Following a 16-year international career with Venezuela, during which time he became his country’s leading player, Juan Arango admits to being completely taken aback by La Vinotinto’s false start to the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, which has brought them zero points from four games.
“Of course I wasn’t expecting it!” Arango told FIFA.com down the phone line from New York, reflecting on the worst start Venezuela have ever made to the qualifiers since the current format was introduced. “How could I imagine something like that happening with the players we’ve got? You couldn’t see it coming,” added the 35-year-old midfielder, now playing his club football for New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
After taking part in his sixth Copa America, Arango called time on his international career in September 2015, just before the Russia 2018 preliminaries got under way. “I didn’t have the motivation to carry on, and Venezuela didn’t deserve that. I preferred to step down and give way to someone else who was motivated,” explained the veteran, his country’s most-capped player with 127 appearances, 58 of them coming in World Cup qualifiers.
“The lack of results has got nothing to do with me retiring, though,” he pointed out. “They just haven’t played that well; as simple as that. They have deserved to pick up a point or two, but there are times in football when you go through good and bad patches. The important thing is to get a good result and turn things around. They have to get their confidence back.”
Pulling no punches
Judging by Venezuela’s record against their next two opponents, Arango’s former team-mates face an uphill climb. First up are Peru in Lima, where Venezuela have picked up a solitary point in seven visits – a goalless draw in 2004. After that comes a home game against Chile, who have never lost on Venezuelan soil, having collected five wins – the last four of them consecutive – and a draw.
“It’s tough because they’ve also got some daunting away games coming up too, like in Chile and Argentina,” said the former Vinotinto captain, who was part of the side that was in contention for a place at Brazil 2014 but eventually finished sixth in the table. “And I don’t know if there’s any team that’s had a start like that and gone on to qualify for the World Cup. Even so, Venezuela mustn’t give up.”
Though Arango is unable to conceal his concern for the national team and his love for the jersey remains strong, he is not contemplating a return to international football. The former midfield man, one of only four players to score in four different qualifying competitions, explained: “I’d be lying if I said it’s never crossed my mind, but no more so than anyone else who’s played for their national team for so long. I don’t think there’s any ex-player who’s going to tell you otherwise. I won’t be going back on my decision, though.”
Watching from afar
Arango is thus devoting all his energies to the Cosmos, his ninth port of call in a near 20-year career and a club once graced by Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. After going out of existence in 1985, the New York outfit has been competing anew in the NASL (the second tier of the US soccer league system) since 2013.
Under Venezuelan coach Giovanni Savarese, the Cosmos won the NASL title in their first season back and again in 2015, when ex-Spain striker Raul formed part of the squad. “Giovanni used to play in the national team with me and he’s a friend of mine too,” explained the Maracay-born Arango. “He asked me to come and said I had things to offer to his project here. I liked the sound of the challenge, and here I am.”
Aware of the impact his arrival could make, having excelled in Spain, Germany and Mexico, Arango said: “I’m committed not only to Giovanni but to the organisation as a whole and to the city, which just blows you away. I want to help the franchise win and the league to keep growing. It’s good that experienced players are coming because they’ll raise the overall level.”
Arango will always find time, however, to follow the fortunes of his beloved Venezuela, even if only on TV. “I try to watch games on my own now, with no one around me, because I get worked up,” he admitted. “I’ll always be there, though, through the good times and the bad.”