Any overseas player who receives acclaim for his performances in the ultra-competitive Argentinian league deserves considerable respect, and Cesar Gonzalez definitely falls into this category. Currently blazing a trail with Huracan, the attacking midfielder is also putting his experience and talent to good use for Venezuela, who he still hopes he can help qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
That task, however, will be anything but easy. With 12 of the 18 rounds played, Venezuela are eighth in the ten-team South American standings on 13 points, six behind Argentina, who occupy the last direct qualifying berth, and four adrift of fifth-placed Uruguay, presently in line for a play-off spot. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Gonzalez chats about his introduction to the game, his experience in Argentina, and why La Vinotinto have not performed better this campaign.
"In some games we maybe we lack a bit conviction, the belief that we can really go on and win them. But we're not far off," he said. "If you take Brazil and Argentina out of the equation, everyone else finds it hard to qualify for the World Cup."
Gonzalez, who made his full debut in a Germany 2006 qualifier against Brazil and now has 20 senior caps, is determined to focus on the positive when it comes to his beloved Venezuela. "One thing I'm convinced of is that we're on the right track. This process began with the appointment of Argentinian coach Jose Omar Pastoriza, continued under Richard Paez, and now Cesar Farias is the man tasked with keeping it going. The key has been the change of mentality. They showed us it was possible to hold our own against anyone."
One ball game for another
Cesar Eduardo Gonzalez Amais was born on 1 October 1982 in Maturin in the northern Venezuelan state of Monagas. As a boy, baseball - not football - was the sport of choice in his homeland. So how did he end up becoming a footballer?
"Essentially because I was rubbish at baseball. As I was always striking out, they'd have me out retrieving balls all the time, which isn't much fun when you're a four-year-old. Then at the age of five an uncle of mine brought me to a football academy run by a Brazilian coach called Farinas [real name, Joaquin Da Silva]. Once I started going there I forgot all about my dream of becoming an infielder," said a laughing Gonzalez.
Gonzalez also credits Farinas with teaching him the craftiness required to make it in football. "I learned that from him and from playing in our neighbourhood, where you pick up a few things not strictly about football. That might be why things have worked out well for me. After all, if you don't have your wits about you in Argentinian football, you soon get left behind," commented the man they call El Maestrico (The Little Master), a nickname he earned as a kid because of the skill with the ball at his feet.
Gonzalez, a right-sided attacking midfielder with a fine shot and the ability to cover huge amounts of ground, started his professional career at Monagas FC in 2000, later enjoying spells at two Colombian clubs before returning home to play for Caracas. The 26-year-old then spent the 2007/08 season at Colon of Santa Fe, before joining Huracan in 2008. Today, the player is a vital cog in Angel Cappa's side, who have been earning rave reviews for their eye-catching football in this year's Clausura.
The experience has been a valuable one for the midfielder, but one that he feels has also left him with an obligation to his national team. "Playing here is unlike anywhere else in the world, and that experience has helped me to grow as a person and as a player. Now, I need to bring that knowledge to the national team. That's how I can play my part to keep Venezuelan football improving."
The conversation soon returns to the qualifying competition for South Africa 2010, where on the horizon La Vinotinto have a trip to Bolivia and a visit from Uruguay. "At this level, there's not much I can say about those sides that hasn't already been said. I'd rather just focus on our team," he said.
"In La Paz, if we're not able to win, then it will be important not to lose, but we all saw what happened to Argentina there [the Albiceleste lost 6-1 in April], so they deserve all our respect. The game against Uruguay will go a long way to deciding our fate. If we can get four points from those two games, we'll be in a good position heading into the home straight."
Despite Venezuela's achievement of qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, and club side Caracas's march into the quarter-finals of this year's Copa Libertadores, many of its citizens are hoping the country can consolidate its footballing development by reaching South Africa 2010.
But what if that eludes them? After a moment's pause, Gonzalez replies: "In that were to happen, it would be important to be able to look back and say we did absolutely everything and gave our all. Then it would be a question of focusing on Brazil 2014, as we must make sure in the next qualifiers that we capitalise on all the work done so far."
The player finishes on a defiant note, however, insisting: "There's still time in these qualifiers and we haven't given up yet. We really want to go to South Africa."