Tuesday 2 February 2016 – Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas.
Venezuela vs Costa Rica
Trouble Abounds, Though Not In These Surrounds
Letter sent via Twitter by 15 leading Venezuelan players (source: numerous Twitter accounts)
On the evening of 30 November 2015, an open letter was simultaneously tweeted by several Twitter accounts that was to put the immediate future of Venezuelan football in serious jeopardy. Signed by 15 of the most senior and high-profile internationals – including Tomás Rincón, Salomón Rondón and Roberto Rosales – and later endorsed by many more in the national set-up, its stated grievances were chiefly with the country’s football association (FVF). The players were incandescent at accusations that they were conspiring to get their manager and his coaching staff the sack; instead, they said, it was their paymasters on high that they would like to see replaced and some new leadership installed. Coming as it did in the week preceding the ruling chavista factions’ biggest electoral setback in their 17 years of power, this digital missive certainly chimed with anti-establishment currents in the air.
However, despite the players’ collective denial, national boss Noel Sanvicente and his off-field team had little reason to feel any more content about the situation. Indeed, the letter did also express disappointment at their silence and seeming lack of support for the players after the charges were first levelled several days prior by FVF President Laureano González. As around the same time the experienced defender Fernando Amorebieta had announced his resignation from the international stage, citing differences with Sanvicente and co. along the way, speculation has been rife that player-coach relations are at their lowest this century. Some voices in the domestic media have suggested that some, if not all, of the signatories will never play under Sanvicente again, while others have hit the nuclear button entirely and called for coaches and FVF directors alike to wash their hands with the current generation and instead plan for Qatar 2022. Regarding this last point, with four consecutive defeats having inaugurated the preliminary road to Russia 2018, making long-term future planning paramount is a pressing concern that certainly pre-dates the letter’s publication.
Nevertheless, in a seeming admission that bridges behind the scenes need to be mended, if not re-built entirely, Sanvicente has been proactive in improving the situation. Firstly, within a day of the original letter, he issued his own lengthy response in which, amongst other things, he offered himself up as a mediator of sorts between players and directors and, crucially, stated that he had no reason to believe that they were plotting to oust him. He also acknowledged that on-field performances need vast improvement and that he accepts ultimate responsbility. Part two of his salvage operation began in early January as he travelled to Europe to meet up with some of the most high-profile players. Little of substance is known about what was said in these discussions but he did also have time to meet and get his photograph taken with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique. Unintentionally or otherwise, calling upon his contacts in this way may have provided something of a rebuff to critics who have called for this derided provincial, who has never worked outside his homeland, to be replaced with a foreign, and therefore supposedly more tactically sophisticated, manager. Ultimately, observers will probably have to wait until the next World Cup Qualifiers in late March to see if any progress has been made and a full-scale rebellion averted.
Venezuela manager Noel Sanvicente with Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola (Source: @SeleVinotinto)
Dissent Unlikely Here: The Current Squad
Indeed, as though in the meantime a friendly has been arranged, as it falls outside of official FIFA dates and clubs are not obliged to released their players, none of the 15 signatories feature in the crop to face Costa Rica in Barinas. Thus, rather than having to negotiate his way through cagey training sessions with wary, politicking professionals, Sanvicente’s squad is instead largely stocked with eager-to-impress domestic players (plus a couple of youngsters from abroad). A fine opportunity for these upstarts to bolster the claims of those who want ridding of the supposedly traitorous seniors, some might say. However, this must be tempered by the fact that numerous Venezuelans who exhibit the faintest glimmer of future star potential are now snapped up by overseas clubs every single year. Indeed, eight of the home-based players called up for last year’s friendy double-header with Honduras have since moved abroad. These include the likes of Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Huachipato, Chile) and Manuel Arteaga (Palermo, Italy) – precisely the kind of individuals who are in a strong position to become regulars in the upcoming years. This is without mentioning goalkeeper Alain Baroja (then at Caracas FC, now in Greece with AEK Athens), who made his debut in the first of these games and is now his nation’s number-one choice. At last count, several dozen players who have received international call-ups already ply their trade abroad, many of whom are barely in their twenties, so the current products of the nation’s ransacked domestic game are not necessarily the first people to look at when envisaging a brave new era.
