This year is proving to be a ground-breaking one for Venezuelan football. The youth team qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup and are currently doing their country proud in Egypt, while the senior side are threatening to cause a major surprise by qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. With their final two preliminary matches upcoming, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Vinotinto captain Juan Arango.
"I've thought a lot about playing at this World Cup" he said. "It's my ultimate dream and we're just a step away. Appearing in a World Cup is the pinnacle of any player's career, and yes, I really can see us getting there."
A home victory over Paraguay on Saturday, combined with Argentina and Uruguay both failing to win, would move Venezuela into fifth place and the play-off spot ahead of a final-day visit to Brazil. A tall order, certainly, but the optimism and confidence of the skipper know no bounds.
"We can still qualify but we simply must win the first of the two games at home to Paraguay," Arango declared. "We're lucky in that both our opponents have already made it to South Africa so they may be a little less driven.
"The Brazil game will undoubtedly be the toughest, but we'll all be up for it. They may be a little overconfident and looking to put on a show for their supporters at the end of the qualification campaign, so we'll be fighting right till the death."
The first match, the visit of La Albiroja to Caracas, will be the real acid test. "We have to be decisive and very solid defensively because Paraguay are a very hard working team with pace in every department," warned the Borussia Monchengladbach attacking midfielder. "We can't afford to make any mistakes. I'd settle for a play-off spot because we're so hungry for success there's no way we'd let an opportunity like that slip away."
Vinotinto supporters remain optimistic that their team can make history in 2009 - Venezuela are the only team in the CONMEBOL region never to grace the FIFA World Cup - and Arango understands perfectly his compatriots' enthusiasm: "They're very passionate, and not just about us but also about the youngsters in Egypt, who have just qualified from their group on their first World Cup appearance."
In a country where baseball remains king, Arango knows only too well the relationship between the national team's fortunes and the sport's popularity. "This really is the perfect time to strike a blow for football in Venezuela and gain a strong foothold," said the player capped 41 times.
Few have done more in Venezuela to help that cause, with Arango launching football academies so that young players can establish themselves at home. "It's difficult, given the immense popularity of baseball, but a lot of work has already been done. Since 2000, the infrastructure has been gradually improving, allowing Venezuelan football to flourish," he explained.
At 29 years of age, Arango boasts a wealth of international experience, which has seen him recently assume the captain's armband. "I'm humbled to be honest," he said. "It's a great honour and also a big responsibility, but I'm staying calm about it. The young players ask me for advice, not only because I'm the captain but because of my professional experience."
Arango started out as a 17-year-old with Nueva Cadiz before moving to Caracas FC. He followed that with spell at Mexican sides Monterrey, Pachuca and Puebla, before crossing the Atlantic to join Real Mallorca, where he remained for almost six years.
With all that behind him, what advice does he give to the younger players who approach him? "I always tell them to embark on their careers with humility and plenty of perseverance. You can't live in the past but rather have to keep looking ahead, looking for new challenges," he commented.
His own latest challenge is to shine in the Bundesliga: "In Germany the game is a lot more physical than in Spain, as the players are stronger and taller. There's more football played in the air than on the ground."
Having been there for three months, he is slowly adapting to his new surroundings, despite the difficulties posed by the language barrier. In terms of the football, though, his side have not started too brightly, having been knocked out of the German Cup and lost five of their opening eight games. For all that, Arango is confident things will come right soon.
For a week at least, however, club concerns will be left to one side, as Arangol and La Vinotinto aim to fulfil that ultimate dream.