellent yet infrequent wins in recent times, El Vinotinto also hosted the 2007 Copa America, where they reached the quarter-finals. Further progress has been made by the juniors, who reached the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, becoming the second team in the nation's history to qualify for a FIFA tournament. All that remains now is for the seniors to follow suit by reaching South Africa 2010.
The chances of them doing so appear somewhat remote at the moment. Venezuela lie eighth in the CONMEBOL qualifying group, some six points behind Chile in the fourth and final automatic qualification slot, but only three behind Uruguay, the current occupants of the play-off berth.
And as stalwart defender Jose Manuel Rey tells FIFA.com, El Vinotinto are not giving up just yet. "Seeing us down there reminds me of the old days," he says. "There have been a few close games we've ended up losing when we could have won or got a point. Even so, there's not that much of a gap between us and the teams at the top. We can still catch them."
Having made his international debut as a 22 year old in a France 1998 qualifier against Bolivia, Rey is well qualified to discuss Venezuela's chances of finally reaching the biggest stage of all. Since then he has played in 41 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers and made 103 international appearances in all, making him the most capped player in the country's history.
"We've lacked concentration at vital times in some games and have paid dearly for it," explains the centre-half in assessing the reasons why Venezuela are currently out of the qualifying places. "The two defeats in Peru and Paraguay were especially painful and when you lose because of your own mistakes rather than the strengths of your opponents then it makes you even angrier."
Rey it was who scored his side's winner in the opening qualifier against Ecuador in Quito. After that bright start, however, the Venezuelans have seen their hopes undermined by some self-inflicted wounds. "That lack of concentration has a lot to do with our inexperience," continues Rey. "The pace at this level is very different to what we're used to in our national championship, and it's hard to cope with that when you take on more powerful sides away from home."
In Rey's eyes, there is only one way Venezuela can bridge the gap. "We need to grow. In any country the game grows when players go abroad and gain vital experience. If we can do that and get around 14 or 15 players playing outside Venezuela, then we'll start putting some results together. We're getting there, though. It's a slow process but we're feeling the benefits."
Anything is possible
Confidence may be growing, but as Rey acknowledges, the time has come to back it up with results. "If we're going to make it to South Africa, we need to focus on winning all of our remaining home games and pick up whatever points we can away from home. That's what will make the difference at the end. It's going to be tough for us to qualify directly but not impossible. And there's always the play-off spot to aim for too, so there's every reason to keep on dreaming of a place in the World Cup."
As Rey explains, El Vinotinto's next two assignments are tough to say the least, starting with a daunting trip to Argentina. "Argentina are very solid in every department, they've got individuals that can give them the edge at any time and they're at home too. The fact that it's Diego Maradona's official debut as coach won't help either. Then we've got Colombia, which is a derby match for us. That's why they're always very tight games and very hard to predict. What we mustn't do is make mistakes in either game."
Although this could well be Rey's last chance to reach the FIFA World Cup finals, the old campaigner is philosophical about the prospect of sitting it out again. "Even if we don't make it, I still feel I have a lot to give Venezuelan football. With the career I've had and the experience I've got behind me, maybe I can take up another position to help us become more competitive. That said, I've still got my sights set on South Africa and there's no question it would put the icing on my career."