Tag Archives: Honduras

Venezuela 0-3 Honduras – International Friendly (4 September 2015)

International Friendly

Friday 4 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela 0-3 Honduras

(To read a preview of both of Venezuela’s September 2015 friendlies, click here)

Video Highlights of Venezuela 0-3 Honduras, International Friendly, 4 September 2015 (YouTube)

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo, Túñez (A. González, 90′), Cichero; Guerra (Arango, 46′), Rincón (Signorelli, 78′), Seijas (C. González, 68′), R. Vargas (M. Rondón, 61′); Martínez (Miku, 69′), S. Rondón. (The formation was nominally a 4-4-2 though often looked like the usual 4-2-3-1, with Martínez slightly behind S. Rondón).

Honduras (4-4-2): Lopez; Beckeles, Velásquez, Figueroa, Izaguirre (Oseguera, 90+2′); Andino (Méndez, 87′), A. Mejía (Garrido, 78′), Acosta, B. García (E. Hernández, 80′); Bengtson (Castillo, 71′), J. Mejía (Discua, 65′).

Match Report

Uncreative Venezuela Humbled at Home By Honduras 

Plans for Venezuela to overcome the shortcomings of their premature Copa América exit and instead gain a morale boost on home soil ahead of their World Cup qualifying campaign took a backwards step as they were undone by three second-half goals.

Possibly in a bid to improve his side’s poor goalscoring stats, coach Noel Sanvicente started with the same players that were named for the final Group C game with Brazil in June, albeit with one key change. Experienced icon Juan Arango was replaced with Torino prospect Josef Martínez, who from the off was perhaps the chief instigator of a more direct approach, often seeking to play in close tandem with star striker Salomón Rondón.

Indeed, though Venezuela certainly attempted many attacks on the flanks throughout the game, it was often the central approach that yielded the best results, particularly in the first half when they were the better side, playing at a tempo not witnessed in the Chile-hosted tournament.

That said, their first moment of note came from the right wing in the 10th minute when right-back Roberto Rosales, who was a frequent intruder into opposition territory, glided in a challenging cross. Rondón jumped for it with a defender, who just about beat the West Brom striker to the ball at the back post and goalkeeper Luis Lopez rose up to collect. However, just a couple of minutes later, Honduras were to give the hosts the first taste of what could happen if they fail to take advantage of their more frequent forward forays. The internationally prolific Jerry Bengtson – who has recently moved to Iran to play for Persepolis –  did well to take a long ball up the inside-left in his stride and suddenly had some space on the left within the area. However, centre-back Andrés Túñez’s presence may have just about served its purpose, as the shot was fired comfortably over.

Undeterred, Venezuela continued with their pressing and were to enjoy the next few chances of note. Just after the quarter-hour mark, the strike partnership haphazardly displayed some promise as a series of central knock-ons, intentional or otherwise, from opposition defender Maynor Figueroa as well as Martínez and Rondón led to the latter almost poking the ball in, though he was narrowly beaten to it by the fleet-footed Lopez. A few minutes later, a corner from Ronald Vargas – whose success rate of finding a team-mate from a set-piece was otherwise largely abysmal – was glanced wide by Oswaldo Vizcarrondo. Had the Nantes centre-back arrived a fraction of a second earlier to meet the ball, he could well have bullet-headed it into the back of the net. AEK winger Vargas was involved in the next opportunity in the 24th minute as, from the inside-right position, he slid the ball forward to give Rondón a chance at goal. However, though he could have squeezed a shot between the defender and Lopez towards the far corner, he instead hit a low strike straight at the goalkeeper.

Overall, Rondón was to have a rather mediocre game, not only failing to convert the chances that came his way but also giving away the ball several times when involved in quick-paced direct passing moves, though his efforts in such exchanges were not entirely without merit. Much of this was in evidence in the last moment of note in the first half. Indeed, in the 44th minute, Martínez bustled through the middle, played a rapid one-two with Rondón before being adjudged to have been fouled in the area. Up stepped Rondón but his penalty was struck barely halfway between the centre and left post of the goal-frame and thus, having guessed correctly, Lopez pulled off what was a fairly comfortable save.

Venezuela returned for the second half with the ineffectual Guerra having been replaced by Arango and were to again have the first chance of note. The roaming Rosales once more reached the right edge of the Honduran area, where this time he cut inside and curled a left-footed effort goalwards, though his accuracy was unfortunately off by several yards.

However, a minute later when the clock struck 50′, the tide was to begin to turn against the hosts. All of a sudden, they found themselves stretched at the back as the youthful Bryan Acosta was to beat the ageing Vizcarrondo to the chase and dinked the ball over the onrushing Alain Baroja but also a yard or two above the goalkeeper’s bar. Under-fire visiting manager Jorge Luis Pinto, who has had a relatively poor start to his reign in charge, shook his head on the touchline as if to query the footballing Gods as towhen exactly he is finally going to get a break.

Fortunately for him, the answer to that was very shortly. Indeed, a few minutes after Vizcarrondo almost got outpaced again, Erick Andino struck a bona fide golazo that really did come out of nowhere. Controlling a ball 25 yards out just to the right of the centre of the park, he hoisted a dipping half-volley towards the far top corner which Baroja could only help on its way into the net.

Momentarily at least, a hush of seemingly silent admiration appeared to spread amongst the Puerto Ordaz crowd. However, they soon had reason to regain their voices as immediately following the goal, another direct Venezuelan attack nearly reaped dividends. This time, from the edge of the area, Martínez flicked on with Cantona-esque panache a return-ball for Rondón, who stabbed a volley from inside the area that Lopez did well to instinctively tip over at point-blank range. From the resulting corner, Vargas’ second and final dead-ball delivery of note was met by the towering Túñez at the back post, but though Lopez was caught in a difficult position, the header was off target.

From that moment onwards, Venezuela struggled to get a clear sight of the Honduran goal as familiar problems came to the fore and were magnified by the scoreline. An absence of effective team-work and incisive passing marked most forward forays as La Vinotinto seemed short on ideas to find ways through or around the opposition. In the 70th minute, Rosales’ frustrations appeared to almost get the better of him after one of his many bursts up the right resulted in his infield pass to substitute Miku being wasted by the Rayo Vallecano striker, who attempted a hopelessly wayward return-ball. Subsequently, the Málaga right-back wore an expression of exasperation, quite possibly weary of several of his team-mates who were rarely capable of adequately complementing his charges up the right.

Unsurprisingly, such sullenness did not do much to aid his own performance. Just a few minutes later from Rosales’ side, Celtic left-back Emilio Izaguirre swung in a fine, elegant cross that recent substitute Román Castillo of Motagua beat his marker to and nodded home to double the lead. The out-manoeuvred defender in question was Túñez who also came in for some criticism against Brazil in June when he was similarly beaten to the ball for the two Seleção goals.

If Rosales’ culpability for the second goal was masked by the positioning of his team-mate in the centre, then there was no hiding for the third. This came in the 83rd minute when goalscorer Andino cut back from the byline inside the area where he was upended by the Venezuela right-back’s left leg. Some felt this was a soft call but, nevertheless, Izaguirre made no mistake from the spot, blasting down the centre to complete the rout.

With a minute remaining, there was a final chance for a consolation goal, though this was squandered. With a spacious area to aim his cross into, Rondón chipped the ball from the left edge towards the right-hand side near the back post where it was nodded down by Miku for substitute César González. However, what looked like being an inevitable close-range headed goal instead turned into an embarrassing miss that went well wide of the target, almost in a parallel trajectory to the goal line. Perhaps on second viewing, the Deportivo Táchira midfielder had a little trouble adjusting his body in time and the ball was a little behind him, though few fans will be willing to argue the toss over that one.

When the final whistle blew, the scoreline was emphatically not what the admirably vocal crowd had expected at the start of the game and at no point during the first 45 minutes did it seem likely either. Alas, Venezuela’s familiar failings came to the fore once again and they were made to pay, suffering the ignominy of what is, according to the revered statistician Mister Chip, their worst ever defeat at home to a Central American opponent. Owing to manager Noel Sanvicente’s success at club level, criticism during his reign has so far been less severe than it perhaps would have been for a foreign manager who had overseen similar results. Yet, with World Cup qualifying on the horizon, the underlying belief shared by many that things will eventually come together has taken another battering. Indeed, although the Puerto Ordaz crowd were consistently supportive during this game, a similar scoreline against Panama on Tuesday may well provoke a response from the stands that reverberates in the national press for some time before the Russia 2018 campaign kicks off against Paraguay.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Jeffrén: Venezuela’s Wildcard on the Wing

With Venezuela set to host Honduras and Panama in their last warm-up games before the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup begins, Hispanospherical.com shines a light on a certain 27-year-old whose likely debut has divided opinion in the country of his birth…

Jeffrén: Venezuela’s Wildcard on the Wing

The Pinnacle

29 November 2010, just coming up to 10:45pm local time, Camp Nou. A feast was in full swing…

Metronomic maestro Xavi, who initiated proceedings just over an hour-and-a-half prior, walked towards the touchline to receive a rapturous reception from the stands, before being replaced by Malian international Seydou Kéita. Hot on his heels was the man who had continued the festivities shortly after the first blow to the eternal enemy had been struck: Number 17, the 23-year-old already simply known as Pedro, who had become a regular fixture on the Blaugrana flanks during the preceding victorious campaign. Taking his place was another product of the envy-inducing La Masia academy also affectionately known, as is common in Spanish-speaking football cultures, by just his forename. Bearing the number 11 shirt formerly worn in his first few seasons at the club by Brazilian magician Rivaldo, 22-year-old Jeffrén (Suárez) had at this point barely made a handful of official appearances for the first team. Venezuelan-born but raised in the Canary Islands since the age of one, he was nevertheless a familiar face to much of the faithful due in part to his feats at youth and reserve level and enthusiastically ran on to experience his brief share of this memorable triumph. Little did he know just how much he would soon be contributing to both local folklore as well as his own personal myth.

Just four minutes later the game had entered stoppage-time and the ball was suddenly nudged by Andrés Iniesta forward on the right to another home-grown star-in-waiting also more commonly known by his first name. Bojan ran into space towards the edge of the area and crossed in a low ball that narrowly evaded the stretch of the incoming 2010 World Cup final goalscorer. However, having already sensed a potential opportunity, dashing in from his designated left side of the field was Jeffrén, instantly reaching what Iniesta could not and beating Iker Casillas at his near post. If the person in charge of the electronic scoreboard was neglecting their duties in the immediate aftermath it would have been understandable, for when they came to their senses it was to read: Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid. Jeffrén rapidly reeled away and immediately darted over to Pep Guardiola and the Barcelona bench where he was mobbed by Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and all the other men absorbed in the methods that had made this the greatest team of the 21st century.

As Sid Lowe, an historian of El Clásico wrote: ‘Jeffrén Suárez’s late goal made little difference and yet it made all the difference: the fifth goal turned victory into something more historic, more emblematic: a manita, a goal for every finger.’

When Gerard Piqué detached himself from the throng, he raised five fingers to the crowd who needed no encouragement in obliging with similar gleeful celebrations of their own. When the final whistle was blown a couple of minutes later, it is unlikely that Sergio Ramos’ dismissal and subsequent petulant assaults on his La Roja team-mates Carles Puyol and Xavi immediately after the goal celebrations had fully registered with Jeffrén. He was on cloud nine and had every reason to believe that the good days would keep on coming.

The Substance

Indeed, in 2006, he had featured regularly in Spain’s victorious Under-19 European Championship side. He played in Poland alongside the likes of Juan Mata, Mario Suárez, Gerard Piqué, Javi García, Antonio Barragán, Gorka Elustondo and Esteban Granero, chipping in with the first goal that got the ball rolling in a 5-0 semi-final thrashing against Austria. He also came on as a substitute in the final in Poznań a few days later, helping to see out a 2-1 win over Scotland, courtesy of two goals by recent Porto signing Alberto Bueno.

Thus, while in 2010/11 there was congestion in the attacking berths from, most notably, Messi, Pedro, Bojan and David Villa,  Jeffrén nevertheless possessed the pedigree to strongly suggest that he was capable of remaining at a respectable top-flight level for some time yet. He was to play eight league games in total that season and went some way to further cement his credentials when he once again represented the country that had reared him at the 2011 Under-21 European Championships held in Denmark.

Born on 20 January 1988, had the then 23-year-old been born just 20 days earlier, he would not have have been eligible to participate, which is just as well for Spain as it could be argued that their eventual triumph never would have occurred without one of his contributions. Indeed, with Jeffrén having come on to replace Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain with 20 minutes remaining, La Rojita were trailing Belarus 1-0 in the semi-final and this was still the score with little more than a single regulation minute left on the clock. However, following some characteristically patient and pinpoint passing play involving, amongst others, Mata, Bojan and Thiago Alcântara, Jeffrén received the ball on the right and, stretching, instantly played in a low cross that the alert Adrián reached first to knock into the back of the net. 1-1 and another much-fancied generation of Spaniards were suddenly back on track.

Extra-time therefore followed, during which the same striker (who would soon after transfer to Atlético Madrid and has since recently moved on loan to Villarreal from Porto), headed his side in front with his second of the game in the 105th minute. Just under ten minutes later, Jeffrén was once again on hand to provide the icing on the cake, cutting onto his left foot and rifling in a sensational left-footed golazo from over 20 yards. 3-1, game over. Three says later, the side also containing David de Gea, Ander Herrera, Javi Martínez and César Azpilicueta thus marched into the final in Aarhus, where they defeated Switzerland 2-0, with Jeffrén appearing as a late substitute.

spainu21

Jeffrén and his Spain team-mates winning the 2011 Under 21 European Championship (WAATP)

The Disillusion

So, maybe sometimes a bridesmaid rather than the bride, but a rather attractive one all the same. In search of regular first-team minutes, he was to depart from Catalonia just over a month later for Portuguese giants Sporting, though a testament to how highly Guardiola and his colleagues still thought of him was the buy-back clause they ensured was inserted into his contract as part of the deal.

However, despite evidently still being thought of as a potential high-level talent, his time in Lisbon was to be a huge disappointment to all, as he struggled with injuries, form and, ultimately, starting opportunities. He played in fewer than 25 league games in his two-and-a-half years there, before moving back to La Liga with Real Valladolid in February 2014. Here, the misery was to continue as a few months later the team was relegated. Subsequently, despite playing the closest he ever has to a full season, as only 19 of his 35 second-tier league appearances for 2014/15 were as a starter (of which he was substituted 12 times) and his combined number of goals and assists could be counted on one mano, this could hardly be considered a year of rejuvenation.

Thus, following their failure to regain their top-flight status after they were eliminated in the play-off semi-finals, Valladolid released Jeffrén. In the past month or so, while old rumours of a move to the English Premier League were no longer doing the rounds, there had been some speculation that he may return to the Canary Islands to join Tenerife, the side at which he had a brief association as a teenager. A far cry from where ex-colleagues Pedro and Bojan currently reside but perhaps the kind of morale boost he needs. Instead, in the past week, in what on the surface at least may appear to inaugurate the latest chapter of his downward spiral, he has signed a three-year contract with Belgian second-tier club KAS Eupen.

The Rebirth? JEFFRENidentitycard

Jeffrén posing in Venezuela colours with his new national identity card (GradaDigital)

Or is it? Eupen only narrowly missed out on promotion last season and, as of 4 September 2015, currently top their league. Moreover, a certain Christian Santos finished a two-year spell at the club a couple of seasons ago, during which he regularly found himself on the scoresheet and, excluding the injury-plagued year that followed, has since seen his career flourish. Last season, for someone often fielded on the flank he was banging in the goals at a heroic rate (23 in 34 league games), helping NEC Nijmegen steamroll their way into the Dutch top-flight. It is not yet known as to whether Jeffrén sought Santos’ advice, but given the parallels in the lives of these two men, it is certainly possible. Thus, the dual adventures that the ex-Barça man is about to embark on could well prove beneficial to providing the incentives to get him back on track.

Indeed, for as well as finding a new club, he has also found a new country. Like Santos, he was born in the Venezuelan state of Bolívar but grew up from a very young age in Europe (Germany, in the case of the NEC attacker). Within the past year, both men have acquired the necessary documentation and status in order to represent the country of their birth, with Santos having already made his international debut in March. Given Jeffrén’s impressive progress through the youth ranks of the Spanish national set-up and his La Liga appearances, playing in senior international games with Xavi, Iniesta and co. must have long seemed an attainable dream that could not be easily relinquished. Thus, in the past, he has either batted away or outright rejected calls to instead play for La Vinotinto, much to the chagrin of many from his birthland. Indeed, as a teenager he reportedly turned down calls from then-manager Richard Páez to play at the historic 2007 Venezuela-hosted Copa América. Then, three years later when César Farías was at the helm, with words that would come back to haunt and for which he has since apologised, he declared: ‘I don’t want to hear anything more about Venezuela.’

A trawl through social media sites and the Venezuelan press reveals that there are plenty currently unwilling to forgive him for these comments and the issue has certainly sparked some debate in the days leading up to his likely debut. It has, after all, only been in the last two years or so that he has publicly expressed more openness to switching allegiances. As this has coincided with his club career sliding downhill and his chances of representing La Roja evaporating, most Venezuelans do not kid themselves that they are anything but his international back-up option.

The Team-mates

However, albeit with less public rejection to apply selective amnesia to, the national side’s devotees have most certainly been in similar situations before. Most famously, it was only four years ago that defender Fernando Amorebieta – Venezuela-born but to Basque parents – gave up on his ambitions to represent Spain, having previously been part of the Under-19 European Championship-winning side of 2004 and, latterly, even receiving a call-up to Vicente Del Bosque’s senior squad for a 2008 friendly. He made his Vinotinto debut in 2011 and went a significant way to emerging victorious in the PR battle with the belligerents in October of that year by scoring the history-making winner against Argentina – Venezuela’s first-ever competitive win against their illustrious opponents.

One commentator on ForoVinotinto stated his belief that such goals aid the cause of convincing the hostile and the fence-sitters of a player’s commitment to the nation, referencing another one scored the following month as further proof. Indeed, in November 2011, Swiss-born Frank Feltscher, who spent some of his childhood in Venezuela and is a nationalised citizen, scored a late equaliser away to neighbours Colombia, gaining another vital point for what was an impressive start to the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Curiously, while Feltscher may not be in the current squad, he is not completely out of the loop and if he receives one in the future at the same time as Jeffrén, the pair can reminisce about their experiences of the 2011 Under-21 European Championship final, when Feltscher had to endure Jeffrén and co. lifting the trophy from the Swiss bench.*

These are just two examples of many, as complex identities are nothing new for Venezuelans to have to contend with when cheering on their representatives. Indeed, in a country where baseball has traditionally held the greatest sway over the affections of sports fans, football has instead often received much innovation and development from those with what some may perceive as divided loyalities. Many of the domestic clubs were originally formed by immigrant communities, from whom plenty of the nation’s leading players have also been derived, most famously Juan Arango, the Venezuela-born son of a Colombian couple. Thus, though Jeffrén carries with him some additional self-inflicted baggage, he can take some heart from the experiences of many of his forebears. If, as seems likely, he makes it onto the field against Honduras and/or Panama for his debut, should there be any vocal hostility, he can cling to the belief that so long as he gives his all, his hard work should ultimately be appreciated. That said, a goal in a big game wouldn’t hurt either.

The Challenge

Alas, as this site’s detailed preview relates, his new international side is not short of pacy wide men, so one can not be confident of his future after these two games are over. Despite having a disproportionate number of potential providers to call upon to both assist and take some of the burden off lead man Salomón Rondón, the attackers have nevertheless struggled to combine and gel effectively. Collectively, since manager Noel Sanvicente’s arrival in July 2014, Venezuela have scored a mere 14 goals (12 officially) in 11 games. Work amongst those in the two front lines evidently needs to improve. Given that Sanvicente himself concedes that Jeffrén is not currently in the best of form, there is certainly some scepticism as to whether the player can come out of the blue to force his way into the coach’s burgundy plans.

Nevertheless, the Masia graduate’s international debut is something that many have been anticipating for years; so much so that, irrespective of the outcome of this experiment, it almost feels necessary for it to occur. Will it be the end to a protracted saga? Or perhaps the launchpad for a bright new phase in what could well be the peak years of his career? Only time will tell.

Expected to appear against at least one of the upcoming Central Americans opponents at the Estadio Cachamay in Puerto Ordaz, the boy whose family uprooted from nearby San Félix 26 years ago may feel less out-of-place than some anticipate. Indeed, in the build-up to his Vinotinto bow, he has spoken of his excitement at playing in the state where relatives of his still live. Aptly poetic or false sentimentality? With Venezuela’s latest bid to finally qualify for a World Cup starting next month, one suspects that for his detractors, his on-field actions will speak considerably louder than any of his words.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Article originally published on 4 September 2015.

*Author’s Indulgence: Over a decade ago at his English secondary school, your faithful Venezuelan football enthusiast regularly sat in German lessons next to a boy who is largely remembered for having once asked the teacher who had summoned him to the desk, if she was “‘avin’ a giraffe’. Somehow this Mockney qualified to represent Scotland and played in the final of the 2006 Under-19 European Championships, where he came up against none other than Venezuelan newboy Jeffrén – then, of course, wearing the colours of the victorious Spain. As noted in the article, the then-Barcelona man would later go on to help La Rojita lift 2011’s Under-21 European Championship trophy while his new compatriot Frank Feltscher – then donning the tracksuit of Switzerland – watched on with his defeated team-mates from the sidelines. Identities, eh…?

