Rincon: It’s an honour to follow Arango

The state of Tachira is one of Venezuela’s footballing hotbeds, and its capital, San Cristobal, has long been a favourite haunt of the national team. The city is also the hometown of current Vinotinto captain Tomas Rincon, who has been playing the game since he was four and who would turn up every time Venezuela were in town in the hope of making the ballboy team.

Rincon’s childhood idol was none other than Juan Arango, the leading light of the Vinotinto line-up in those not-so-distant days and to whom the starstruck youngster returned the ball on many an occasion. That scene has just been reversed, however, with the great Arango having just called time on his distinguished career and handing something back to the one-time ballboy: the small matter of the national team captaincy.

“Yes, it’s a funny little story, isn’t it?” said the Genoa midfielder in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Arango was the star of the team and I was just a ball-boy. I watched and admired him, then found myself playing alongside him, and now we’re firm friends.

“When I came into the national side he was one of the people who helped me the most. He gave me the little boost every young player needs when they come into a side. We hit it off straightaway and spent so much time together over the years that we’ve become very good friends.”

Rincon was 20 when he made his international debut back in 2008, by which time Arango – eight years his senior – was well and truly established as Venezuela’s go-to man. Over the next seven years the young admirer was able to watch his role model at close quarters, though as he went on to explain, Arango was not the type to dispense advice freely.

“The people who know him will tell you that he pretty much keeps his thoughts to himself, but we all know that it’s not been easy for him to leave the national team. He’s kept in touch with us, though, and he follows our progress,” added Rincon, a stand-in skipper whenever Arango was sidelined and who has been wearing the armband on a permanent basis since his friend stepped aside for good in September.

Discussing his role, Rincon said: “I feel very proud and honoured. I’m also committed to the job and aware of the responsibility that comes with it. We’ve got a great group of players and we all feel we have important parts to play, as members of a team first and foremost.

“We’d like to thank Juan for continuing to support the team, though obviously we miss him because he’s been such a key figure for Venezuelan football. He always brought an extra dimension to our game with his quality.”

A new challenge  Venezuela now have the job of attempting to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ in the absence of the player who has been the heartbeat of the side for the last 15 years. As if that did not make La Vinotinto’s task hard enough, the return of Brazil to the qualifying fray will further hamper their latest attempt to put paid to their unwanted status as the only CONMEBOL side never to have reached the world finals.

“Qualifying from the position we’re in won’t be easy,” acknowledged the new captain. “We know that the South American preliminaries are the toughest in the world because of the different climates you have to face and all the travelling, but I feel we’ve got an excellent generation of players right now. They’re experienced and they’re at the right age. We hope to fulfil the nation’s dreams this time.”

Venezuela have not made the best of starts in their bid to reach Russia, losing at home to Paraguay and then away to the Brazilians. “We’re a bit flat because we’d hoped to have a point or two in the bank by now,” said Rincon. “Obviously there's more pressure on us to get some points in the bag and to make home advantage count when we have it. We can’t afford any more slip-ups.”

Discussing the reasons, for La Vinotinto’s faltering start, Rincon offered a frank assessment: “I don’t think we’ve yet been able to do the things the coach has asked of us. Noel wants us to build on our main asset, which is our solidity at the back, and to take the initiative a bit more in midfield and attack. He wants us to get on the ball more and to be more precise up front and develop our play a bit.”

Rincon’s place in the squad for the upcoming qualifiers away to Bolivia and at home to Ecuador was in doubt until the last minute because of a niggling heel injury. Shaking off his ailment with a mix of steely determination and self-sacrifice, the skipper is intent on getting Venezuela’s campaign up and running, as reflected in the message he tweeted before setting off for La Paz: “As excited as the first day, as much in need as the last.”

Venezuela have all the spirit and drive they could ask of their skipper. All they need now are some precious points to go with it.