Jose Salomon Rondon is the most recognisable face among a posse of young Venezuelan players who already know what it is to take part in a FIFA World Cup™ competition. Salo, as he is known to friends and team-mates, was the leading scorer in the Vinotinto side that travelled to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009, the country’s first appearance in a world finals.
“What comes to mind when I look back on it all is the Venezuelan national anthem before our opening game against Nigeria,” said Rondon, his country’s man of the moment, in a conversation with FIFA.com. “Knowing that it was the first time it had sounded in a World Cup made our hair stand on end. It makes me proud and motivates me, and my hope now is that the senior team can reach its first World Cup at Brazil 2014.”
That objective is far from fanciful, especially with the Venezuelans comfortably installed in one of the direct qualification slots in the South American Zone after five matches. They owe their position there to the header Rondon scored in last Saturday’s visit to the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, a header that secured them a 1-1 draw with Uruguay and also extended their unbeaten run against La Celeste in FIFA World Cup qualifiers to six games, a sequence stretching back 12 years.
“We deserved the result,” commented Rondon afterwards. “We were doing well until we made the mistake that led to their goal.”
So what was the key to the creditable draw? “We gave as good as we got, which not many teams do in Uruguay,” answered the Malaga striker. “We stayed compact, competed in every area of the pitch and we could even have come away with the win. Even so, it was a great point for us.”
Goals fuel belief
As he showed in scoring twice in a friendly against Moldova in late March, Rondon has always posed a threat for goalkeepers. Since starting out as a callow 16-year-old with unfashionable Aragua, the athletically built front-man, who stands 6’1 tall, has made full use of his strength, aerial power and his ability to play with his back to goal and facing it.
Though not spectacular, his scoring record is consistent. After 18 goals and two years with Aragua he joined Spanish second division side Las Palmas, recovering from a difficult start to score 12 goals in the 2009/10 campaign. The subject of several succulent offers, Rondon finally opted for a move to Malaga, where he struck 14 times in his first season to save the club from relegation and then hit 11 this last campaign to help them into the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League.
How much has he changed in the four years since he left his homeland? “A lot, and I’d like to think it’s been for the better,” replied the 22-year-old, a childhood admirer of Ronaldo who now models himself on Didier Drogba.
“As a person I’ve learned to listen and take advice,” he added. “And as a player, I’d put it like this: I knew how to play football but I needed to polish my game and learn my trade. I feel I’ve improved my finishing, the way I get up in the air, how I hold up the ball and my all-round technique. Having a team-mate like [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy also helps, though I’ve still got work to do.”
Brazil 2014 the objective
Rondon made his full international debut in a friendly against Haiti in February 2008, scoring the first of his nine goals for La Vinotinto just a month later against El Salvador, all this before that ground-breaking U-20 world finals campaign. The Malaga man also formed part of the squad that finished fourth at the 2011 Copa America.
“We stopped being the also-rans of South American football a while ago, and it’s great that teams now look on us in a different way, because I think we’ve done things well enough to earn their respect,” he commented with a sense of conviction in his voice.
“That brings responsibility with it and you have to make sure you don’t get carried away, because then we might let it all get on top of us and lose sight of our objective. We got here by keeping our feet on the ground and we need to keep it that way.”
When talk turns to Chile, Venezuela’s next opponents in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers, Rondon offers a similarly measured appraisal: “They’re a very decent team who didn’t have a good Copa America but do have some great players competing in the world’s best leagues, some of them real match-winners.”
And when asked if Venezuela’s 2-1 win over La Roja in the last year’s Copa America quarter-finals is a pointer for Saturday’s showdown, his response is an emphatic one: “No. The one thing we have to repeat from that game is the level of concentration we had.”
A lover of reggaeton music, Rondon believes Venezuela have no reason to fear failure. “I’m not scared of it. If you want to be successful, you have to take risks, and that’s what we do. We’re not rushing things, but we know where we’re going and how to get there.
It’s not enough for us now to have a good qualifying competition and go close. That’s why it doesn’t matter to us if we finish first, third or fifth and make it through the play-offs: the objective is to reach the World Cup.”