UPDATE: Jeffrén did not feature against Honduras (4 September 2015). As Venezuela slipped behind in the second half and ultimately lost 3-0, it was probably for the best that he was not introduced at any point on what was a fairly dismal evening. That said, the sparse crowd that did attend nevertheless maintained fairly good spirits until the final whistle so if, as is predicted, he makes it onto the pitch against Panama on Tuesday, it seems like he can expect a good reception in the state where he was born.

UPDATE 2: As Juan Arango made what he later announced to be his last ever Venezuela appearance, Jeffrén made his debut. One out, one in, some might say. He played the final 30 minutes in the rather dismal 1-1 draw against Panama. Click here to read about how he got on.

Venezuela’s Friendly Internationals – September 2015 Preview

International Friendlies 

Friday 4 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela vs Honduras 

Tuesday 8 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela vs Panama

estadiocachamay

Estadio Cachamay in Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State (Wikimedia).

Getting the Gang Back Together to Prepare for the Greatest Challenge

We meet again. Casually resented by great swathes of European fans who are spoilt-for-choice domestically, yet eagerly anticipated by many in the talent-exporting Latin American nations, an international break is once again upon us.

Venezuelans, for whom the national team inspires infinitely more passion amongst the general population than the neglected local fare, are amongst those in the region readying themselves for two further opportunities to run the rule over their representatives. Indeed, it may have been a mere two-and-a-half months ago that La Vinotinto’s Copa América campaign ended in dejection almost as soon as it had been inaugurated by unexpected euphoria, but with World Cup qualifying commencing next month, there really is little time or appetite to be absorbed by self-pity and scapegoating. After all, as mainstream football coverage of the nation rarely misses the opportunity to point out, Venezuela remains the only CONMEBOL country yet to feature at a World Cup.

Thus, warm feelings and intrepid eyes greet the bulk of this 26-man squad of players derived from four continents, 13 countries and 15 distinct leagues. Such diversity means that the attempts of even the most caffeine-addled, antisocial and aspiration-free fanatics in tracking every movement of the individuals in with a shot of a selección call-up will be hopelessly thwarted. Instead, those who are so inclined tend to resign themselves each weekend to an overseas game or two featuring one or more of their pioneering compatriots, supplemented by some online highlights of several other cracks – if, that is, they can find them.

The inadequacies and skewered view of the team intrinsic to this particular footballing consumption should be apparent. It is, after all, not often one comes acoss much visual material  of merit featuring the players who are fielded in less headline-grabbing and highlight-friendly positions, such as defence and defensive midfield. Moreover, newcomers to football in this corner of the world will be unsurprised to learn that the disparity in the locations of the players’ clubs is often matched in the wide differences of opinions held amongst fans, with certain favourites being held in high esteem by some for feats observed in YouTube videos and vines, yet achieved in the distant past.

One can only wonder how coach Noel Sanvicente and his staff manage to keep tabs on their potential history-makers. Some repeatedly ignored players, such as Yonathan Del Valle who announced his retirement from the international game in May a couple of weeks shy of his 25th birthday, doubtless think that they have grave difficulties coping with their workload.

Nevertheless, for both the fans and the serial-winner leader they call Chita, this all conspires to make the scant amount of time the players have together golden. With the symbol to inspire and unify the sometimes suppressed footballing passions of this nation reactivated once again, most of the men who take to the pitch in the upcoming days know that irrespective of what they have achieved recently at club level, what they do for their country will carry most weight in the minds of those in the stands as well as in the dugout.

‘Don’t I Know You From…?’ Familiar Faces in the Central American Opposition

Honduras and Panama, though undeniably substantial opponents, may lack the star power to entice a full house to Estadio Cachamay, but the atmosphere inside Mineros de Guayana’s home ground could still take a few by surprise. Indeed, for various logistical and administrative reasons, opportunities to fly the flag have been at a premium recently, with only one game having been played on home soil in Sanvicente’s near-14-month reign – a 2-1 win in February, also against Honduras.

This result marked the conclusion a double-header between the two nations and also the second Venezuelan win, as the preceding week in San Pedro Sula a 3-2 defeat was inflicted upon Jorge Luis Pinto in what was his debut game in charge of Los Catrachos. While the Colombian mastermind behind Costa Rica’s run to the quarter-finals of last year’s World Cup has continued his poor start, exiting July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup at the group stage, he has seemed in good spirits upon his arrival in Venezuela. Indeed, no doubt partly alluding to his 2010/11 title-winning tenure at the helm of Deportivo Táchira, he remarked to the local press in Puerto Ordaz that the country holds ‘very fond memories’ for him. As the encounters earlier this year were contested mainly by home-based players (plus a few MLS-dwellers on the Honduran side), in more ways than one, he will be hoping for an altogether different match on 4 September.

By contrast, Panama have won their last two internationals with Venezuela. While both games did occur back in 2010 and the Vinotinto line-up contained a mixture of fringe players alongside first-teamers, Los Canaleros have consistently shown, through their admirable, if similarly unlucky, 2014 World Cup Qualifying and 2015 Gold Cup campaigns, that they are more than capable of a third consecutive win. Furthermore, due in part to the country’s relative proximity to their opponents, a fair few Panamanians have enjoyed considerable recent success on Venezuelan soil playing in the domestic league, such as last season’s leading goalscorer, Edwin Aguilar of Deportivo Anzoátegui. He is not in the current squad but Marcos Sánchez, a midfielder for the 2014/15 champions Deportivo Táchira, is.

Squad Overview: Defence Less Tight for Friendies but the Core is Seemingly Settled 

How much weight Sanvicente puts on getting results, irrespective of the performances, from these two friendlies is debatable, though several in the Venezuelan set-up have spoken of the necessity of a strong home record to help keep them at least within touching distance throughout the two-year qualifying campaign. Given the contrast between the woeful, defensively porous displays in the games leading into Copa América and the resolute, compact performance in the surprise 1-0 group win over Colombia, many could be forgiven for questioning the merits of such internationals. Indeed, while La Vinotinto may have lost their subsequent two group games – 1-0 against Peru, 2-1 versus Brazil – their defensive record for the tournament still stood at an ostensibly admirable three conceded in three games – quite an improvement on the 18 (19 officially) that were knocked into their net by largely weaker opposition in eight warm-up games. Then again, as Group C at Chile 2015 was rather low-scoring, with a mere nine goals in total, more considered verdicts on the defence may have to wait until at least a few qualifying games have been played.

Nevertheless, what can be said with some certainty is that while Sanvicente has been a little coy on his line-up plans for these friendlies, nothing has occurred to suggest a dramatic change of personnel regarding the majority of his first-choice picks, particularly at the back. Barring injuries/suspensions/colossal mishaps, between the sticks next month for the qualifiers with Paraguay and Brazil will be Alain Baroja who, after winning a last-minute battle to be the national no. 1 in June has since left Caracas FC and has played the opening two league games of the season for AEK Athens. At right-back will be Málaga’s tenacious Roberto Rosales, with the centre-back pairing comprising of the towering, dependable Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Buriram United’s Thai-based GladiadorAndrés Túñez. All of these men were amongst their clubs’ most consistent and reliable performers last season and also played the entirety of their country’s three games at Copa América. If there is to be any experimentation in this area, Deportivo Táchira’s 22-year-old centre-back Wílker Ángel, who is already very much part of his club’s folkore, may be given a run out. He sat on the bench in Chile and may well find himself in future competitive line-ups, but there has been no suggestion that he is on the cusp of a breakthrough just yet.

Owing to Fernando Amorebieta’s tournament-turning red card against Peru and subsequent suspension, the front-runner to occupy the left-back berth for at least the Paraguay game next month is the man who filled in for him after his dismissal and against Brazil, Gabriel Cichero. Now back at Swiss side Sion after a year on loan in his native country, he will be looking forward to Europa League games against, amongst others, Liverpool and also to proving Sanvicente that he was wrong to ditch him so late on, after he had started all but one of the warm-up games in the year preceding Copa América. The only competition he has in the current squad is from Caracas’ Francisco Carabalí, but while he has been an integral part of his club’s miserly defence, having not been included in the Copa América squad, he currently stands less chance than Ángel of starting a competitive fixture.

So then, barring misfortune and/or catastrophe, all these positions for at least the first October qualifier seem fairly predictable and, as of this moment, so are the two spots in front of them. Indeed, Genoa-based roaming midfield warrior Tomás Rincón will undoubtedly start, with much of the team’s success dependent on the levels of commitment, organisation and belief he can help instil and inspire in those around him. His partner-in-crime in June was Santa Fe’s Luis Manuel Seijas, a more graceful midfielder capable of some stunning strikes and creative passes, but who is also not averse to mucking in. His most likely competition in current squad comes from Franklin Lucena, who has recently joined him in Colombia on loan at Once Caldas. However, at 34, he may be feeling uncertain as to whether Sanvicente fancies him in the long run for a position that demands zero lapses in concentration and, ideally, optimum levels of energy to meet head-on what can be frequent onslaughts. He may nevertheless take to the field in the upcoming days, as may 24-year-old Franco Signorelli, whose last two – also his first two – brief appearances for his country came last year. Having recently agreed to a loan from Serie A Empoli to Serie B Ternana, he will undeniably be seeking to make the most of his rare time with Sanvicente, as who knows how much the boss will see of his club outings this season.

Ultimately, while Sanvicente is likely to opt for a more open approach against Honduras and Panama, which may well afford their opponents more opportunities than the likes of Colombia, Peru and even Brazil could muster, he can allow himself a considerable degree of confidence regarding his defence-minded players in competitive games. After all, despite the two defeats endured in June, they never embarrassed themselves, nor were they ever far from gaining a result – that is, had their attacking players been able to link up more effectively, more frequently and create more goalscoring opportunities.

Squad Overview: Better Teamwork and More Target Practice Needed for Attackers 

Indeed, while Venezuela surprised their Colombian neighbours by having the better of the chances in the first hour or so (and, should any football-fatigued soul have forgotten, scored the match-winning goal), this proved to be something of a false dawn. Exiting the tournament with a mere two goals from three games just compounded the already meagre returns under Sanvicente, whose overall record now stands at 14 goals scored (though 12 officially) from 11 games. Thus, with his defensive personnel and tactics having largely been proven to aid the cause, Chita must surely place far greater emphasis in these two warm-up games towards finding the net more often.

