Tag Archives: Juan Sebastian Veron

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.   

colombia4top

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.

flagsfinished

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!

    aztecapic flagonpitch

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.

guatemalaflag cobanpetapaguatemala nicaraguarealestelifirstleg nicaraguarealestelisecondgame

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.

teotihuacan hotelneptuno zipolitebeach puntacometamexicoguatemalariodulce eltuncoelsalvador semucchampeyguatemala nicaracaguacelebrations

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.

argentinosjrsoutside argentinosjrsmural lanusbuenosaires1 velezcatolicaatlanta2 riverargentinos1 elmonumentalriver1 estudiantesgodoycruz1independiente independientequilmes quilmesindependiente1 quilmesindependiente23

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.

barcelonaemelec usanmartin monumentallima cienciano2 cienciano3 hernandosileslapaz iquiquecatolica nacionalparaguay museodelfutbolsudamericano santospalmeiras2 santospalmeiras3 maracanariodejaneiro

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.

Copa Libertadores Preview: Deportivo Táchira Join Zamora and Mineros de Guayana on the Grandest Stage

Tonight (17 February) may see Europe’s Champions League return for its knock-out phase, but in South America (and Mexico), attention will be very much on the inauguration of the Group Stage of the 2015 Copa Libertadores, the premier club competition.

Interest will be particularly high in Venezuela, the nation whose clubs have historically made the least impact in this tournament. For the first ever time since the round of play-off qualifiers was introduced in 2005, the continent’s traditional underdogs will be represented by their full quota of three teams, as Zamora (2013-14 champions) and Mineros de Guayana (2013-14 runners-up & Apertura winners) will be joined by Deportivo Táchira (3rd in 2013-14 aggregate table, behind the other two qualifiers).

Highlights of Cerro Porteño 2-2 Deportivo Táchira (3-4 aggregate), 11 February 2015, Copa Libertadores First Round.

(Video courtesy of YouTube user: Enfermos X el fútbol)

Deportivo Táchira’s Asunción Ascension

Táchira, who as well as making four appearances at this stage in the past ten years have also been unsuccessful in each of the three previous times that they have contested the play-off round, finally overcame this hurdle last week when they defeated Cerro Porteño. Perhaps being rivalled only by Palestino of Chile knocking out Uruguay’s three-time winners Nacional as the biggest surprise of the preliminaries, the side from the eponymous state on the Colombian border drew 2-2 in Asunción, thus claiming a memorable 4-3 aggregate victory

Before the first leg was contested on 4 February, the six-time semi-finalists from Paraguay were considered comfortable favourites to progress. Táchira, however, gave short shrift to the supposed script as it took no more than 12 minutes for 34-year-old Argentine Javier López – a recent recruit from Zamora FC – to head in the fine set-piece delivery of 32-year-old erstwhile Venezuela international César ‘Maestrico’ González. Rather than sitting back, San Cristóbal’s finest absorbed and were further invigorated by the raucous atmosphere of a well-populated Pueblo Nuevo and seven minutes later, the fans were to witness a goal that undoubtedly lived up to the significance of the occasion. Maintaining the theme of experience, this came from the much-travelled 37-year-old Jorge Rojas, a recent acquisition from one of the capital’s smaller sides, Metropolitanos, as well as being La Vinotinto‘s third highest-capped player of all-time. Upon receiving a throw-in, Rojas demonstrated why he is known as ‘El Zurdo’, as he let the ball roll into his stride and unleashed an unstoppable left-footed strike from over 30 yards that fizzed in the air before going in off the underside of the crossbar.

A goal surely fit to grace any stadium in the world and a fine example of the strength in depth that exists in this competition. Not to be outdone, five minutes after the restart Cerro were to get what proved to be their consolation and seemingly vital away goal, with a strike that left many impartial observers unsure as to which was the finest of the game. This was a swerving 30-yard free-kick from Jonathan Fabbro, an Argentina-born Paraguay international who has represented clubs in six countries within Latin America and who, at 33 years of age, was well on-message with this game’s theme.

Thus, with an away goal to their name and home advantage for the decisive tie on 11 February to look forward to, Cerro returned to the Paraguayan capital confident that a group berth awaited. When, with 40 minutes on the clock, Fabbro again got on the scoresheet – this time via a dubiously awarded penalty – many home nerves dissipated as now Táchira were compelled to attack in order to avoid elimination, thus leaving them vulnerable on the counter. Yet, while at times the Venezuelans rode their luck, from the very first minute they always looked like they were capable of posing a threat, not to mention a surprise or two, the first of which they delivered on 55 minutes. Gelmin Rivas, the club’s leading goalscorer with 11 goals in 17 league games, followed up the good work of Pablo Olivera – recently acquired from Uruguay’s second tier – to hold off defenders and adeptly side-foot home.

The onus was thus back on the hosts and to their credit, they required little more than five minutes to regain the lead with that man Fabbro again involved in the goal, albeit this time as supplier. He did well on the right of the area to shrug off some challenges before chipping a fine cross into the area that local youngster Cecilio Domínguez chested and dispatched with a consummate ease that belied his 20 years.

