After an international hiatus of nearly ten months, Venezuela’s senior team are finally returning to action with a friendly double-header. Still coming to terms with this impending reality, @DarrenSpherical fills in some gaps and takes a look at the state-of-play within La Vinotinto’s 24-man squad.
Friday 7 September 2018 – Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida, USA.
Colombia vs Venezuela
Tuesday 11 September 2018 – Estadio Rommel Fernández, Panama City, Panama.
Panama vs Venezuela
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida – the site of La Vinotinto‘s return
Time To Start Putting the Pieces Together
Last October, as the prematurely-doomed Russia 2018 qualifying campaign was ending with a post-Under 20 World Cup upswing of fortunes (three draws and a final-day victory), La Vinotinto coach Rafael Dudamel revealed that he had asked for “at least five friendlies for 2018“. With four now scheduled and possibly one or two more in the pipeline, it now looks as if his rather modest request may ultimately be granted.
Also this year – a World Cup year, no less – the match-shy Venezuela have defied all logic and managed to ascend from 52nd to 31st in the FIFA rankings. Thus, taking a very partial-sighted view of things, it could be said that Venezuela appear to be well-poised to crack on with unburdening themselves of being branded the “Cinderella” of CONMEBOL.
Perhaps, but throughout the near-300 days since last November that the senior national side has gone without playing – during which an astonishing 17 of the 24 players in the current squad have switched club sides – there has been no shortage of concern over the perceived lack of activity. In response, the FVF (Federación Venezolana de Fútbol) have repeatedly stated what should come as no surprise to anyone with a passing interest in the country’s economic situation: there is simply not enough money. Friendlies come at unfriendly prices and plenty of proposals have had to be declined. Thus, regardless of whether or not some pleading phonecalls were made, it makes considerable sense to see that the first two encounters that have been belatedly set in stone come against countries very close to home.
Nevertheless, for a football association who invited the nation’s media to a presentation in July titled “Qatar 2022. The Objective of Everyone” and whose social media channels regularly repeat the slogan that “We are World [Cup] Class“, tests against two recent World Cup-qualifiers are an apt reintroduction into the international fold.
Furthermore, despite all the frustrations from fans who fear that the country is losing ground, Rafael Dudamel has undoubtedly been a busy man in the intervening lull, pursuing the stated strategy of investing in the young. Indeed, he, along with his coaching staff have not only held a dozen or so training modules with primarily local talent, but they have also led into several tournaments the new generation of Under-20s as well as some prospects from the previous history-making cycle. Ironically, two clear beneficiaries of one of these campaigns have been two eligible overage players: left-back Luis Mago (Carabobo FC, 24 this month) and holding midfielder Agnel Flores (Monagas SC, 29). Barely a month ago, this pair helped a mostly Under-21 squad reach the final of the 2018 Central American & Caribbean Games, where they were runners-up to hosts Colombia.
Concerning youth though, another two members of that particular squad also called to the current Selección are centre-back Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay) and midfielder Ronaldo Lucena (Deportivo Táchira). These are two of the four players present – along with attacking midfielder Sergio Córdova (Augsburg, Germany) and goalkeeper Wuilker Faríñez (Millonarios FC, Colombia) – who were runners-up last year in South Korea and in whom considerable hope is indeed invested.
Initially, there were in fact six players from the silver crop in this squad, but within the past week right-back Ronald Hernández and jinking Yeferson Soteldo have had to be replaced, along with the marginally more experienced Jhon Murillo (22). Visa problems being the official reason disclosed by the FVF. Were it not for a long-term injury, midfielder and erstwhile Under-20 captain Yangel Herrera would have received a call and a stronger recent run of form as well as a UK work permit would have also surely helped the cause of fellow absentee Adalberto Peñaranda. More than a handful of others from their generation are also considered potential future call-ups, further reinforcing the sense that if the senior side is to seriously threaten their continental rivals in the next four years, the integration of youth with more established figures will be key.
This thus begs the question, who out of the current crop are considered likely first-teamers? Right now, all would agree that the fast-tracked Fariñez undoubtedly receives the No. 1 shirt and that the pivotal role in front of the back-four of captain Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy) is not up for debate. Forwards Salomón Rondón (Newcastle United, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, England) and Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA) are also leading figures. However, questions have been asked as to whether or not the pair can combine effectively and, should Dudamel opt for a lone striker, if the latter’s phenomenal MLS goalscoring exploits could one day rather soon lead to him usurping the Magpie as the focal point of the attack. Either way, such is the gulf in stature that even if one has to make way for the other in the line-up, the two other forwards named in this squad will have a considerable battle on their hands just to receive further call-ups, let alone gain a starting berth off one of the aforementioned pair.
After these names, things start to become a little more precarious. Regarding the rearguard, one of Dudamel’s great achievements last year at both Under-20 level as well as in the final stretch of the qualifiers was the tightening up at the back, resulting in an admirably low number of goals conceded. However, there lurks the feeling that these were feats of a more collective, well-disciplined and systematic nature, rather than owing to a combination of individual brilliance. Thus, though the Russian-based pair of Wilker Ángel (Akhmat Grozny) and Jhon Chancellor (Anzhi Makhachkala) currently have the strongest claims to the centre-back positions, it will be well worth looking at the 19-year-old Ferraresi as well as Yordan Osorio, who currently finds himself on loan at Vitória Guimarães, after a January transfer to Portuguese giants Porto.
Regarding the defensive flanks, they were repeatedly exploited by opponents in the qualifiers and Dudamel himself has admitted that the left-back position is a problem. As Rolf Feltscher‘s form at LA Galaxy – where, owing to the competition of Ashley Cole, he is usually deployed on the right – does not inspire confidence, opportunity surely beckons for the uncapped Mago. On the right, Hernández’s late omission is definitely a setback for personal, as well as collective, development. His replacement Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Táchira), a 27-year-old with less than a handful of caps who spent some of the past year playing in Gibraltar, does not appear to be one for the long run. Thus, the door is still very much open to Alexander González (Elche, Spain), a healthily-capped individual whose optimum position seems to lay somewhere curiously between that of a right-back and a right-sided midfielder, joining in with attacks but occasionally leaving himself exposed.
Just in front, though Flores or Lucena may well receive a chance to partner Rincón, with the absence of Herrera, Júnior Moreno (DC United, USA) can really stake a claim to challenge his fellow MLS-dwelling compatriot for that coveted first-team spot. Aided by the arrival of Wayne Rooney, the 25-year-old is enjoying a good spell at club level, off the back of making his international debut last year, from which he went on to start in the heart of the Vinotinto midfield in the draws against Uruguay and Argentina.
Regarding the more attack-minded midfield positions, whether Dudamel opts for one on each flank or an attacking line of three, he still has the customary, welcome selection issue. Venezuela have had a relatively impressive amount of success with the development of players in this broad area and new candidates for the limited number of roles frequently emerge. Indeed, the right-sided Córdova rapidly transitioned from his country’s Under-20 World Cup topscorer to a regular in the Vinotinto line-up, starting all four of the remaining qualifying matches. However, with no starts yet this season in the Bundesliga, he will know more than anyone that nothing can be taken for granted. The visa-less Murillo was also making headway in the final qualifying stretch along with, to perhaps a lesser extent, Rómulo Otero, who has since raised eyebrows by swapping being a one-man highlight reel in Brazil for a loan spell in Saudi Arabia.
If there is to be a reordering in the pecking order, there are two men in particular who are primed to capitalise. Firstly, Darwin Machís, who can be deployed on either side of an attacking midfield and who also gained a start against Colombia last August. Since then, the tenacious late-bloomer of 25 years has enjoyed a sensational, golazo-laden season with Granada, justifying their faith in him and earning himself a move to Udinese, where he has already started the first three Serie A games of the season. Secondly, there is the right-sided Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA), whose inclusion only came at the eleventh hour following the omissions of Murillo and Soteldo. Perhaps this will prove to be a blessing in disguise as, after initially being overlooked, the ex-Zulia man – only a mere several months older than the much-hyped Soteldo – has gone on a spectacular run of form, to the point where he now seems like a permanent fixture of the MLS’s official Team of the Week.
