Back in the 1980s, Jose Tunez and his wife Margarita Arceo left Galicia, in Spain’s north-west, for the Venezuelan capital of Caracas in search of a brighter future. There they had a son and, shortly after the youngster had turned seven, the family made the journey back to Galician shores.
Now, nearly two decades on and an established pro footballer, Andres Tunez regularly makes the trip back to Latin America, with a view to making history in the colours of the country of his birth: “This country captivates you," he said. "It’s not an easy place to forget.”
Currently on the books at La Liga outfit Celta de Vigo, the centre-back has been in contact with representatives of the Vinotinto national set-up for the past two years. Boasting both Spanish and Venezuelan passports, the defender was on the verge of taking part in the Copa America 2011 only to be denied by a fixture clash with Celta – who were at the time battling for promotion from Spain’s second tier.
Though Tunez and Co missed out then, Os Celestes are now back in the top flight after winning promotion in 2011/12, while their imposing central defender has also gone on to win six senior caps for Venezuela. “I’m really happy,” said Tunez with a smile.
A generation on the verge of history
This is hardly surprising, particularly when you consider he is now part of one of the most promising generations in the history of Venezuelan football. “There are loads of guys in the squad who are playing in very competitive leagues in Europe and the Americas, and that has an impact on the national team,” he said. “That leap in quality [due to players competing in strong leagues] comes through in the way the team plays. It’s a real boost.”
That positive trend is visible not only on the pitch but off it as well, as Tunez explained: “Baseball is the leading sport in our country and we all like it. But, after the Copa America 2011 [when Venezuela finished fourth], there was a radical change in people’s attitude towards football. The fans got on board in a big way and are giving us incredible support. They’re a vital pillar for us to lean on at any given time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an impressive atmosphere as the Venezuelan fans whip up when we play at home.”
As a result of this fervent support, the members of this gifted crop of Vinotinto talents are deeply determined to repay the fans’ faith and keep the forward momentum going. Chief among their collective goals is a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, despite Venezuela lying in sixth spot in the nine-team South American Zone standings.
However, their 11-point tally means they are only one behind both Uruguay and Chile, who currently sit in the final automatic qualifying place and the intercontinental play-off berth respectively, though the latter pair have played one game fewer. “Yes, we believe we’re in with a chance, but listen, it’s really tough,” said the 25-year-old.
“Sometimes people, particularly in Europe, don’t realise just how difficult South American Zone qualifying is,” he continued. “We’re putting in a huge effort and we’ve got five home games left, plus three away.
“That could be a big help, but we also need to make sure we don’t slip up by thinking we’ve got our home games in the bag already. We can’t be complacent: we have to fight for every point. I’d be so proud to be part of a historic Venezuela side that was the first to qualify for a World Cup. But we simply can’t afford to switch off now.”
Farias, man with the plan
Doing his best to ensure that does not happen will be Vinotinto supremo Cesar Farias, the man who gave Tunez a chance in the national set-up and for whom the player has nothing but praise. “The coach demands a lot of intensity and hard work from us,” said Tunez, who has started Venezuela’s last two qualifiers.
“He’s very thorough in his tactical preparations and he really puts us through our paces physically too. His methods are getting results, so we need to keep paying close attention to what he says. Up to now, we’ve been achieving every goal that’s been set.”
Tunez also feels he is sure to benefit from weekly action in Spain’s top tier this season, now that Celta have ended their five-term sojourn in the Segunda Division. “Of course you’re going to mature and grow as a player faster when you’re competing against the very best. I’m sure that the more games in the Primera I play, against such strong teams, the more I'll improve and the better I’ll be for the national team.”
With a broad smile that proves he is clearly relishing that prospect, Tunez was also upbeat about his club’s survival chances: “Our goal is to stay up and we’ve got a good enough side to do just that. But La Liga is really tough, so we’re going to have to fight extremely hard in every game.”
Finally, as the conversation concluded, how does the centre-back envisage Venezuela’s next qualifying encounter, on 16 October against Ecuador? “They’re difficult opponents and we’ll be made to sweat. But, they’re playing on our turf and we can’t let them go home with any points. They’re direct rivals but we put in a great performance in our last qualifier against Paraguay [a 2-0 away win on 11 September]. We’re hoping to continue where we left off.”