However, as the Asunción crowd began pondering whether or not extra-time would be necessary, Rivas abruptly rendered any such musings academic, stunning the home faithful within a minute of the restart. The striker, who was linked with a possible move to Standard Liège or Club Brugge in January, picked up the ball 30 yards out and evaded a challenge to hit a low bouncing shot from the right edge of the area into the bottom far corner. 2-2, the local scoreboard now alarmingly read. Although the goalkeeper Rodolfo Rodríguez probably should have parried this shot away, any anger felt by the home fans had to be suppressed as this sensationally swift turn of events meant that their side now had to frantically get their act together and score twice in just under half an hour.

As it panned out, while Cerro did have the bulk of the remaining chances, Táchira were to resist and hold on, thus not only qualifying for the group stage but also managing to avoid defeat against a side that had reached this very phase in four of the past five years.

Although it is unlikely that fans of Táchira’s El Clásico foes Caracas FC share the following sentiments, it must be said that as this second leg victory was immediately followed by the national team’s second successive win over Honduras in a week, for many Venezuelan football fans this was certainly a day to be savoured.

Previews of Venezuela’s 3 Teams in the 2015 Copa Libertadores

deportivotachira

Deportivo Táchira

With the confidence gained from their impressive win against Cerro Porteño coupled with their return to form in the early stages of Venezuela’s Torneo Clausura, Los Aurinegros should feel that advancing from Group 8 (of 8) is not beyond their capabilities. Indeed, while the encounter with Argentine champions Racing and their strike-force of Diego Milito and Gustavo Bou may cause the most butterflies, their games against Peruvian champions Sporting Cristal and another Paraguayan side, Guaraní, now seem, by comparison, manageable.

Coach Daniel Farías will certainly be hoping his side does not experience a similarly disastrous decline in form that befell them in the 18-team Torneo Apertura when they contrived to fall from 1st at the midway point to a final position of 11th.  To avert this, the form of various key players will be crucial: goalkeeper Alan Liebeskind, who has made a strong impression since joining at the beginning of the Clausura; young centre-back Wilker Ángel, who can chip in with more than his fair share of goals from set-pieces and who may well be heading abroad later in the year; playmaker César González, whose set-pieces and link-up play will be vital, as will be those of Jorge Rojas, though how much of the campaign the latter will feature in at his age remains to be seen; another dead-ball specialist, albeit one surely not concerned with stamina issues is young, creative livewire Yohandry Orozco, a man who will want to use this opportunity to display to a wide audience some of the talent that gained him recognition four years ago; the service of the likes of Orozco, Rojas, González and, to an extent, Pablo Olivera, will need to be spot-on in order for striker Gelmin Rivas to have a prosperous tournament, being as he is in the main a penalty-area predator.

zamorafc

Zamora FC

Before Táchira get their campaign underway with a home game against Racing, the 2013-14 champions of Venezuela will be ushering in their nation’s participation in the tournament with an away game against Montevideo Wanderers. Their Uruguayan opponents will be hosting this encounter at Parque Central, the home of their more illustrious cross-city neighbours, Nacional, whose qualifying-round conquerors Palestino – a Chilean side originally set up by Palestinian immigrants – are the third side in Group 5. The final team is Argentine giants Boca Juniors who, having raised eyes and expectations with the recruitment of Uruguayan international Nicolás Lodeiro, Málaga midfielder Pablo Pérez and striker Dani Osvaldo, promise to be the dominant threat.

Zamora may have won last season’s championship but, as is often the case in South America, they were victims of their own success. Consequently, key individuals were swiftly snapped up by all and sundry, such as midfielder Pedro Ramírez (FC Sion), leading goalscorer Juan Falcón (FC Metz) and, most significantly, manager Noel Sanvicente (Venezuela national team). They thus began the Torneo Apertura campaign in August disastrously, not picking up a win in their first 11 games and finding themselves rooted to the bottom. However, their form was to undergo a remarkable U-turn as their final six games ended with five wins and a draw, salvaging some pride with a final position of 12th. This reversal in fortunes has impressively and, with the reputation of Venezuelan football on the continental stage in mind, thankfully, continued into the second half of the domestic season, as they currently sit 1st in the Torneo Clausura, with four wins and two draws – unbeaten in a total of 13 games.

Key to continuining this impressive transformation under coach Julio Quintero will be the performance of the defence, which has four clean sheets in the past six games and now features some new faces as well as the likes of Panama international Luis Ovalle and the long-serving Moisés Galezo. Other players whose roles will be crucial include deep-lying playmaker, set-piece taker and occasional shield Luis Vargas, as well as fellow midfield stalwart Arles Flores; with his dribbles down the flanks as well as the inroads he makes infield, temperamental-yet-gifted 19-year-old Jhon Murillo – who had an unsuccessful trial with Basel last year – will certainly be hoping to make an impression, as well as chip in with some goals; the man who has been on target the most for the champions and who was the catalyst behind their return to form is attacking midfielder/support-striker Pierre Pluchino, whose elegant creativity and finishing will be crucial; lastly, Santiago Bello, a striker with an impressive record recently brought in from the Uruguayan second tier in advance of the Libertadores – so far yet to start a game, but from whom goals are anticipated.

