Though there are still around six months to go before the South American Zone qualifiers for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ get underway, Venezuela’s preparations are already in full swing. And despite first having to travel to Argentina to take part in this summer’s Copa America, nothing appears likely to distract La Vinotinto from their goal of appearing at Planet Football’s top table for the very first time.
But do Venezuela’s main men agree with the prevailing feeling that this could be the country’s greatest opportunity of reaching the global showpiece? “Definitely,” coach Cesar Farias told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “The South American Zone is very evenly matched, where every team has a lot going for it, and Venezuela now have the experience and maturity to take the next step. We all have the feeling that there’s a great opportunity awaiting us after the Copa America.”
The 38-year-old Farias has been at the helm of the Venezuelan senior side since January 2008, when he took over from countryman Richard Paez after matchday 4 of South Africa 2010 qualifying. “Right from the day I took over I felt that we had a real chance of making it to the last World Cup, and we didn’t fall too far short,” says Farias, under whose mandate La Vinotinto picked up 16 of their 22-point qualifying haul last time out. “But in the back of my mind throughout was the importance of making sure everything was right going into these qualifiers. This looks like being our World Cup.”
Though well aware of the size of the task ahead, the up-and-coming supremo goes on to reveal the basis for such resounding confidence. “The reason we’ve not qualified before now was due to questions of time and footballing development. But we’re now the (South American) country which has made the most progress in football terms, and that’s quantifiable,” says Farias.
“We’ve never had so many players plying their trade abroad, which has allowed us to widen our talent pool; none of our youth national sides had ever reached a World Cup before (the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009); and we’d never previously still had a chance of reaching a senior World Cup on the last matchday of qualifying. What's more, we’ve been getting more points with every passing qualifying phase, so it’s only logical that we’re now aiming higher.”
Indeed, having finished bottom on just three points in the preliminaries for France 1998, even without the mighty Brazil involved, Venezuela made the leap to 16 points and ninth place in the ten-team standings ahead of Korea/Japan 2002. They then garnered 18 points to repeat their ninth spot prior to Germany 2006, before claiming 22 points and eighth position on the road to South Africa 2010.
The latter campaign, which they ended by taking 15 points from their final nine games, left them just two short of a play-off berth and four from direct qualification. All of which explains Farias’ assertion that “we don’t want to end up in the play-offs. We’re aiming to qualify directly (for Brazil 2014), and that’ll be our goal right from the off.”
Blending youth and experience
Vital to the continued development of the likes of 20-year-old Yohandry Orozco (Wolfsburg, Germany) and 21-year-old Solomon Rondon (Málaga, Spain), who caught the eye on Venezuela U-20’s run to the Round of 16 at Egypt 2009, are the vastly experienced performers at Farias’ disposal. These include Juan Arango (Borussia Monchengladbach, Germany), Giancarlo Maldonado (Atlante, Mexico) and 36-year-old left-back Jose Manuel Rey, who plays for homeland outfit Mineros de Guayana.
“Of all the qualifying phases I’ve taken part in, this is the one I’ve been most excited about beforehand,” says Rey, of what will be his fifth FIFA World Cup preliminary phase. “There’s a serious project in place, we’re getting results and we’ve got players who are hitting their peak, young lads who can bring the physical, technical and tactical progress they’ve been making at club level to the table. That’s going to be a huge help,” added the defender when speaking to FIFA.com.
“I’ve still got a bitter taste from 2009, when we came so close to reaching a play-off for South Africa,” continues Rey, who with over 100 senior appearances for La Vinotinto is his country’s all-time most-capped player. “On the penultimate matchday we came up against Paraguay and were still in with an excellent chance, but we weren’t quite at the races, we lost the game and our draw in Brazil in our final match counted for nothing. We’ve got more experience now though, so if we end up in a similar situation I’m confident we’ll be up to the task.”
So, does Rey feel the absence of the 2014 hosts in CONMEBOL qualifying could boost Venezuela’s own chances? “All of those countries which didn’t get to South Africa will have their eye on the spot that would normally go to Brazil. But the most important thing is that when we don’t have a game we need to study every match, every opponent and every player to then put in the best possible performance. It’s been due to those small details that we’ve missed opportunities in the past.”
Despite notable qualifying feats such as wins in Ecuador and Bolivia in 2007 and 2009 respectively, as well as away draws against Uruguay (2008), Chile and Brazil (both in 2009), Venezuela failed to beat any side that went on to reach South Africa 2010. In fact, they took just four points from a possible 30 against those five teams, including defeats home and away to Argentina and Paraguay.
Not that Rey is overawed that by statistic, with the veteran keen to stress that Venezuela have developed a strong sense of identity, which he hopes will see them through the challenges ahead. “We’re now a competitive side and people respect us. Nobody travels to Venezuela certain they’ll get a good result anymore,” he says, as the interview concludes.
“Even so, we need to step up and take responsibility for getting results, especially at home. It would be lovely if we could prove once and for all, to ourselves, our country and the whole world, that we’ve got what it takes to reach a World Cup.”