Consequently, in the current squad there are a fair few journeymen, nearly men and youngsters for whom this call-up will probably count as a career highlight. Furthermore, Sanvicente can not call upon any players from Caracas FC – easily the country’s leading exporter of talent – as their players are set to play the first leg of a crucial Copa Libertadores playoff tie. Nevertheless, promise can still be found amidst their ranks.
20-year-old midfielder Carlos Cermeño has now had a couple of years of regular action for 2014/15 champions Deportivo Táchira and some anticipate that he will eventually bring some more composure and support for both defence and attack. Perhaps more exciting to the average spectator is attacker Yeferson Soteldo, who made his professional debut at 16 and really burst to prominence in 2015, scoring 12 goals in 21 games of Zamora’s Torneo Adecuación championship-winning season (this was a short transitional tournament to pave the way for a restructured domestic league). Still only 18, this fleet-footed, persistent finisher has already scored in 2016’s opening domestic fixture and has recently received recognition in British magazine Four Four Two. Arguably possessing the most potential of the lot – and who has, unsurprisingly, already been prised away from Venezuela – is 19-year-old striker Andrés Ponce. Having first excited preying eyes when netting seven goals at 2013’s South American Under-17s Championship (where his nation only narrowly finished second to Argentina on goal difference), he is now causing excitement in Italy. Indeed, possessing attributes not entirely dissimilar to those of one Salomón Rondón, his 16 goals in 2015/16 mean he is currently top-scorer in Italy’s Torneo Primavera, the country’s top youth division.
A Respite From Reality?
The plucky faithful of Estadio Agustín Tovar, home of Zamora, will be keen to see both Ponce and their very own Soteldo mark their international bows with goals, though the reception they reserve for their ex-manager may be of greatest interest. Indeed, Sanvicente led them to two consecutive championships between 2012 and 2014 and received a hero’s welcome – banners et al – this time last year for the second friendly against Honduras. Based on online opinion polls taken back in November, a substantial majority of Venezuelans think Sanvicente should go, but fans of his former clubs (particularly Caracas FC) have been amongst the most keen to defend him. Who knows, in the short run this friendly of seemingly spurious consequence may give him a much-needed morale boost and go some way to building bridges with fans, if not the players he will most likely be calling upon next month against Peru and Chile.
In the long run however, particularly with regard to on-field matters, coercing the domestic public – let alone neutral observers – into perceiving some significance in this encounter is a challenge that even most television subscription services would struggle to rise to. Facing a Costa Rica side also devoid of familiar names, this is not adequate preparation towards salvaging some pride in the World Cup qualifying campaign. Sanvicente – once again thwarted by the resources and, perhaps, the organisation of the FVF – would have preferred two friendlies like last year, but has had to settle with the one. Although a second clash with Los Ticos has provisionally been agreed, this will not take place until May (or not at all, if the two sides draw each other at the Copa América Centenario). Even so, two games with players drawn mainly from the depleted national league would surely have done little more than made several extra players aware of his methods – methods which, with each setback, lose the considerable clout they once possessed.
Ultimately, everyone, not least Sanvicente, knows the real work recommences in March. For now, the orders of the day are public relations, running the rule over some prospects and raising spirits – internally, if not externally.
Goalkeepers: José David Contreras (Deportivo Táchira) and Luis Rojas (Deportivo La Guaira).
Defenders: Daniel Benítez (Deportivo La Guaira), Diego Melean (Zulia FC), Edwin Peraza (Zamora FC), Jhon Chancellor (Mineros de Guayana), Ángel Faría (Zamora), Mikel Villanueva (Atlético Malagueño), Óscar González (Deportivo La Guaira) and Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira).
Midfielders: Carlos Cermeño (Dvo Táchira), Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), Luis González (Mineros de Guayana), Angelo Peña (Mineros de Guayana), Carlos Suárez (Carabobo FC), Javier García (Deportivo La Guaira), Arles Flores (Zamora FC), Johan Moreno (Zamora FC) and Yeferson Soteldo (Zamora FC).
Forwards: Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana), Andrés Ponce (Sampdoria) and Jesús Lugo (Aragua FC).
*Note: All teams for players correct at time of the squad’s announcement.