Minerosdeguayana

Mineros de Guayana

The 2013 Torneo Apertura winners and overall runners-up for 2013-14 have thus far had a rather mediocre season, sacking Richard  Páez (the well-respected former national team manager from 2001-07) and ending the most recent Apertura in 6th place. Their uninspiring form has continued into the Clausura as they sit in 11th place, having played six games – one, and in some cases, two, more than the vast of majority of the sides around them.

Thus, of Venezuela’s three representatives, Mineros are currently heading into this tournament with the worst form. However, they may be able to boost morale ahead of their official entrance into the competition as they will be involved in another league game before they play their opening Libertadores match next week on Tuesday 24 February away to Argentine side Huracán (Update 24/2/15: this game against Estudiantes de Mérida did not take place due to the tragic death of club captain Carlos de Castro. Mineros now find themselves 12th in the table). This newly promoted club – who qualified by virtue of winning the Copa Argentina – will certainly be no pushover, as evidenced by their comfortable 4-0 play-off round win over Peru’s Alianza Lima. The other two sides that will be contesting Group 3 are champions of their respective countries: Club Universitario of Bolivia and Cruzeiro of Brazil, the latter of whom, despite some post-season departures, will be firm favourites and who now count Leandro Damião and Uruguayan prospect Giorgian De Arrascaeta amongst their ranks.

The success or otherwise of Mineros will depend largely on players who have mostly performed at a standard markedly lower than they did last season suddenly raising their game, however unlikely that may seem. Their side consists of many individuals who regularly receive call-ups to the national squad, such as goalkeeper Rafael Romo who, judging by his inaction in the recent Venezuela friendlies, finds himself demoted from second to third choice; Gabriel Cichero who, though certainly not without his critics, is Venezuela’s first-choice left-back and who also possesses attacking qualities, particularly on set-pieces; the two defence-minded midfielders Rafael Acosta and Édgar Jiménez also have their attacking merits, but when playing for the national side have largely been panned, particularly when they were both regularly left for dead in November’s 5-0 thrashing handed out by Chile; striker Richard Blanco recently played and scored a tap-in against Honduras but, as this was a squad of home-based players, he is unlikely to get a regular call-up; depending on form, the Colombian duo of Zamir Valoyes and James Cabezas may well find themselves sidelining Blanco; Cabezas was brought in from recent Apertura winners Trujillanos (where he scored 10 goals in 16 games), along with defender Edixon Cuevas, yet rather than boost the squad, both have thus far struggled to replicate the form they displayed at their old club. As a final consideration, it will be interesting to see how former Venezuela international defender Luis Vallenilla copes against the pace of the likes of Cruzeiro, given that he turns 41 in March.

Venezuelans Flying the Flag: More Bonuses

If following the three clubs was not enough for Venezuelan football fans, there are also some other compatriots who will be competing in this year’s edition for Colombian sides. Luis Manuel Seijas, a left-sided attacking midfielder who features regularly for the national side will be playing for 2014 Torneo Finalización champions Independiente Santa Fe. They have been drawn in Group 1 and their very first match comes tonight away to Mexico’s Atlas after the second game of interest – Táchira’s – has finished – a long night is thus in store for all. The two other teams in their group are 2014 Copa do Brasil winners Atlético Mineiro and last year’s Chilean Clausura winners, Colo-Colo.

In Group 7, Colombia’s 2014 Apertura winners Atlético Nacional should field another Venezuelan international midfielder, Alejandro Guerra. Also in their ranks is Jonathan Copete, a Colombian in origin but who has been in talks for some time now with Venezuelan national boss Noel Sanvicente about naturalisation and who could well feature in future national team squads at some point this year. Irrespective of how his international aspirations pan out, both men come into this competition with strong continental experience, having been part of their side’s run to the final of December’s Copa Sudamericana, in which they were runners-up to River Plate. Their first Libertadores match will be on Thursday 19 February and will be possibly their sternest test, being as it is against Paraguay’s 2014 Apertura and Clausura winners, Libertad. Their other two opponents are Ecuador’s championship runners-up Barcelona and Argentina’s Estudiantes de la Plata, whose President regular Argentine football fans will know is club legend Juan Sebastián Verón. While this is a far from straightforward group to negotiate, Guerra and Copete will fancy their chances of qualifying for the knock-out stage.

Although the general consensus is that the two Colombian sides featuring Venezuelans have more chance of progressing than the three domestic teams, one can not help but feel that no matter what happens, many memorable moments will occur this year for Venezuelan football fans to recall fondly for some time afterwards. It is going to be an enthralling tournament which should be covered as much as possible from a Venezuelan perspective on this site.

Now, that is more than enough talking – let’s get the caffeine ready and prepare for some long nights of top-level action!

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical