Venezuela is a country where baseball and basketball have long held sway over football. With the exploits of the national team in recent years, however, all that could be about to change. The standard bearer of the revolution in the country's footballing fortunes was Richard Paez, but last November, after seven increasingly promising years in the post, the miracle worker decided he had taken South America's perennial also-rans as far as he could.
Paez's departure caused no little debate, particularly with Venezuela harbouring genuine hopes of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time in their decidedly modest history. The first candidate to throw his hat into the ring was Noel Sanvicente, widely seen as Paez's natural heir. Yet when discussions with the Caracas FC supremo reached a dead end, the Venezuelan Football Association turned their attentions to Cesar Farias, a young, upcoming coach still to get his hands on any major silverware.
And so it was that the 34 year old accepted the daunting challenge of keeping the Vinotinto on the course plotted by Paez and steering them all the way to South Africa 2010. "The team has made a lot of progress and we can't throw that all away now," said the new man at the helm. "It's vital we don't go back to the drawing board. Richard did an excellent job and that will help us to improve so we can reach our objective."
An old head on young shoulders
Although he never turned professional, the Guira-born Farias was regarded as a fine attacking midfielder with superb vision. And it was perhaps that selfsame quality that prompted him to devote his energies to coaching at an early age.
The transition from player to boss proved to be a seamless one. After finding employment at the newly founded Nueva Cadiz in 1993, Farias led the U-17 and U-20 side to league titles before building the team that would go on to lift the second division championship in 1998 and win promotion to the top flight. It was a campaign that marked the emergence of one Juan Arango, a Farias discovery who was among the squad's outstanding performers and perhaps the finest player ever to emerge from Venezuelan football.
After also taking Zulia up in 2000 and guiding Trujillanos to third place in 2002, the man with the Midas touch tried his luck at Deportivo Tachira in 2004, taking them to the runners-up spot and into the Copa Libertadores on not one but two occasions. The young coach and his unfancied charges made history in the first of those appearances. After going through the group phase unbeaten (no mean feat considering they were pooled with River Plate of Argentina, Paraguay's Libertad and Deportes Tolima of Colombia), Deportivo ousted the mighty Nacional of Uruguay in the last 16 only to be knocked out by eventual champions Sao Paulo of Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Farias was on the move again in 2006, taking Mineros de Guyana to third in the league and a place in the Libertadores. The following year he secured another top-three finish, this time with Deportivo Anzoategui, but when the call came from the FVF, he wasted little time in accepting their offer. "Why did I take the job on? Because I'm a man who enjoys a challenge."
A plan for the future
The question many Venezuela fans are asking right now is how will the new-look Vinotinto play? "I'm not planning on making too many changes because there's not that much difference between Richard and I," explained Farias. "I'll stress the importance of using the entire width of the pitch as that's the best way of getting in behind teams when we attack. But keeping our balance and being tactically disciplined are important too. If we can do that, we can become even more direct and attack-minded."
Known for a devotion to old-fashioned defensive full-backs and the traditional central midfielder, Farias is determined to hand Arango a roving role. "I want him to have the freedom he needs to attack because if you give him a specific job, it tends to inhibit him a little."
The new man also has a reputation for planning each game meticulously, and even though there are still six months still to go before he first official engagement, Farias is well up on his homework. "Venezuela can play at a high tempo and that's just what they need to do because that's the way their next opponents play. [Marcelo] Bielsa's Chile will do that, like all his teams, and so will Uruguay. They like to play at a fast pace."
Paez's departure could spell a change of fortunes for some of the players sidelined during his reign, among them goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel and midfielders Gabriel Urdaneta and Hector Gonzalez. When it comes to selection issues, though, Farias is keeping his cards close to chest. "I'll pick they players who are in form. The doors are open to everyone."
Having worked as an assistant coach with the Venezuelan U-15, U-17 and U-20 sides between 1990 and 1995, and taken a close interest in the youth teams at every club he has coached, it is no surprise to hear Farias planning ahead. "The idea is to work with the short, medium and long term in mind," he says. "Our immediate goal is to qualify for the World Cup, obviously, but we also need to think about what we're going to do if we get there. That's why we need to work side by side with the youngsters."
Although the task is a sizeable one, the Vinotinto currently lie a handy fifth in the qualification standings. Should they stay there, they will go into a play-off with one of the CONCACAF teams, an outcome the ambitious thirty-something is convinced is within their reach. "We've got the points safely in the bag and we're determined to keep the results going. After all, who doesn't want to reach the World Cup finals?"