Franklin Lucena is passionate about his football. The versatile Venezuelan defensive midfielder follows the sport he plays closely, both as a way of relaxing and of learning his trade.
“I’m watching Barça in the Champions League,” the 32-year-old told FIFA.com at the start of an exclusive interview. Lucena was speaking with the passion and intensity that characterises his style on the field of play, where he has been giving everything he has got in an attempt to fulfil what is becoming an increasingly distant dream: to help La Vinotinto reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
As he spoke, Lucena kept one eye on the screen, monitoring the performance of his role model Javier Mascherano: “He’s got great vision, a cool head and he stays calm, which is what you need to succeed in this position.”
Turning his thoughts to Venezuela’s bid to reach the world finals for the first time, a hint of frustration entered his voice, and not without good reason. After collecting a healthy 12 points to end the first round of games in fourth place, La Vinotinto now find themselves sixth with 19 points, three adrift of Uruguay and Ecuador, both of whom also have a game in hand. Venezuela’s only hope of claiming fifth place and a play-off against Jordan is to beat Paraguay in San Cristobal on 11 October and hope that either of the two teams above them fail to score points in their final two matches.
Pondering that task with a mix of annoyance and hope, Lucena said: “We’re sad at the way things have turned out but we’re not going to give up now. It’s not ideal to have to depend on other results, but we’ve had a great qualifying campaign. I think we’ve achieved some big things, even if the ultimate goal of reaching the World Cup has slipped away a little. It’s out of our hands now, but we’re going to finish with our heads held high. We can pull off a miracle. We can achieve our objective.”
Feeling the pressure
A big fan of Mexican giants America, the Deportivo La Guaira midfielder hopes to play in Mexico one day, confessing that he prefers it to the European game. In the meantime, however, he is focused on one thing only: finishing the Brazil 2014 qualifiers on a high note.
Not so very long ago the whole country was at fever pitch, expectant at the possibility of the national team making history by qualifying for the finals. But that was before Venezuela’s form fell away, a turn of events that Lucena has an explanation for.
“I think it was the pressure that killed us,” he said. “There were some games in which we lacked the experience we needed to play our game and it cost us dear. We lacked experience in the game against Uruguay (a 1-0 home defeat) and Chile (a 3-0 defeat in Santiago).”
He added: “Against Bolivia we also lacked the composure to kill the game off and we ended up drawing, a result we’ve paid for. That’s where we’ve let qualification slip, in those games. The draw with Ecuador here in Venezuela was another of those matches. We weren’t able to control them. We put everything we had into each game and did all we could, but desperation took hold of us.”
Lucena, who has struck up a formidable midfield partnership with Tomas Rincon, is also a useful utility man and is more than capable of filling in elsewhere: “I’ve played at full-back too. When you’re a footballer you have to be able to slot into different positions.”
He also knows how to interpret the game from a different angle, which became clear when he looked back on their ground-breaking defeat of Argentina, an occasion when the Venezuelans were able to overcome their inexperience: “We needed a result against them come what may. We needed to beat them for the first time, and we did.”
A double setback
Lucena has unhappy memories of playing Paraguay, having missed a decisive penalty when Venezuela, looking for a place in their first continental final, lost 5-3 to Los Guaraníes in the shootout that followed their goalless semi-final at the 2011 Copa America.
“I felt the support of the whole country after that game and then when I suffered my injury,” he said, in reference to that spot-kick miss and the torn cruciate ligament that sidelined him just a few months later. “It all helped me mature as a footballer and a person. It let me see who I could rely on, who was there for me when things got tough and who wasn’t.
“We got over that defeat to Paraguay by beating them in the qualifiers, which virtually knocked them out of the competition,” he continued. “All I’m thinking about now is getting ready to win the three points and trying to make it to the World Cup.”
Looking ahead to next week’s vital game, he said: “There’ll be a lot of things going through our heads. That’s something neither we nor the psychologists can deny. We’ve got a lot to face up to but it’s important we stay cool so that we can play our best football, put in a professional performance and go out with our heads held high. We need to show the country that we’ve had a great qualifying competition, even if we don’t make it to the World Cup. We need to win first of all and then think about the equations. That’s the best we can do.”
A brighter future
While some may feel that it is a case of now or never for Venezuela, especially with star man Juan Arango nearing the end of his career, Lucena believes his country can look to the future with optimism.
“Even if we don’t make it now, we’ve still got good players coming through,” he said. “There’s Josef Martinez, Yohandry Orozco, Alexander Gonzalez and Roberto Rosales, to name but a few. There’s a whole breed of very young players who are ready to achieve big things for Venezuelan football.”
Lucena signed off with some words of encouragement for the national U-17 team, who will shortly be taking on the world at UAE 2013: “I’m sure they’re going to do a good job. Football’s a compulsory sport now in Venezuela and that’s allowed the youngsters to mature and given them confidence. They’re not going there just to make up the numbers. Venezuela have got into the habit of winning now, and they need to go there and so something special.”