As in all three of the group cames in Chile, he started with the same three players in the attacking midfield positions as well as the same striker up front, it is tempting to think that they are all likely to retain their spots next month. Transfer record-breaking striker Salomón Rondón undoubtedly will and the three behind him all have strong claims for places as well. After all, Atlético Nacional’s Alejandro Guerra on the left repeatedly linked up well with Rondón, gaining an assist for the goal against Colombia and could well have notched more had Venezuela’s chief marksman maintained his composure in front of the framework. In the centre, Juan Arango, despite persistent speculation that his age (35) renders almost every game as ‘quite possibly his last’, nevertheless managed to play some key, elegant passes and had a vital role in both tournament goals. On the right, the resurgent Ronald Vargas impressed so much against Colombia with his abilities to beat his marker, hold the ball up as well as link and switch with his team-mates, that he had the Athens-based press salivating over what he would be bringing to his new owners AEK. He was, however, less visible in the subsequent two games and though he has since scored on his debut for his Greek paymasters, as was the case in the summer, he is still unable to complete a full 90 minutes. If it is fitness which ultimately sees him sidelined in the future, for Guerra the most likely factor would be his inconsistency and tendency to give the ball away, whereas for Arango it would probably be his comparative lack of tracking back, as he was often left in a high, free role in Chile.

Thus, while these men collectively may all be currently in pole position to get the nod next month, they will not be feeling as secure of this as the defensive players surely are. The Venezuelan attacking midfield has long been the most competitive area of the pitch and, with at least ten versatile players of note capable of filling any of the three roles, there are almost as many players outside of the current squad as are within it who could receive a spot in the line-up within the next two years.

Indeed, for one, there is 22-year-old Rómulo Otero, who was ruled out of Copa América with injury and is currently again sidelined, frustrating his new owners Huachipato, for whom he got off to an explosive start in early August. He has long been considered an international star-in-waiting and had been linked to teams in countries such as Portugal and France, so when his long-anticipated move away from Caracas took him instead to a fairly unprestigious Chilean outfit, many were bemused. Similarly high hopes have been expressed for 20-year-old Jhon Murillo, who scored the winning goal against Honduras on his international debut earlier this year and was called up to the Copa América squad. He was eagerly snapped up just before the tournament by Benfica on a five-year-deal and is now a regular starter on loan at fellow Primeira Liga side Tondela. Sanvicente has stated that the speedy, if volatile, winger is one for the future but has been left out as he knows what he can do and instead wants to allow him to settle in with his new club, while he takes a closer look at other players. No explanation has been forthcoming regarding the absence of 21-year-old Juanpi of Málaga, though it is most likely that a lack of first-team experience in La Liga is the cause. However, with a recent exodus of midfield talent having occurred at the Andalusian club, he has come off the bench in both league encounters this season. Having already been granted a lengthy contract extension, this could prove to be his breakthrough year and will hopefully go some way to determining which of the positions he has hitherto occupied is best suited for him: in the hole, on either flank of an attacking midfield trident or, further back in a deep-lying playmaker role.

Regarding those in the actual squad, Torino’s Josef Martínez is currently the strongest challenger for a starting berth. Indeed, it surprised many that he was not in any line-up in June, yet when he did come on, he showed glimpses of his abilities to unsettle defenders and make things happen. Had fellow substitute Miku either been born a few inches taller or jumped a similar distance higher (the jury is still out on that one), then he would have been able to convert Martínez’s whipped cross in the dying moments of the Brazil game and thus secured Venezuela’s progress. Alternatively, there is Christian Santos, who Sanvicente has said he wants to take a closer look at and is likely to feature in at least one of the warm-up games. After confirming his eligibility to represent the country of his birth, there was much fanfare for the Germany-raised attacker when he made his international debut earlier this year. However, having lasted only an hour of a dismal friendly loss against Jamaica and subsequently missing out on Chile 2015, fans will this time be hoping to see him replicate some of last season’s phenomenal goal-scoring club form which helped NEC Nijmegen’s charge into the Dutch top-flight. Elsewhere, Mario  Rondón, the most surprising omission from the Copa América squad, has earned a recall and rather than being consumed by bitterness is instead seemingly filled with determination to ensure he is regularly in Sanvicente’s plans for at least the next two years. Indeed, a February move from Portugal to China may not have entirely helped his personal cause as beforehand he had been one of the most common names on Sanvicente’s teamsheets, yet come late May when the final cut was made, alleged justifications for his exclusion included his supposedly inferior fitness levels and lack of unique qualities in relation to his rivals. As he will be 30 next March and has earned roughly half of his caps under Sanvicente, he knows that the upcoming qualification cycle is likely to be his last chance to shine for his country. Another man in contention who has also earned a recall is Juan Falcón, who owes much to his international manager for converting him from a midfielder to a striker when the pair won the Venezuelan title twice together with Zamora (2012-14). He subsequently moved to Metz in Ligue 1 where he started in strong goalscoring form, yet succumbed to a long-term injury and struggled to regain his place in the side, who ultimately slipped down to the second tier. Nevertheless, with less than a handful of caps to his name and a strong personal association with the boss, this is a vital opportunity to remind everyone what he is capable of. However, if he is given a chance, it will more likely be as one of the attacking midfield three, possibly playing off Salomón Rondón.

With all this competition over three spots on the pitch, it seems counter-intuitive to many that Venezuela have struggled so much to find the net in recent times. There was seemingly some progress made in the three games in June as beforehand, the team often struggled to put together more than a handful of effective forward passes and were largely reliant on long-range efforts, set-pieces and defensive errors for goals. Still, Sanvicente knows that he is yet to stumble upon the right formula in this area. While he will doubtless trial at least a couple of the aforementioned individuals in the upcoming days, it remains to be seen whether a change of personnel is required.

Saviour or Historical Footnote? The Wildcard on the Wing 

If it is, however, then there are plenty of Venezuelans hoping that one individual in particular can constitute a large proportion of the solution. This man, hitherto unnamed but who is predicted to feature in at least one of the friendlies, is precisely the kind of player whose reputation owes much to on-field achievements that occurred in what can at times feel like the distant past. An attacking winger, born in the town of San Félix in Ciudad Guayana, he has played with and won trophies alongside some of the greatest names in global football and also scored in one of the most famous club games of the 21st century. Indeed, Salomón Rondón may now be the leading Venezuelan in most people’s eyes but, despite playing in the most-watched league in the world and being serenaded with his own personalised infectious ditty, even he can only claim a mere one-third of the number of Twitter followers this purported man of the hour has. Despite this, the wide-man who some are hoping can rapidly enhance the West Brom striker’s goal tally has never yet actually played for the country of his birth and a considerable number of his compatriots feel he should not be allowed to.

Readers who already know who the player in question is may feel this build-up is unmerited; time may very well prove that to be the case. For those still in the dark yet seeking enlightenment, click here to find out just who the mystery man is. The rest of you: enjoy the games and feel free to come back here in the upcoming days to find out whether there has been a Second Coming or not.

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers: Alaín Baroja (AEK Athens), José David Contreras (Deportivo Táchira), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC).

Defenders: Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Francisco Carabalí (Caracas FC), Gabriel Cichero (Sion), Alexander González (Young Boys), Grenddy Perozo (Zulia FC), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Andrés Túñez (Buriram United), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Juan Arango (Xolos de Tijuana), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, on loan from Mineros de Guayana), Franklin Lucena (Once Caldas, on loan from Deportivo La Guaira), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fé), Franco Signorelli (Ternana, on loan from Empoli), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen), Jeffrén Suárez (KAS Eupen), Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens).

Forwards: Juan Falcón (Metz), Nicolás ‘Miku’ Fedor (Rayo Vallecano), Josef Martínez (Torino), Mario Rondón (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Q & A with David Freeman, Author of Barra Brava (A Latin American Football Journey)

Having recently finished reading Barra Brava, David Freeman’s envy-inducing account of his 18-month journey amongst a diverse range of Latin American football fans, Hispanospherical.com has been fortunate to be able to talk to the author. Following on from an introduction to his book, this extensive Q & A should be essential reading for anyone who has ever contemplated embarking upon a similar adventure.   

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Game 18: Itagüí Ditaires (now Águilas Doradas) 4-0 Atlético Nacional, Copa Colombia Quarter Final First Leg, Estadio Atanasio Girardot, Medellin, Antioquia Department, Colombia, 15 September 2010. One of 67 games David Freeman attended in the Americas.

David Freeman’s Barra Brava is sold in paperback and/or Kindle format through Amazon’s many location-specific websites. To purchase a copy, click whichever link is most relevant to you: UK/Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Brazil and Spain

Barra Brava: An Introduction

In the collective consciousness of most football fans outside of its vibrant orbit, Latin America is somewhat of a dichotomy. While it may harbour a tantalising cocktail of innovative skills and irrepressible passion, it is nevertheless very much on the periphery of the global footballing mainstream. Although hundreds of its exports to Europe’s opulent centre-stage regularly provide incalculable instances of the substantial reservoirs of talent that this vast region consistently produces, the awareness of the footballing cultures from whence they came leaves something to be desired. Indeed, the clubs, supporters and environments that initially helped to nurture many of these cracks exist in many imaginations as little more than a combination of crude, often unflattering stereotypes, as well as names – the latter of which are diminishing in stature with each passing year.

As the exodus of native talent shows no sign of abating and kick-off times in this area for spectators in the Old Continent tend to be either anti-social or clash with top-flight European matches, none of these leagues appear well-placed to redress this situation. Nevertheless, for many, the curiosity will always linger. After all, having witnessed the 2014 Brazil World Cup, in which several Latin American nations were well-represented in both the stands as well as on the pitches, how many fans idly daydreamed about experiencing some of these atmospheres first-hand?

Well, one man who has already done just that and on a scale that is surely the envy of football fans and cultural tourists the world over, is David Freeman. His book, Barra Brava, is an absorbing travelogue, chronicling an 18-month journey that began in October 2009. Starting off with a brief Latin-tinged spell in the United States watching the now-defunct Chivas USA, he then crossed the language-barrier to experience many of the sights, sounds and sensations of Latin America, culminating with one final linguistic hurdle in Brazil where the fun ended in April 2011. Along the way, he visited 18 different countries, watching no less than 67 live matches in 15 of them. With so much ground covered, Freeman was able to experience the footballing cultures of not only some of the area’s heavyweights, such as Argentina and Mexico, but also those of nations that most people would struggle to name a single international player from (Guatemala and Nicaragua, anyone?).

Bringing a modicum of order to complement the roaming devil-may-care spirit that often pervaded his travels, Freeman made it his mission to mix with as many local supporters as he encountered. With his accompanying England flag conspicuously signposting him as a figure of curiosity in the stands, he was able to use his ever-developing Spanish skills to learn about many varied fan groups, their matchday rituals and relationships with their clubs. Subsequently in print, he displays an admirable levelling of the playing field, relaying his experiences of the barra bravas of the likes of Boca Juniors, Santos and Club América in a similar manner to those of Motagua (Honduras), Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica) and Blooming (Bolivia).