Machís and Savarino undoubtedly have the higher-profiles, but many will also be hoping to see some contributions from two other players in fine form: the uncapped Eduard Bello, who has netted 8 times in 21 league games since his move to Chile with Deportes Antofagasta and Luis “Cariaco” González, the other beneficiary of the Murillo/Soteldo withdrawals. The latter has recently turned up at Colombian title-winners Deportes Tolima, assisting an impressive number of times in the same side as compatriot Yohandry Orozco (who, in turn, despite being one of the three overage players at the Central American and Caribbean Games, where he contributed three goals in five games, has not been selected here).
So, overall then, aside from perhaps four starting positions, there is certainly all to play for, with no shortage of competition inside and outside of the current squad. Tactically, Dudamel has spoken of experiments with the youth sides – in particular, playing with three at the back – though there is no indication yet as to whether this will be carried over to the seniors. What does remain likely, however, is that the side will continue with a compact defensive rearguard and will seek to break with rapid transitions on the counter. If, in time, they can also add some consistency in the starting personnel – particularly amongst the attacking midfield positions – and generate some more positive, front-foot play, this will certainly feel like team progress.
Although they are merely friendlies and the Copa América is not for another nine months, all Vinotinto fans will be hoping, perhaps with hearts rather than heads, that their representatives have not lost too much momentum since last year’s promising end. Results may not be the priority, but there is reason for optimism, not least because the national side does possess a respectable recent record against Colombia and have drawn their last two games against Panama (with the rain-soaked September 2015 encounter actually proving to be Juan Arango’s final appearance for his country).
There are, of course, far more important things for Venezuelans to be preoccupied with.
In April of this year, the life of 30-year-old Jesús Guacarán – physiotherapist for La Vinotinto who was part of the Under-20 national team’s success – was taken, shot dead whilst out shopping in Barquisimeto, thus depriving his wife of not only her husband but of a father for their then-unborn child. This is but one of countless tragedies that have occurred in a nation contending with unimaginable economic and social turmoil, though it is one of the more acutely-felt incidents for the Selección. Plenty of high-profile individuals conveyed their sadness on social media and it can only be speculated how the everyday uncertainties and hardships of their family members, friends and other loved ones impact upon the mindsets of the players and coaches of the national side.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Salomón Rondón offered this insight into the team’s perspective going into games: “My responsibility is to make Venezuelan people proud. When we play for the national team we try to make them forget the bad things, just for those 90 minutes.”
Though this may be impossible for some, here’s hoping that the long-awaited return of La Vinotinto can at least raise a few extra smiles, however fleeting, and inspire many in the face of adversity.
Wuilker Faríñez (Millonarios FC, Colombia) & Rafael Romo (APOEL FC, Cyprus).
Wilker Ángel (Akhmat Grozny, Russia), Jhon Chancellor (Anzhi Makhachkala, Russia), Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Táchira), Rolf Feltscher (LA Galaxy, USA), Nahuel Ferraresi (CF Peralada-Girona B, Spain, on loan from Club Atlético Torque, Uruguay), Alexander González (Elche, Spain), Luis Mago (Carabobo FC) & Yordan Osorio (Vitória Guimarães, on loan from Porto, Portugal),
Eduard Bello (Deportes Antofagasta, Chile), Sergio Córdova (Augsburg, Germany), Agnel Flores (Monagas SC), Luis González (Deportes Tolima, Colombia), Ronaldo Lucena (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela, on loan from Atlético Nacional, Colombia), Darwin Machís (Udinese, Italy), Júnior Moreno (DC United, USA), Rómulo Otero (Al Wehda, Saudi Arabia, on loan from Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), Tomás Rincón (Torino, Italy) & Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake, USA).
Fernando Aristeguieta (América de Cali, Colombia), Josef Martínez (Atlanta United, USA), Salomón Rondón (Newcastle United, on loan from West Bromwich Albion, England) & Christian Santos (Deportivo La Coruña, Spain).