There could well be a new team representing South America at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, with Venezuela on course to end their unwanted record of being the only CONMEBOL side never to reach the world finals. Currently fifth in the qualifying group, occupying the Intercontinental play-off place, La Vinotinto have got a baseball-mad country following their every move.

One of the men responsible for raising the hopes of the nation is central defender and natural born leader Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, who spoke to about what is promising to be a ground-breaking campaign for Venezuela.

Effective, physically strong and full of character, the 6’4 centre half, who is about to turn 28, has learned his trade in Venezuela and further afield, having also played in Colombia, Paraguay, Mexico and Argentina. In that time he has become a key figure in the transformation of La Vinotinto from hapless also-rans to genuine contenders, a side capable of beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina no less and who are now trading blows with Chile, Uruguay and Peru in the battle for fourth place and the last of the direct tickets to Brazil 2014.

“We have to reach the World Cup, no matter what it takes,” said a determined-looking Vizcarrondo in a bar in Buenos Aires, where he plays his club football for current Argentinian league leaders Lanus.

“The whole country is excited, though there’s genuine belief behind that excitement,” he added. “There is every reason to believe we’re going to achieve our goal, which is to reach our first world finals at senior level. We’re fifth and in a good position, but we can’t afford to let it slip.”

Having learned to be a leader by watching former Spanish great Fernando Hierro closely, Vizcarrondo keeps in close contact with his colleagues in the Vinotinto defence and the team’s holding midfielders, making the most of the latest communication technologies to talk tactics with them. Two weeks before every game, he goes one step further by talking to all the members of the team, no matter where they are based.

“I just want to make sure everyone believes, remind them what’s at stake and that our next game is a final. Getting that kind of chain reaction going ensures that we’re all pulling in the same direction.”

Venezuela’s current position of strength would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. While Vizca was playing football during break times at the school where he studied, run by Spanish priests, Venezuela would invariably be getting beaten by their South American neighbours. In the qualifiers for USA 1994, for example, they contrived to finish bottom of Group B, conceding 34 goals in just eight games.

We have to reach the World Cup, no matter what it takes.

Venezuela defender Oswaldo Vizcarrondo

“The biggest factor in the turnaround is the psychology,” said the No4, who has been an international since 2004. “My view is that Venezuelan players have always been technically gifted but they were always losing 5-0 in their heads before the kick-off. It was a psychological block they had, a mental block.”

As far as Vizcarrondo is concerned, there are three men who have had a major hand in changing the mindset of Venezuelan football: “The first is the Argentinian Jose Omar Pastoriza (national team coach from 1998 to 2000), who brought in totally new ideas in terms of tactics and professionalism, which allowed us to take a different approach.

“Then came Richard Paez (who was in charge of the team from 2001 to 2007). He was a revolutionary who had this unshakeable belief that Venezuela could take on and beat any team in South America. And finally, there’s Cesar Farias (the current coach), who thinks a lot and is a strong leader who has been able to get his message across to us. He’s absolutely devoted to the game and a great student of it.”

Such has been the reversal in Venezuela’s fortunes that a nation that once gave its allegiance to Brazil or Argentina is now right behind their own national team, as the proud centre half explained: “That’s all changed today. The whole of Venezuela is vinotinto now. The national team has helped bring the country together. We created that unity.”

Up to the challenge
Farias’ charges will look to keep their FIFA World Cup dream alive when they travel to Bolivia on 7 June. Though Venezuela beat the Bolivians thanks to a solitary Vizcarrondo goal earlier in the qualifying competition, playing at the altitude of La Paz will pose an altogether different challenge.

“Everyone’s using hyperbaric chambers in preparation,” revealed Vizcarrondo. “I’m doing three or four sessions a week here in Buenos Aires. You do feel short of breath, but it’s our way of trying to match those who live at altitude day in day out.”

Altitude aside, Vizcarrondo knows who Venezuela’s biggest adversaries are: “We are our own enemies. If we lose our belief and start doubting ourselves, we won’t make the World Cup.

“We have a great generation and a star player in Juan Arango. It’s a bit like Argentina with Messi, when they say: ‘If we don’t win with Messi, we’ll have failed to make the most of the best player if not in history then certainly in the game right now’. That’s the situation we’re in with Juan. We have to make the most of him in the qualifiers and the World Cup because it’s hard to imagine another one like him coming along.”