Wherever he turned up, there were always songs, gestures and/or dances to first decode and then perhaps, when enough of his beverage of choice had been consumed, join in with. Yet, as readers will discover, it was not always to be plain sailing, with the tensions in the stands sometimes escalating into atmospheres markedly less hospitable towards this Englishman. Indeed, from finding himself on an Argentine pitch being booed by supporters less-than-impressed with his flag to requiring police intervention to restrain a knife-wielding Colombian youth, Freeman’s recollections often serve to caution, as much as to inspire, the prospective traveller.

Away from the stadiums, his explorations of a rather breathtaking range of locations were no less colourful, with every other page flowing with anecdotes and evocative descriptions. A rich diversity of experiences was evidently had, not least during a lengthy spell at a Mexican hotel situated by a nudist beach as well as, conversely, when teaching English in the poverty-stricken Nicaraguan capital of Managua, where he participated in some controversy-mired Independence Day celebrations. Furthermore, some of his more inquisitive forays included visits to the Mayan ruins in Central America, the idiosyncratic capitals of Panama City, Bogotá and La Paz, as well as the topological treasures of the Calchaquí Valleys in north-west Argentina.

As can be expected, invaluable nuggets of practical advice are scattered throughout this book, rendering it an essential primer for anyone thinking of embarking on a journey that encompasses even a fraction of the ground covered here. Freeman regularly takes into consideration such readers, particularly when providing what amounts to a mini-dictionary of Spanish words and phrases at the beginning of each chapter that can be used to ingratiate oneself with the locals.

So, if you like the sound of going on such a trip yourself or would simply like to read the adventures of someone who did, be sure to check out this book, the most latest edition of which has just been published. If, however, before making such an investment, you would prefer to know a little more, then as well as perusing the promotional website, please read on as Señor Freeman has recently been kind enough to answer some questions in detail, providing a considerable idea of what Barra Brava is all about.

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Q & A with David Freeman, author of Barra Brava

[Darren Spherical] Hello David, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions (and for providing so many photographs!). Your book provides countless entertaining vignettes and fascinating insights into various footballing cultures and societies in the Americas.

Prior to beginning your adventure, you mention that you worked for an internet bank and had not done a great deal of travelling. What motivated you to sell your house to embark on such an extensive and, at times, daunting journey? Also, why Latin America?

[David Freeman] My short answer is that I’d been bitten by the travel bug when I went to Australia and seven years on I needed to scratch the itch. The timing was all about personal circumstances, having been promised redundancy and not having responsibilities such as kids to worry about. Latin America was chosen based on learning Spanish and being able to communicate throughout two continents.

Regarding the book’s title, on your travels you met dozens of different groups of fans from over a dozen Latin American countries. Based on your observations, could you give an introduction to the barra bravas? How did they differ in some of the nations you visited?

I’d describe the barra as universally passionate people who support their club in a noisy, colourful and fanatical way. In my experience, barra bravas are not the same as hooligans because clubs like Pumas (Mexico) and LDU Quito (Ecuador) are supported by civilised, friendly students who had no interest in violence, but instead created atmospheres to compete with the most fervent in the world. Whilst I tried not to get involved in the seedy sides of any barra that I encountered, there could be no doubt that in certain places (mainly Colombia and Argentina) they were a public menace whose activities resulted in people dying every year.

At each ground you entered, you tried to get a photograph of yourself with your flag (an English St. George’s Cross emblazoned with the name of Birmingham City’s Zulu Army firm). How did you feel in such situations? Regarding some of the more negative responses, you must have feared for your own safety at times? 

A gringo waving a flag around always attracted attention from the locals but I found the majority to be friendly, particularly as I spoke Spanish and it was clear that I was as crazy about football as they were. In some places it was really intimidating waving a piece of cloth around that advertised that you were a vulnerable foreigner, but it proved to be a great ice-breaker amongst curious strangers. The numerous positive experiences with my St. George’s cross far outweighed an occasional negative one – plus the volatile situations made for the best stories!

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To see dozens more photographs of David with his flag at stadiums, click here.

Could you give any advice to future football tourists who wish to experience some of the colourful and raucous Latin American atmospheres without getting embroiled in any trouble? 

Simple: go in the main stand. At every ground I visited there was a tranquilo section that charged around twice as much to enter than the ‘popular’ terrace. This more expensive seating area had a far better view, superior facilities, good stewarding and was populated by reasonable people. If, however, you insist on mixing it up, I would repeat the point about being able to communicate with the natives and, above all, be wary of everything!

With regard to fan culture (pre-match rituals, songs/chants, dances, paraphernalia etc.), what were some of the most memorable things you observed and/or joined in with on your travels? 

Personally, I found the friendly beer-drinking culture whilst watching games in Mexico, Central America and Ecuador enjoyable. More universally, the fans consistently bouncing and singing, always admirably supported by musical instruments. Every club had at least one drummer, some even had horn sections (see this video compilation for some of the highlights of fans I encountered). Also, the socialising during play, aided by the open terraces, which is something that has been lost in the UK. This is in contrast to Germany, which is the leading nation in Europe with regard to atmosphere at domestic fixtures, driven by their affordable safe standing sections.

Moving away from the stands and onto the pitches, you saw many well-known players, some of whom were winding down their careers after spells in Europe and others who were emerging and have since gone on to play in the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and elsewhere. Who were you most excited to see and who left the most lasting impressions on you?

Juan Manuel Iturbe impressed me most as a 17 year old turning a match at the 2011 South American Youth Championship in Argentina’s favour against Chile. He made some stunning appearances in the Copa Libertadores before impressing for Hellas Verona and now finds himself at Roma.

Of the big players I watched live more than once:

Neymar won the Libertadores with Santos in 2011 scoring crucial goals throughout, although showcasing his ample array of skills and tricks at that level did not always benefit the team.

Juan Sebastián Verón’s passing at Estudiantes was masterful in Argentina’s Primera División.

Salvador Cabañas looked a class act for América in Mexico’s top-flight, though this was of course before he was tragically shot by a drug dealer.

Indeed, understandably he was never the same afterwards. Staying with on-field matters, what were some of the most memorable games and goals you saw?

The Clásicos were always the best value for money atmosphere-wise; the derbies in Mexico (Pumas 3-2 América, Game 3) and Colombia (Deportivo Cali 6-3 América de Cali, Game 24) lived up to the hype on the pitch. My favourite was bouncing among Universidad Católica’s fans in Buenos Aires as the Chileans scored three goals in the last 20 minutes to record a 4-3 Libertadores group stage victory away at Vélez Sarsfield (Game 51). There were also many dull games where la barra provided the entertainment.

Just under a quarter of the games you watched were in the North/Central American (CONCACAF) region, often in countries which many football fans will not have considered visiting. What did you make of the play, supporters and stadiums in this area?

Central America’s population were as passionate about football as those in the southern continent. Yet though, for example, Los Ticos defied the odds to reach 2014’s World Cup Quarter Finals, football in Central America was markedly inferior to the South American game. Though considered part of the North, Mexico was the region’s domestic powerhouse, aided in part in being alone in having some of its teams compete in the most prestigious club tournament in the Americas, the Copa Libertadores. Whilst the CONCACAF Champions League wasn’t a particularly competitive tournament, it did throw up some interesting ties, sending high-profile MLS sides and former European legends to remote places such as El Salvador. In my experience, the rural locations were really friendly and the atmospheres were brilliant, even at a Nicaraguan league final held in a baseball park.

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Football-related photographs from Central America (Click to Enlarge)

Outside of the stadiums in this area, you seemed to have rather diverse experiences, from the fun of Mexico to the comparative austerity of Nicaragua. Which places would you recommend to visitors to this region? 

Most visitors to this part of the world head to Cancún (Mexico) or Costa Rica, and the tourist industry outside of these places is still developing. I found every country to be fascinating and despite not receiving as many visitors, each had some fairly well-established attractions. These were mainly based around coasts, lakes, mountains and Aztec or Mayan historical sites. Panama City was one of the oddest capitals I’ve seen and there was an amazing sunset pretty much anywhere along the Pacific coast. Nicaragua would be my suggestion if you want to escape reality and don’t mind a chaotically relaxed experience. Compared to South, Central America is far cheaper on the ground and much less ‘discovered’, although air fares can be expensive.

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Photographs from North/Central America (Click to Enlarge)

You watched 18 games in Buenos Aires (and 20 in Argentina altogether) in little over five weeks. As this is a footballing Mecca, what advice can you impart to anyone wishing to visit this city with similar intentions? 

Where possible, I would suggest buying your ticket in advance. Also, when I was there, the home fans were generally retained in the ground for 40 minutes after the final whistle, so going in the away end was preferable. However, as visiting fans have since been banned due to repeated problems with fan violence, there may be a wait before this advice can be put into practice again. Nevertheless, also make sure you use public transport to your advantage. From Central BA the train is best for Vélez, All Boys, Quilmes, Arsenal de Sarandí, Lanús and Argentinos Juniors; the Metro is convenient for River, San Lorenzo, Huracán and Atlanta; whilst the bus is quickest when visiting Boca, Racing and Independiente. Also, if you have the time and inclination, go to a smaller club in addition to Boca or River, as they can be far cheaper, friendlier and almost as spectacular. Finally, be wary of the alcohol exclusion zones around stadiums in Buenos Aires.

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Football-related photographs from Buenos Aires Province, Argentina (Click to Enlarge)

Outside of Argentina, but remaining in South America, what were some of your highlights watching football in this particular continent? 

Colombia had the most edgy and memorable atmospheres. Ecuador was the friendliest, although my opinion is aided by the fact that they served beer in the grounds, plus Guayaquil and Quito were unexpectedly vibrant football cities. Asunción (Paraguay) was a little gem in the middle of nowhere which had a wonderful history. Iquique (Chile) had the best band I saw, complemented by a full brass section.

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Football-related photographs from South America (Click to Enlarge)

Again, away from the football, what would you recommend to future visitors to the nations you travelled to in South America? 

Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia) was the most spectacular natural wonder I have ever seen and certainly guarantees some amazing photos. Generally speaking, Bolivia was cheap, friendly and diverse, with lots of unique tourist opportunities. Ecuador had easily accessible sights and offered the possibility of cycling from the Andes to the Amazon in a day. Colombia had rugged scenery as well as an attractive and cool population, although its reputation discourages many people. North-west Argentina’s vineyards and mountains were very pleasant and buzzing in the January I was there, as that is when many in Buenos Aires escape to the countryside.

cartagenapic tatacoadesert riopastaza alpacabolivia isladelsolbolivia deathroadbolivia salarbolivia1 salarjump salaranother llamasalar reggaefestival tafidelvalle  iquiquecity iquiquebeach morrodoisiramaos christtheredeemer

 Photographs from South America (Click to Enlarge)

On the subject of buying match tickets, it seemed that for the most part you showed up on matchdays without having pre-purchased them and yet, irrespective of what barriers you initially encountered, still managed to get in. As you appear to have acquired much know-how in this area, what advice can you impart?

Generally, I would advise showing up a couple of hours in advance, at which point you should be able to make a purchase and spend some time among the locals – most will be delighted that a gringo has chosen to watch their club. Face value prices were cheap – generally $5-10 in Central and South America, $10-12.50 in Argentina, whilst Brazil could cost as much as it does in the English Premier League. If you aren’t able to purchase a ticket in advance then touts are ever-present, although at the big Argentinian clubs you may have to pay tourist rates, which includes transport to the match (approximately $100 in 2011). Oddly, to watch Universitario in Lima – visit your local supermarket!

What were the most value-for-money places to live and/or watch football in? 

Buenos Aires is probably the world’s most exciting city to watch football in, and although accommodation isn’t cheap, public transport, food, drink and entrance fees are generally very reasonable – something I believe has continued as the Peso weakened in late 2014. Ecuador was probably best value in South America for watching top-level football, whilst accommodation and living in Central America was noticeably cheap. Conversely, Chile and Brazil were more expensive than the other countries I watched matches in.

While there was clearly much to be enjoyed on your journey, readers will discover that it was not always fun and games. Based on your experiences, if you wished to put someone off embarking on a similar adventure, what would you say to them?

Unless you go to a resort, Latin America isn’t somewhere that you can just turn up to without any preparation and then expect to have a great tourist experience. Considerations need to be made for the language barrier (hardly anyone speaks good English), the heat, the altitude and the distances you will be travelling within a limited transport network. If you like things going according to plan then this certainly isn’t your ideal destination, as nothing runs like clockwork. Also, it is important to accept that the locals will assume that you are rich and therefore you are likely to be a target. Although in my experience overcharging was the only real annoyance, I met many people who were robbed and subjected to violence, particularly in the big centres such as Lima and Quito. Peru, Colombia and Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, seemed to be the most dangerous places, but it is all subjective.

What is your interest in Latin American football like these days? Do you look out for any teams in particular? Finally, on a related note, what have you been up to since returning from your travels?

I have been following Latin American results on Soccerway, particularly Argentinos Juniors’ return to a reformed 30-team Primera División and Vasco da Gama battling back into Brazil’s top-flight. Also, although I feel there could be a lot more exposure on British TV, I have been enjoying this year’s Copa Libertadores on Premier Sports and will certainly also be watching the Copa América on the channel and/or YouTube – whichever is most convenient. On a personal note, in the past three years between working for a bank and marrying my Brazilian girlfriend, I’ve spent much of my free time writing and editing the book. The first edition totalled almost 120k words, though thankfully the latest version has been whittled down to 103k – apologies to anyone who bought a copy a couple of years ago! Ultimately, while it may not be perfect, I believe it is a decent travelogue.

David, thank you for giving up so much of your time to answer these questions and providing a taste of your experiences. Again, readers, if you would like to purchase Barra Brava in either paperback or Kindle format, click on whichever link is most relevant to your location: UK/Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Brazil and Spain

If you have any questions for David Freeman, feel free to either reply to this article with them or, if you fancy the more direct option, he can be reached on Twitter under the account @TheBlueBarra

More From the Author

While Barra Brava is David Freeman’s first book, he has also written these articles on Latin American football, which may be of interest:

Fútbol in a Baseball Park, In Bed With Maradona, 15 February 2013. A detailed feature on the standard and status of football in Nicaragua, partially informed by his experiences of living there for four months as an English teacher.

Latin American Football 2012 in Review, Talking Sports, 2 January 2013. Covering the year following his travels, here is a summary of who won what in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico.

My Trip to Brazil: A Year of Expectation, Football Friends Online, 17 June 2014. Craftily combining a pre-World Cup trip to meet his Brazilian girlfriend’s family with a football detour or three, Freeman visited the Mineirão, Estádio Independência and, of course, the Maracanã.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Article originally published on 6 June 2015.

Venezuela 2-1 Honduras – International Friendly (11 February 2015) & Assessment

Wednesday 11 February 2015 

International Friendly

Venezuela 2-1 Honduras

Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas 

Match Highlights of Venezuela 2-1 Honduras (YouTube channel: Deportes Hn)

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Carabalí, Fuenmayor (Vargas, 46′), Sánchez, Cichero; Lucena (c), Figuera (Acosta, 58′); Gómez (Murillo, 56′), Farías (Arteaga, 64′), Lugo (L. González, 46′); Blanco (Ocanto, 82′).

Honduras (4-3-3): Valladares; Crisanto, Figueroa, Leverón, Sánchez (Palacios, 69′); Peralta (Delgado, 76′), Claros, Martínez (Cardona, 82′); Quioto (Discua, 62′), Lozano (Tejeda, 75′), Castillo (Acosta, 36′).

Match Report

Following last week’s 3-2 away victory, Venezuela picked up their second consecutive win against Honduras in the two nations’ friendly double-header, with local debutant Jhon Murillo ensuring that his former club manager Noel Sanvicente enjoyed a triumphant return to his erstwhile stomping ground.

The Estadio Agustín Tovar, built in anticipation of Venezuela’s hosting of Copa América 2007, is the home of Zamora FC, the current leaders of the Torneo Clausura and the reigning two-time champions of Venezuela. Before taking the national job last July, it was Sanvicente who managed this club to these two titles – the only two in their modest history – and appropriately, in what was La Vinotinto‘s first home game under his guidance, he received a hero’s welcome upon his return.

noelsanvicente

Banner Tribute to Noel Sanvicente, expressing the fans’ support and belief that he will fulfil the nation’s dreams by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup (Image: Bet365 match feed).

The game itself was contested by home-based players plus one MLS-based Honduran who lasted little more than half an hour – more on this later. Whereas Jorge Luis Pinto, mastermind behind Costa Rica’s World Cup run, opted to experiment with his new squad by making seven changes from last week’s encounter, Sanvicente only made one alteration – one which was forced upon him. Indeed, Rómulo Otero – the pivotal figure who played a crucial role in all three of Venezuela’s goals – was injured in club action for Caracas FC at the weekend and was replaced in the line-up by club colleague, Edder FaríasThat the majority of the Venezuelan players were also in domestic action at the same time as Otero was a factor that their Honduran counterparts did not have to contend with and may have had some effect on this game’s dynamics (or lack, thereof). The play was, for the most part, sluggish and devoid of any sustained rhythm or fluidity, something that the players’ relative unfamiliarity with one another was no doubt also partly responsible for.

However, the opening exchanges were rather lively, with Farías driving a loose ball at Honduras’ returning World Cup goalkeeper, Noel Valladares, and within 17 minutes the two sides were level. The visitors looked to be relishing their role as potential homecoming saboteurs when, with 9 minutes on the clock, Rubilio Castillo’s decent low long-range effort was parried by Alain Baroja, only to be rapidly chipped back into the area from the left by Romell Quioto for Anthony Lozano to powerfully head in.

The hosts responded 8 minutes later from a free-kick just outside the right edge of the area. Argenis Gómez – who played a role in two of the goals in last week’s encounter – swung in a fine left-footed ball that was met by left-back Gabriel Cichero, whose header into the goalmouth found the trailing left leg of captain Franklin Lucena. Though Jorge Claros managed to hook it away, the linesman flagged that it had already crossed the line – parity had been restored.

One recurring theme of the first game between this pair was the high number of petulant fouls committed, a feature that was to recur to a slightly lesser extent in the subsequent phase of play. Within no more than two minutes of play, both Honduras’ Castillo and Venezuela’s Juan Fuenmayor were booked for offences on each other, though the likelihood of their tussles resulting in a red card or two was abruptly averted when Castillo went off injured after 36 minutes.

Before the match reached this point, however, two notable incidents had occurred. Firstly, after 22 minutes, from the free-kick conceded by Fuenmayor on Castillo, Mario Martínez  lined up a free-kick from the right flank 35 yards out. Struck with his left peg, his curled ball was met on the volley by Lozano’s outstretched right boot and his effort caused a few jitters but went narrowly wide into the side-netting. However, any Honduran hopes of regaining the lead were dealt a blow by the second incident worthy of comment in this period: Jorge Claros, arguably the most high-profile player in this line-up owing to his performances with Sporting Kansas City, receiving his marching orders for a wild high-foot challenge in midfield, some 5-6 feet off the ground.

Yet with ten men, the visitors certainly did not crumble and were to have at least a few more chances worthy of comment in the game, the closest one coming on 37 minutes, just several minutes after the dismissal. An exquisite left-footed diagonal ball by Martínez on the turn from the half-way line was taken adeptly in the stride of Quioto who, from inside the area on the left lashed a low shot that was to come off the inside of the post and agonisingly trickle back across the goalmouth. Whether or not Baroja got any of his left glove on this is open to debate, though if he did, as the margins involved here were so thin, this contact surely stopped the ball from crossing the line.

Though this reminded Sanvicente of the threat Honduras could pose even with the numerical disadvantage, he opted to make some attack-minded substitutes at the break. Off came centre-back Fuenmayor and attacking midfielder Jesús Lugo to be replaced by Luis Vargas, who appeared to operate in a deep-lying playmaker role, and debutant Luis ‘Cariaco’ González, who was largely to be found in advanced positions on the left.

The second half, perhaps partly due to it consisting of one side with many players who were contesting their third game in eight days up against a team trying to compensate for being a man down, was rather short on chances. However, when the first of note came after 57 minutes, it resulted in the winning goal. This was scored by Venezuela’s third substitute, local hot prospect – and hot-head – Jhon Murillo, a remarkable 37 seconds after arriving on the pitch. The Zamora winger as well as the unused José Marrufo were both not in the original squad but were called up on the strength of their performances at the recent South American Youth Championship.

He replaced Gómez on the field and was soon found on the right side of the area by the long searching ball of club team-mate Vargas. Murillo won an aerial duel to guide the ball into the area, where defender Johnny Leverón – back home after a season with Vancouver Whitecaps – horribly miscued an attempted clearance. Under no real pressure around his own six-yard box, he acrobatically hit the ball over goalkeeper Valladares – who had come out to claim it – and Murillo, with predatory anticipation, burst forward to chest the descending ball in from little more than a yard out – a dream debut for the substitute. It was certainly not a bad moment for Sanvicente either, with the move beginning with one former charge of his at club level and then finished off by another in what is their present, and his former, home ground – an ideal winning scenario.

In the rest of the half, after Cichero, González and Vargas all hit shots either wide or over from rather optimistic positions, Venezuela had their only other concrete chance. This came from another substitute, Manuel Arteaga, who capitalised on a poor midfield pass to rob a defender but then, from the edge of the area, shot far too close to Valladares.

Up the other end, the visitors mildly threatened first with a cross that was well-headed away for a corner and then a subsequent effort from outside the area that went comfortably wide. Their best chance, however, came with what proved to be the last kicks of the game, as Bryan Acosta’s free-kick was flicked on by Ángel Tejeda, which Baroja did well to see at a late stage and dive down low to parry out to the left.

Not long after, the whistle sounded and Noel Sanvicente had attained his second consecutive victory over his Central American opponents – also the second win of his reign, following defeats in his opening four games.

A Worthwhile Pair of Games?

Quite what the coach will draw from both games is difficult to ascertain as the constitution of the teams bore very little – if any – resemblance to the sides he is likely to select when Venezuela play competitive fixtures and the full overseas contingent is called up.

Left-back Gabriel Cichero is the only player likely to retain his place in future line-ups and he will be pleased to have had little to trouble him on his side of the pitch, as well as notching an assist.

Defensive-midfielder Franklin Lucena will surely have been buoyed at starting, being named as captain for both games and scoring a goal – he is surely now back ahead of Rafael Acosta and Édgar Jiménez (the latter of whom was not in the squad) in the pecking order. However, he is unlikely to receive a first-team place ahead of the supposed preferred pairing of converted right-back Roberto Rosales and official captain Tomás Rincón. Furthermore, with his 34th birthday coming up within a week, it remains to be seen how much of an international future the Deportivo La Guaira man has.

Alain Baroja, though he is very unlikely to replace Tenerife’s Dani Hernández as number one goalkeeper, will nevertheless be delighted to have played both games and surely consolidate his position as second-choice ahead of Rafael Romo. Regarding the defence as a whole, though their performance certainly improved and was more assured, that they still failed to provide Sanvicente with his first clean sheet will be a lingering concern.

Further upfield, both Argenis Gómez and, to a greater extentRómulo Otero did much to enhance their claims for a regular squad place. Though the attacking midfield slots are the most competitive positions at present, Otero’s absence from the second game arguably only helps to preserve the perception of his star performance in the first game and bolster his personal cause.

Finally, in the forward positions, though both Edder Farías and Richard Blanco scored in the first game, to see either in a future squad for a competitive game would be a surprise. Not only are there plenty of overseas-based rivals in this area but there is also competition from the top-scoring home-based Venezuelan who was unable to join this squad as he was busy enhancing the domestic league’s reputation in sensational fashion.

Indeed, immediately after the second national game had ended, Gelmin Rivas fired Deportivo Táchira through to the Copa Libertadores group stage, getting both goals away to Paraguayan giants Cerro Porteño as his side’s 2-2 draw ensured a 4-3 aggregate victory. To have three sides involved in this phase of the continent’s premier competition is very rare and this, along with the two national victories, marked a much-needed morale-booster for Venezuelan football.

It will be curious to see whether Rivas can maintain his form and earn what would be a somewhat unanticipated call-up to the senior side for their two friendlies in late March against Peru and an as-yet-unconfirmed opponent. These two games are currently the last scheduled chances to alter Sanvicente’s plans ahead of Copa América, so whoever ends up in the squad will be best-advised to make the most of their opportunity. With the coach having always been at least a few key players short in his squads up until this point, those that do receive a call-up will be acutely aware that there are certainly some places still yet to be determined.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical 

Honduras 2-3 Venezuela – International Friendly (4 February 2015)

Wednesday 4 February 2015

International Friendly

Honduras 2-3 Venezuela 

Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula

Match Highlights of Honduras 2-3 Venezuela (YouTube channel: Futbol Hondureño)

Team Selections

Honduras (4-4-2): Escober; Peralta (Crisanto, 61′), Montes, Velásquez, Palacios; García (Quioto, 73′), Garrido (Acosta, 66′), Méndez (Claros, 46′), Martínez; Castillo (Tejeda, 61′), Lozano.

Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Carabalí, Fuenmayor, Sánchez, Cichero; Lucena (c), Figuera; Gómez (Farías, 66′), Otero, Lugo (Acosta, 66′); Blanco (Vargas, 89′).

Match Report

At the fifth attempt, Noel Sanvicente achieved his first victory since taking charge of La Vinotinto – and the nation’s first since September 2013 – as Rómulo Otero enhanced his claims for a regular place by playing a prominent role in all three goals.

Though this game, the first in a double-header between the two nations, was contested by sides consisting of home-based players (plus three MLS-dwellers in the case of Honduras), it was nevertheless a much-needed morale-booster for Venezuela.

Sanvicente’s opposite number here was Jorge Luis Pinto, taking control of his first Los Catrachos match, having had some time to recharge his batteries following his exceptional World Cup quarter-final run with Costa Rica. With his considerable experience in both Central and South America, he no doubt was unsurprised to witness a first half in which his new charges, as well as their opponents, committed fouls at a rate of nearly one per minute. As the nature of these offences could rarely be defined as anything more than petulant or calculated, only four players ended up in the book.

Something that was also anticipated before kick-off that came into being was the inability of the relatively unacquainted players on both sides to build effective moves and engage in interplay for any sustained period of time. Nevertheless, Honduras saw more of the ball in the opening stages, often looking to attack down the right flank, but their crosses were either blocked or effectively dealt with in the centre.

When Venezuela scored in the 21st minute, it came very much against the run of play and was the visitors’ first shot on goal. Indeed, though La Vinotinto were to struggle throughout the game with any build-up play that involved lengthy possession, on three separate occasions they made rapid use of the ball in the final third to create goals out of nothing.

The first of these came from a move that began from a loose ball just outside the right edge of the Honduran area, where right-back Francisco Carabalí nudged the ball to Argenis Gómez. The sole representative of Apertura champions Trujillanos caught the defenders off-guard by swiftly playing an incisive ball into the area to Rómulo Otero who immediately passed it across the goalmouth for Richard Blanco to tap in. Quite what an international future the 33-year-old striker has beyond these two matches is unclear, but this will no doubt go down as a memorable goal for him and he will be hoping to enjoy similar moments in the upcoming Copa Libertadores group stage with Mineros de Guayana.

As an attacking threat, Venezuela were not to be greatly feared for the remainder of the half as instead the majority of the play consisted of the hosts’ quest for an equaliser. However, with the exception of a well-struck free-kick being deflected a couple of yards over and a soft shot in a promising position from Román Castillo, Honduras did not really threaten their opponents’ goal. Instead, aside from debutant goalkeeper Alain Baroja’s rather hasty advancements off his line to thwart attacks – which on one occasion saw him drop the ball that consequently trickled goalwards – the Venezuelan defence looked rather assured dealing with the attacks down the flanks and the crosses that drifted into the area.

Soon after the second half got underway, Honduras registered another shot on target, as Olimpia striker Anthony Lozano – who, in 2013, earned some online notoriety for this glaring miss at club level – received a low cross and got away a decent effort that was nevertheless comfortably, if acrobatically, caught by Baroja. However, barely a minute afterwards, the visitors were to provide the second sucker punch. This time it began with a Gabriel Cichero throw-in on the left, which bounced through to Gómez who passed it to Otero on the edge of the area who, with two deft touches and a turn, played it back to his onrushing team-mate. From inside the area, Gómez collected it and slid it over to Arquímedes Figuera to gently chip in for his first international goal.

In response, Honduras continued their fruitless quest for a goal, but though they sometimes advanced into good positions, their crosses were again either blocked or not met with enough intent/direction and their shots were of little concern to Baroja. In this period, the Caracas FC goalkeeper again only really encountered trouble from his own, seemingly nervy, desire to impress, as evidenced when he mishandled a comfortable catch from a header.

In the 76th minute, Venezuela were to deliver to the hosts what, at that point, was surely almost an anticipated blow. Otero’s role was again crucial as the 22-year-old starlet – a club team-mate of Baroja’s – picked up the ball on the inside-right, beat a man, then got the better of another inside the area, before playing the ball into the six-yard box. Here, another Caracas colleague – substitute Edder Farías – scored a cheeky effort sideways-to-goal with his trailing right foot to put the result beyond doubt.

Or at least that is how it seemed until a nervy climax emerged following two home goals, the first of which was as fortituous as it was an instinctive finish. It came on 80 minutes as a corner by Mario Martínez – formerly of the Seattle Sounders – was headed out only to be hit straight back into a crowded area for Anthony Lozano to divert past Baroja. The second came in the final minute of regulation time as Martínez swung in another corner from the opposite side that bounced through the crowd and was knocked in by incoming 2014 World Cup squad member, Juan Montes. The error that always seemed a possibility for Baroja had occurred as he was caught in no man’s land when the cross he came out to claim evaded him, though the failure of any of the outfield players to pick up the run of Montes must also be highlighted.

Despite these late lapses, Venezuela’s saw out the four additional minutes to attain their first victory of the Sanvicente era. ‘Chita’ can be proud of the improved defensive performance, with Carabalí, and especially his fellow often-maligned full-back Cichero, doing well to thwart many of the attempted crosses. Those that did make it into the area were largely dealt with effectively by Andrés Sánchez and the 35-year-old Juan Fuenmayor, neither of whom shirked from the frequent pressure they were put under.

Further upfield, though La Vinotinto were unable to put together many forward passes, engage in much possession play or even create a great deal of chances within the final third, the three that mattered were executed swiftly and clinically. Rómulo Otero, with two assists and a pivotal role on the other goal, has to be the man of the match and though the constitution of the side means that even a star performance like this can not guarantee a spot for him in future squads, it will nevertheless be of great benefit to his personal cause.

Before the game kicked off, gaining at least one victory from these two games seemed a necessity for Sanvicente in order to keep some of his impatient critics at bay. Having already achieved this away from home, expectations have increased and a solid win in his former stomping ground of Estadio Agustín Tovar – home of the reigning champions Zamora FC, whom he led to two successive titles – now seems the order of the day. Whether this has any bearing on his undoubted desire to use this rare opportunity to experiment ahead of the 2015 Copa América will remain unclear until the game kicks off next Wednesday.

Darren Spherical 

@DarrenSpherical

Preview for Venezuela’s February 2015 Friendly Double-Header with Honduras

Friendly International Double-Header

4 February 2015

Honduras vs Venezuela

Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula 

11 February 2015 

Venezuela vs Honduras

Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas 

Less Prestigious Than Friendlies?

This international double-header between two nations represented by players from their respective domestic leagues (plus three MLS stars, in the case of Honduras) would be more accurately defined as a pair of ‘B’ internationals. Indeed, approximately three-quarters of a typical, fully fit Venezuela squad tends to consist of players based overseas. Even from the pool of home players, coach Noel Sanvicente has been partially thwarted in his attempt to watch the best local talent at close-quarters as the dates of these two matches coincide with Deportivo Táchira’s two Copa Libertadores play-off games against Paraguayan giants Cerro Porteño. From the side from San Cristóbal, he would have likely called up young centre-back Wilker Ángel (who scored on his debut against Bolivia in November), jinking midfielder Yohandry Orozco (who also featured against El Verde), as well as Gelmin Rivas (the highest scoring Venezuelan in the domestic league). Consequently, as these games are going to be contested by players who are largely unlikely to even feature again on the same field together for their country, it is a struggle, at least from tactical and team-building perspectives, to justify their arrangement.

The Managers:

Any Preparation Time is Invaluable

It may well prove that what the respective managers gain from proceedings will not be readily discernible to the majority of spectactors, as this may consist of learning who they feel they can trust, who are most receptive to their ideas and/or who shows the most potential in training.

For Honduras, these will be the first two games under the stewardship of Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto, last seen in the dugout by a mass audience guiding Costa Rica to a remarkable Quarter-Final finish in the 2014 World Cup. It remains to be seen whether he opts for the defence-minded counter-attacking approach that he utilised with Los Ticos when leading this particular Central American nation who generated some headlines of their own in Brazil – though largely for their rather physical play on and off the ball. With both squads mostly containing home-based players he does, arguably, have an advantage over his opposite number as he possesses some first-hand insights into Venezuelan football. Indeed, for almost a year and a half prior to taking the Costa Rica job, he was the coach of Deportivo Táchira and ended his reign with great success by winning the 2010-11 championship. Thus, as neither nation has called upon any of their emerging prospects from their U20 contingents – both of which having been recently preoccupied with their respective regional tournaments – he should have some familiarity with the majority of the Venezuelan side.

That is not to say his counterpart Sanvicente is completely in the dark regarding his opponents, as eight of the World Cup squad remain, including the MLS trio of Luis Garrido, Jorge Claros and Óscar Boniek García. Although attaining positive results may not be the primary purpose of such games, he will, however, surely be looking to gain at least one victory from the double-header. The man they call ‘Chita’ may have received much goodwill upon taking the job in July but, even though he has encountered some bad luck with injuries, having lost all four of the games he has overseen* he has certainly not been without criticism. A win then, irrespective of the personnel and methods used to achieve it, would give him some breathing space and surely boost morale amongst both the playing and coaching staff.

Venezuela’s Players

A Rare Opportunity for the Majority

In all, Venezuela have officially lost their last five games, with the first in this dismal sequence coming last March against Honduras in the same ground the first game will be played this time around. From this 2-1 defeat that featured many squad regulars, only Rómulo Otero – who started and scored a fine free-kick – and Arquímedes Figuera – who came on for little more than five minutes –  have been selected in the current crop.

Thus, it seems that Venezuela’s players, at least, will be very unfamiliar with their Honduran counterparts (and, depending on how much insight Pinto can impart, vice versa), not to mention somewhat unacquainted with one another. Indeed, this 20-man, largely makeshift, squad has been chosen from 10 different teams and the majority of these players have only really been together for a three-day series of training modules (from 19-21 January). Unless several players have an abnormal telepathic understanding, one thing that should not be expected from the Venezuelan players is free-flowing passing movements and creativity.

Nevertheless, while in this squad there are players who have little hope of a call-up to June’s Copa América squad and others who are frankly making up the numbers, approximately one-third have been previously selected at some point in the Sanvicente era. The majority of these are not regular starters but will most probably find themselves in the line-up next to players who they are unlikely to ever begin a competitive international with. Though their interplay and partnerships with most of their team-mates will not be utilised in future matches, they will nevertheless be under scrutiny with regards to their performances and how faithfully they carry out the coach’s instructions.

Thus, with all these caveats out of the way, what follows is a brief look at some aspects of La Vinotinto‘s side to look out for in these two games:

What to Look out for in the Venezuelan Side

How the Goalkeepers Perform

With Rafael Romo and Alain Baroja in the squad, both will likely feature at some point and, quite probably, receive 90 minutes each. With number one choice Dani Hernández having recently moved from the Real Valladolid substitutes’ bench to the Tenerife first team, seemingly only a severe loss of form on his part could see either of these men take his place between the sticks on a regular basis. However, it is not entirely clear who is the favoured stand-in, as neither have played in this new era. Although Romo – unlike Baroja – received a call-up to the last squad in November, he has been known to make the odd glaring error (as most recently witnessed at the weekend for his club side, Mineros de Guayana). His rival from Caracas FC perhaps benefits from playing for a more in-form club though he has himself made some impressive saves lately, yet in terms of goals conceded this season, there is little to separate the two men. The argument is unlikely to be settled by these two games, though they may go some way to suppressing it for the foreseeable future.

How the Defence Copes

This consideration may well be included in every Venezuela preview until at least when the upcoming World Cup Qualifying campaign ends. While Romo and/or Baroja will do well to avoid making any of the handling and positioning errors of Hernández, it is more the back four and the defensive-midfield partnerships that have been at fault in recent matches.

In Sanvicente’s four games as manager, his side have conceded 13 goals (*14 officially – see footnote), being frequently bypassed with ease in midfield and slow, not to mention disorganised, when dealing with through-balls and crosses. Left-back Gabriel Cichero – who is the only player in this squad to have faced Costa Rica under Pinto in a 2-0 loss back in December 2011 – has the unfortunate distinction of having started all of these games. He was not alone in his errors, but many fans did reserve for him their sternest opprobrium. Yet Sanvicente may well find his experience and know-how at this level invaluable, as he will likely be lining up with three other defenders who have little chance of playing much competitive international football. One possible defensive colleague, Juan Fuenmayor, who can operate at either left-back or in central defence, may have a couple-dozen caps to his name but the last of these came as a last-minute substitute four years ago and, more to the point, at 35 years old, age is not on his side. Cichero’s organisational and leadership capacities may be especially required when, as is likely, he finds himself in a back-line with Francisco CarabalíAndrés Sánchez and/or Jhon Chancellor who, between them, have a mixture of little and no senior international experience.

In front of the back four, when everyone is fit and available, Sanvicente appears to favour a defensive-midfield partnership of converted Málaga right-back, Roberto Rosales, and new captain, Tomás Rincón of Genoa. Although he has only ever been able to field this pairing once, when both men are available, the players in the current set-up have no chance of dislodging them. Indeed, when two players from the domestic league – Édgar Jiménez and Rafael Acosta – began the 5-0 thrashing meted out by Chile in November, both were hopelessly and repeatedly left for dead, unable to cope with the pace and movement of players from vastly superior leagues. Acosta also started but was to fare little better in the subsequent 3-2 defeat by Bolivia and so it was readily apparent, if it was not already, that the players who are used to competing in Europe’s top leagues were far better suited to these positions. Nevertheless, Acosta survives to live another day and is in this squad, though rather than looking to push for a regular first-team place, he should be more concerned with preserving his status as a fringe player in the squad. Franklin Lucena, who came on as a substitute for Acosta against Chile and replaced Jiménez in the line-up for the Bolivia game, would appear to be his most likely competitor from this pool of players to be first-choice stand-by, though again, turning 34 later this month, he does not appear to have much of a long-term future.

Rómulo Otero’s Role as an Attacking Threat

In the Sanvicente era, a recurring theme has been the inability of the attacking players to effectively and consistently link up and create chances. While this may be partly explained away by the changes in personnel that have occurred from game-to-game in these positions, it is nevertheless a concern. From their overseas contingent, Venezuela do not lack players of considerable talent who can play in the line behind the forward(s), with talents at their disposal including Luis Manuel Seijas, Juan Arango, Alejandro Guerra, rising star Juanpi and even, if required, Mario Rondón (who has been more accustomed to playing further forward). Thus again, the players in the current squad have quite a job on their hands with regards to attempting to gain a first-team place, though if anyone can do it, Rómulo Otero is surely the man. The Caracas FC starlet made substitute appearances against Chile and Bolivia, impressively assisting Alexander González’s goal against the latter with a swiftly executed lofted diagonal ball. With teams from abroad interested in him for some time now, and at the age of just 22 being the most internationally experienced attacking midfielder in this particular side, there should be some onus on him to impose himself in the games and be the catalyst going forward.

Elsewhere in this area, it will be interesting to see what Luis Vargas can offer, having played a key role in Zamora FC’s resurgence in form and subsequent ascent to the top of the Torneo Clausura.

How the Forwards Fare

At the very top of the field, not one of the forwards called up in previous match squads has come from the domestic league and the highest-scoring Venezuelan at home – Gelmin Rivas – is not even available for this clash. So what hope do this crop have of even being in with a chance of a place in a future squad for a competitive match?

Some focus will be on Jesús Lugo, a one-club man of only 23, who has been impressive creating and scoring chances in Aragua FC’s ascent to the outskirts of the title race and has U20 international experience. Despite being classified as a forward, he does tend to play a deeper role, offering support for the main goalscorer(s) and often finding himself in more of an attacking midfield position – an already highly competitive area in the selección, as noted.

When it comes to more traditional goal-getters, though Caracas FC’s Edder Farías has a respectable scoring record, he will turn 27 in the spring and yet has less than ten caps to his name. More long-term potential may come from taking a chance on Manuel Arteaga, a 20-year-old who has already scored twice in the Clausura for his new club Zulia FC, demonstrating strong composure when presented with one-on-one opportunities. He has previously had trials with Liverpool and Fiorentina, as well as a non-playing stint with Parma, so if his good form continues at club level, he may well earn a move abroad and find himself more in contention for future call-ups.

Ultimately, with the likes of Salomón Rondón, Mario Rondón, Josef Martínez, Miku and Juan Falcón all playing in strong European leagues, it will not be easy for any domestic forwards to find a spot in the first-choice squad, an issue faced by most players in this crop, irrespective of position. With so many reserves (and reserves to the reserves) on display, it is undeniable that these two meetings have the feel of being of less significance than even regular friendly games are generaly perceived. Nevertheless, as the games were hastily arranged at short-notice to give the managers some much-needed preparation time ahead of their respective continent-wide tournaments in June/July, it can be safely assumed that Sanvicente and Pinto view them as far from pointless.

20-man Venezuela Squad for the double-header against Honduras

Goalkeepers

Alain Baroja (Caracas FC)

Rafael Romo (Mineros de Guayana)

Defenders

Francisco Carabalí (Caracas FC)

Jhon Chancellor (Deportivo Lara)

Gabriel Cichero (Mineros de Guayana)

Juan Fuenmayor (Deportivo Anzoátegui)

Andrés Sánchez (Caracas FC)

Midfielders

Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana)

Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira)

Argenis Gómez (Trujillanos FC)

Luis González (Deportivo La Guaira)

Óscar González (Deportivo La Guaira)

Franklin Lucena (Deportivo La Guaira)

Rómulo Otero (Caracas FC)

Luis Vargas (Zamora FC)

Forwards 

Manuel Arteaga (Zulia FC)

Richard Blanco (Mineros de Guayana)

Edder Farías (Caracas FC)

Jesús Lugo (Aragua FC)

Aquiles Ocanto (Carabobo FC)

*Venezuela’s match with Japan on 9 September 2014 ended 2-2 on the day but was later awarded as a 3-0 victory to Japan. Read more about it here.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical