Tag Archives: Latin America

Venezuela 0-2 Brazil – CONMEBOL Qualification Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (11 October 2016)

Rather than historic headlines, the tenth matchday of La Vinotinto’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign yielded goalkeeping and power failures. Here, Hispanospherical.com provides a full match report…

CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018

Tuesday 11 October 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State

Venezuela 0-2 Brazil

Video Highlights of Venezuela 0-2 Brazil, 11 October 2016, CONMEBOL Qualifying Stage for FIFA World Cup 2018 (YouTube)

Oh Dani Boy, Gifting the Night Away

Match Report

Within eight minutes, Venezuela were knocked down and rarely looked like getting up again as Brazil went on to inflict upon them their eighth defeat in ten World Cup Qualifying games.

Making five changes from the Uruguay defeat (including three of the four defenders), Rafael Dudamel set up his men in a relatively bold 4-4-2 formation but no strategy or set of tactics could have accounted for the opening goal. This arrived when goalkeeper Dani Hernández, under no real pressure, suicidally passed the ball straight to Gabriel Jesus some 30 yards out. The Manchester-bound 19-year-old stopped the ball with his left boot and, as the Tenerife man scrambled in front of the penalty spot, with his right deftly scooped the Seleção into the lead with a masterful chip. Thus marked the latest instance of Venezuela’s tradition of providing significant aid to countries who don’t really need it.

Though it was his most glaring, this was hardly Hernández’s first error since regaining the gloves under Dudamel and pressure to make a change will surely intensify now. Yet with the two other goalkeepers in the squad relatively inexperienced at international level – and having not entirely convinced when called upon – there are no obvious alternatives. The previous number one Alain Baroja has been excluded from the selección throughout the new manager’s reign, seemingly due to having also committed some high-profile errors in earlier qualifying matches (the home games against Paraguay and Ecuador providing the most egregious examples). A recall can not now be entirely out of the question but, whatever happens, goalkeeping woes and back-line jitters look set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Conceding an early goal against one of the best teams in the continent would have deflated any nation but Venezuelans had additional reasons to fear the following 80+ minutes. Not only have they not won a single game in the current qualifying campaign, but – barring one friendly match in 2008 – they have never beaten Brazil and the last time that they gained a positive result from a competitive game after falling behind was exactly three years ago (their last match of the Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign, a 1-1 home draw with Paraguay on 11 October 2013).

In the remainder of the half, though Venezuela were not shrinking violets, it was certainly the visitors who came closest to getting the game’s second goal. In the 15th minute, Gabriel Jesus earned some space after he latched onto a long ball up the inside-left channel and slid it to Phillipe Coutinho, whose low strike from the edge of the dee was poked a bit too close to Hernández. Nine minutes later at the second attempt, roaming right-back Dani Alves volleyed in a goalmouth cross that was only narrowly diverted by Roberto Rosales from the path of Gabriel Jesus for a corner.

Just past the half-hour mark, Paulinho had a chance when he greatly unnerved the opposition back-line on the edge of the area, playing a few one-twos before eventually firing just wide. A few minutes later, it was Coutinho’s moment to strike a yard or two the wrong side of the post when an elevated ricochet in the area fell kindly for his right boot.

As with previous matches against the region’s heavyweights, the hosts’ best hope of an attempt on goal came from set-pieces (which here were flagged offside at the key moment) and breakaways, the impetus for which invariably derived from the feet of Adalberto Peñaranda. Indeed, the 19-year-old raised the volume in the stands in the 23rd minute when he left a player for dead in midfield before running into trouble. Later in the 41st minute, he impressively gained some space on the left before cutting inside and winning a corner from his own effort, though one or two of his colleagues seemed irritated that he did not pass for them to take aim.

Venezuela thus went into the break not completely out of the game, but having barely troubled opposition goalkeeper Alisson. Their struggle was compounded by the yellow cards earned by both centre-backs, Wilker Ángel and Sema Velázquez – not encouraging news for a team that has had three defenders (including Ángel) sent off in their last three games.

Nevertheless, as a spot of rain-lashing greeted the arrival of the second half, the hosts gained some heart from avoiding a repeat of the Uruguay game. No game-killing goals after 15 seconds here then. No, Tite’s men had to instead wait eight minutes for that. They doubled their lead thanks to Renato Agusto dragging the ball away from Rosales on the left and firing the ball across the goalmouth where Willian beat the other full-back Rolf Feltscher to clinically strike home at the back post.

Just five minutes later in the 58th minute, Brazil seemed well on their way to humiliating their hosts when an Augusto header from a corner ended up in the back of the net. However, Gabriel Jesus helped it across the line and his involvement caused the linesman to raise his flag.

Soon afterwards, partly inspired by the substitution of Alejandro Guerra on for Juanpi, Venezuela gradually overcame their dejection and started to threaten Alisson’s goal. Seconds after his arrival on the hour, it was the fresh Atlético Nacional midfielder who diverted a forward ball to Salomón Rondón. The West Bromwich forward’s first-time strike hit Marquinhos, seemingly on the upper arm, leaving Alisson stranded. Fortunately for the latter two, the ball went wide for a corner.

A couple of minutes later, Rondón had another chance. This time, from the right with his left boot, Rosales swung in a cross that the striker beat his marker to, with his header bouncing just a yard or so wide of the near post.

However, they were reminded of exactly what they were up against just a minute later when Brazil stretched their back-line and a pass from the left into the centre seemed to be heading for an inevitable third; yet the shot that followed was too close to Hernández, who parried.

The action continued and it was virtually end-to-end. Just two minutes later at the other end, Josef Martínez volleyed an arced free-kick that forced a save, though play was immediately halted for offside. Four minutes later, Alves skipped past the slide of Peñaranda on the right where he crossed towards the centre of the area to Paulinho but, despite the space the ex-Tottenham man had, he volleyed well over. Barely 30 seconds later at the other end, Rondón curled in a fine ball from the left with his right which destabilised and discombulated Filipe Luís. Prowling behind him at the back post was Guerra who did well to stretch to control the ball, but from his crab-like stance with Alisson narrowing the angles, he could only scuff a shot wide of the post.

However, pulses in the stands were not to be maintained at the same rate for much longer as in the 73rd minute, the floodlights suddenly went out. Darkness, punctuated by lights from phones and advertising boards, descended upon the Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida. There was initially much cheering and clapping from the home fans, perhaps proving Venezuelans like a good old ‘wheeeyyy’ when something goes wrong as much as anyone. Or maybe they just thought the game may get called off and they would receive a second chance. This was certainly debated by onlookers, with most agreeing a replay would have to be played the following night – sadly, such musings were not immediately relayed to a mid-kip Tony Pulis. Also during this interval, some fans began chanting for the removal of President Nicolás Maduro,  a fairly common occurrence when things are not going well at home (anti-government signs are also frequently seen at games on foreign soil). Last year towards the end of the 3-1 loss against Ecuador in Puerto Ordaz, similar chants were drowned out by music suddenly blasting out over the public announce system. This time in Mérida, however, no amount of pro-government officials would have been able to enforce similar action.

Fortunately for them though, there was little chance of a full-scale demonstration occurring as the electricity did gradually return and thus almost 25 minutes after the ball was last officially in play, the match resumed. Yet, in the remaining 17 minutes or so, little of note happened, with the interruption greatly diminishing the momentum of the players and the volume of the crowd. The one stand-out moment was Rondón’s 88th-minute header from a cross swung in from the right, which he powered towards Alisson, who was required to pull of a decent save to tip it over the bar.

Nevertheless, despite the hosts’ improvements after the second goal, when the Peruvian official blew for full-time, the Venezuelans were left to be confronted with their unenviable position at the bottom of the CONMEBOL Qualifying group. With Bolivia having picked up a point at home to Ecuador, Dudamel’s men now find themselves six points adrift at the bottom, with just two draws from ten games to their name.

After June’s promising Copa América campaign, the Vinotinto boss has now lost some of his initial goodwill, having presided over four qualifying games and earned just one point. Yet this worrying statistic is somewhat undermined by the fact that these matches were against four of the current top five teams in the region. However, with Venezuela’s next encounter being at home against those notoriously bad travellers Bolivia, nothing less than a victory will be enough to contain the critics for the time being. With changes to his already rather unsettled line-up inevitable, he may wish to spent the next month wisely while poring over his decisions.

To find out how Venezuela get on, remember to follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and/or check back here for match reports and news. 

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): D. Hernández; R. Rosales, S. Velázquez, W. Ángel, R. Feltscher; Juanpi (A. Guerra, 60′), T. Rincón,  A. Flores (Y. Herrera, 84′); A. Peñaranda (R. Otero, 73′); S. Rondón & J. Martínez.

Brazil (4-3-3): Alisson; D. Alves, Marquinhos, J. Miranda, F. Luís; Paulinho, Fernandinho, R. Augusto; Willian (Taison, 89′), G. Jesus, P. Coutinho (Giuliano, 83′).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – September 2016 Preview

The CONMEBOL World Cup 2018 Qualifying Campaign is back but is Venezuela’s magically back on track? With a customary level of ambiguity and obfuscation, @DarrenSpherical is here to provide a preview to Match-days 7 and 8. 

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 1 September 2016 – El Metro, Barranquilla, Atlántico Department, Colombia

Colombia vs Venezuela

Tuesday 6 September 2016 – El Estadio Metropolitano de Mérida, Mérida State, Venezuela.

Venezuela vs Argentina

rolffeltscher

Rolf Feltscher – Surprise star of Copa América Centenario (OvacionDeportes)

Dudamel Plotting Qualification Fightback Despite Unfavourable Fixtures

Here we are once more to do it all over again. The CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying campaign has re-activated and – those in Europe may be surprised to learn – is already one-third of the way down. Yet Venezuela are rock-bottom with just one point from a possible 18, trailing the play-off spot by nine points.  Why then, should they – or, for that matter, you, the intrepid reader/online betting addict – even bother with their remaining 12 games?

Well, anyone who saw their escapades in the Copa América Centenario may have picked up a few clues as to why – indeed, try telling the fans and players that it was little more than a US-led money-making exercise. Certainly, actual qualification is a tall order, but a few scalps and the progressive building of a new team who can be motivated to replicate their club form at international level do not seem unrealistic aims.

It is hard to imagine this change in perceptions being possible without new manager Rafael Dudamel, who took over from Noel Sanvicente in early April. Ahead of June’s tournament, his first four friendly games hardly proclaimed a revolution, but once the competitive action began, a rapid upswing was in motion. Simply beating Jamaica in the opening match would have been enough to defy expectations, but the clean sheet, tactical organisation and defensive solidity gave cause for cautious optimism. Subsequently, the defeat of Uruguay – also with a clean sheet and which effectively sent La Celeste packing – provided a welcome return to the belief that, on their day, Venezuela are a match for any team in their region. Had they managed to hold on to beat Mexico in the final group encounter – rather than concede late on and be resigned to a draw – the erstwhile unthinkable idea that they could make it to the final would have been voiced by more than a few.

Alas, they finished second and, though they narrowly failed to get back into the game on a couple of occasions, were ultimately comfortably seen off 4-1 by Argentina in the Quarter-Final.

Although some of the most abject aspects of the Sanvicente-era Venezuela were also witnessed during this match – at least two suicidal passes led to goals for La Albiceleste – it will take more than one defeat to shake the belief that a positive new era is dawning. Admittedly, it is possible that the USA adventure merely allowed the players some welcome respite and liberation from problems at home as well as the strained relations with the country’s football federation. With the return to relative normality, will they soon revert to their former selves?

In the absence of any existing evidence, optimism is permitted to prevail – at least for the time being. This feeling will certainly be tested by games away to Colombia and home to Argentina – 3rd and 1st respectively in the official FIFA rankings. That said, though La Vinotinto have only defeated the latter once in their history, they should be buoyed by the fact that they are undefeated against Los Cafeteros in their past five competitive games (four wins and a draw).

So then, aside from the usual suspects – captain Tomás Rincón, star striker Salomón Rondón and dependable right-back Roberto Rosales –  which individuals will be leading the comeback for Dudamel? Given his freshness in his role and some of his surprise choices in June, it is difficult to be confident but one can at least have an idea of who is in the manager’s good books.

Firstly, there is Wilker Ángel, the 23-year-old centre-back who was chosen to partner the veteran Oswaldo Vizcarrondo in the USA and who has recently earned a move away from his homeland to the Russian Premier League with Terek Grozny. Then there is Venezuela’s biggest surprise of the tournament, Rolf Feltscher, who was completley overlooked during Sanvicente’s reign but who impressed as the first-choice left-back; he has since transferred from Duisburg in Germany to Getafe in Spain. Also, while he will have a constant battle on his hands to be a regular, Josef Martínez has put himself in a commanding position to start up front with Rondón, as he rewarded the faith placed in him in June by getting the winner against Jamaica and often linking up well with the West Brom striker.

The aforementioned three are probable starters. With slightly less certainty, the same can be said for Dani Hernández and Arquímedes Figuera. The former was given the nod in the USA to regain the number one shirt after a year away from the fray and, for the most part, did admirably well, pulling off some eye-catching saves. He did, however, show shades of his former unreliable self against Argentina and one can not help but feel that this position is going to be under the most scrutiny for the forseeable future. Regarding the latter, though the Deportivo La Guaira midfielder made two catastrophic errors against Argentina, he did otherwise receive a lot of praise during the tournament for his work alongside Rincón. With Luis Manuel Seijas not called up this time – supposedly to make way for youth – Figuera has an opportunity to make this position his own (and perhaps earn himself an overseas move in the process).

Lastly, though there is even less certainty as to where the following three players fit in, it is likely they will feature at some point in the near future. Firstly, there is Juanpi (Málaga), the versatile midfielder whose status has been ascending for the past year in La Liga and who can get goals as well as create them with calculated passes as well as crosses. Similarly, albeit with more directness in his approach, there is Rómulo Otero, who has recently swapped Chile’s Huachipato for Brazil’s Atlético Mineiro and who has long been tipped for a regular role with his country. Both players looked set to start in June, having done so in the pre-tournament friendlies, but were instead surprisingly relegated to brief substitute appearances. Nevertheless, with no Seijas and no Alejandro Guerra (injured), their time may now have arrived. That said, one man (amongst many others) that they will be in contention with is Adalberto Peñaranda, the teenage attacker who turned heads at Granada last season and who has since been sent by the Pozzo Empire to Italy with Udinese, instead of Watford (it was the English side who formally signed him in the January window, though whether he actually ever makes an appearance for them…).

Competition is fierce in most positions and in this new era many players both inside and out of the current squad will feel they have at least a chance of wangling their way into the manager’s plans. Above, many names have been put forward as likely to be key in the upcoming fixtures, yet as with the Centenario tournament, perhaps there will be one or two others players who are given a surprise chance and rise to the fore. With a bumper 28-man squad drawn from a range of disparate leagues, there is every possibility of this.

To find out how Venezuela get on against Colombia and Argentina, make sure to come back to Hispanospherical.com and/or follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter. 

Venezuela Squad

Goalkeepers

José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC, Venezuela) & Dani Hernández (Tenerife, Spain).

Defenders

Wilker Ángel (Terek Grozny, Russia), Jhon Chancellor (Deportivo La Guaira, Venezuela), Rolf Feltscher (Getafe, Spain), Víctor García (Nacional, on loan from Porto, Portugal), Alexander González (Huesca, Spain), Roberto Rosales (Málaga, Spain), José Manuel ‘Sema’ Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal), Mikel Villanueva (Atlético Malagueño, Spain) & Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes, France).

Midfielders

Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga, Spain), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira, Venezuela), Agnel Flores (Deportivo Táchira), Arles Flores (Deportivo La Guaira), Yangel Herrera (Atlético Venezuela, Venezuela), Jacobo Kouffati (Deportivo Cuenca, Ecuador), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica, Portugal), Rómulo Otero (Atlético Mineiro, Brazil), Adalberto Peñaranda (Udinese, Italy, on loan from Watford, England), Tomás Rincón (Genoa, Italy) & Yeferson Soteldo (Zamora, Venezuela). 

Forwards

Yonathan Del Valle (Bursaspor, Turkey on loan from Rio Ave, Portugal), Josef Martínez (Torino, Italy), Andrés Ponce (Lugano, Switzerland, on loan from Sampdoria, Italy) Christian Santos (Alavés, Spain) & Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England).

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela’s CONMEBOL Qualifying Campaign for FIFA World Cup 2018 – October 2015 Preview

With Venezuela set to begin their latest quest to qualify for their first-ever World Cup, Hispanospherical.com looks at the burden of expectation carried by manager Noel Sanvicente, the loss of the talismanic Juan Arango and provides an overview of those likely to take to the field against Paraguay and/or Brazil.

CONMEBOL Qualifiers for FIFA World Cup 2018

Thursday 8 October 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.

Venezuela vs Paraguay

Tuesday 13 October 2015 – Estádio Plácido Aderaldo Castelo, Fortaleza, Ceará.

Brazil vs Venezuela 

sanvicenteturineseVenezuela manager Noel Sanvicente speaking on the eve of the Paraguay game (Via: Humberto Turinese)

Under-Fire Sanvicente Knows What the Fans Crave 

‘I’m not here to win Copa América, I’m here to get us qualified [for the next World Cup]. If not, it’s a failure’. Back in June just days before the Chile-hosted tournament kicked off, Venezuela manager Noel Sanvicente forcefully set out the terms on which he believes his tenure will be judged.

In the four months that have since passed, the rod ‘Chita’ appears to have built for his own back has only enlarged. True, there was the expectation-escalating euphoria of mugging Colombia 1-0 on that frenetic opening sunday in Rancagua, but just seven days later La Vinotinto were booking their flights home. Having been vanquished by both Peru and Brazil, Venezuela’s group-stage exit marked their worst performance in the competition since 2004. However, when the squad was reconvened last month for two home internationals, the largely identical line-ups that were fielded had the chance to vindicate the views of many fans; namely, that in June they had merely been unfortunate victims of a tough draw as well as a certain refereeing decision/one player’s moment of ill-discipline (depending on who you talk to and on which day of the week).

Such sentiments were soon to evaporate, which is more than can be said for the rain at Estadio Cachamay, home of Mineros de Guayana. Indeed, following an eyebrow-raising 3-0 trouncing meted out by Honduras, the subsequent online storm that it sparked was paralleled in the weather conditions at this deceptively photogenic ground. Subsequently the second game against Panama had to be delayed for over 20 minutes before commencing in what were rather A & E-friendly circumstances. Swashbuckling, it was not, though both teams were not short of opportunities to make a splash. Two opposition players had to be substituted off within the first 25 minutes and had Salomón Rondón not tapped in an injury-time equaliser, he and his compatriots may have opted against emerging from the swamp.

Before these encounters, Sanvicente and several others in the camp had emphasised the importance of winning their home games, given the lengthy distances and varied playing conditions they will face in CONMEBOL qualifying. This week, as well as pointing favourably to the example of Ecuador last time around, he has voiced a similar outlook ahead of his country’s opening World Cup qualifying match with Paraguay: ‘For any team, the first match is all-important. To qualify, this match must be won.’ Such comments grant him little room to manoeuvre should things have gone awry just 90 minutes into a two-year campaign. However, they do testify to both his winning mentality (seven domestic titles as coach) as well as the expectations that now come with the job.

His predecessors have a lot to answer for. The cumulative work from 1999-2013 of José Omar Pastoriza, Richard Páez and, in particular, César Farías enabled Venezuela to belatedly emerge as a force within the region, regularly attaining ever-greater heights. Under Farías, they recorded their best ever Copa América performance (4th in 2011) as well as, positionally at least, their highest finish in a World Cup qualifying campaign (6th of 9 teams for Brazil 2014).

Given this backdrop of rapid transformation, any deviation from the seemingly inevitable march of progress runs the risk of provoking the collective ire of fans. The early Copa exit, compounded by the subsequent friendly defeats, has raised significant doubts in the minds of many as well as given further ammunition to those with long-standing grievances with the team’s displays since Sanvicente took over in July 2014. Midfielder Luis Manuel Seijas acknowledged this disgruntled element after the Honduras debacle, though was evidently not keen on any kind of rapprochement: ‘We’re surely getting crucified, but let’s hope that in October, when we win in the first match, they won’t get in the victory bus with us’. Alternatively, if worst comes to worst, they should withhold their home-made torture devices for the time being and then ‘[c]rucify us in October if things don’t go well for us.’ Two straight losses against Paraguay and Brazil and the mob will not need any encouragement.

One of the consistent complaints during Sanvicente’s reign has been the lack of effective attacking play and, as a consequence, goals. Overall, just 13 (15 unofficially) have been scored in as many games. However, apologists for the current regime will be keen to recall that things were no better during Farias’ reign, with the team only managing to score 14 in the 16 games of their admirable 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Yet, Sanvicente has got a task on his hands if he is to even match that tally, particularly as one key architect and supplier of those goals has recently confirmed that he will not be there to assist on the road to Russia 2018.

The Post-Arango Era: Replacing the Irreplaceable

Video of all but one of Juan Arango’s goals in World Cup Qualifying games (YouTube). His final one against Bolivia can be viewed here.

A 15-minute run-out at the Estadio Cachamay on the night of the Panama game was no way to end the 16-year international career of the most-capped, highest-scoring and, quite simply, greatest player in Venezuela’s football history. Alas, that  was, by choice, the end of the road for Juan Arango, the man who future generations should easily be convinced into believing inspired the cliché ‘cultured left foot’. In the next two years there will be far fewer left-footed pearlers gliding through the air, far fewer pinpoint set-pieces and far fewer nonchalant flicks and exquisite through-balls. Some doom-mongers fear there could even be none of the above; this is something no convert to the CONMEBOL cause wishes to hear.

Aside from the goals and assists, the departure of La Zurda de Oro also deprives the side of a certain confidence and appeal to outsiders that is difficult to find elsewhere in the squad. This is, after all, the man who blithely informed German newspaper Bild that he is, in fact, a better free-kick taker than Cristiano Ronaldo; an assertion backed up by many observers, including one of the most august global football sources. Appreciation for his talents is such that even the Bundesliga’s official YouTube channel temporarily removed its impartiality cap to endorse El Huracán del Caribe as their favourite player in a much-viewed video of all his goals at Borussia Mönchengladbach (2009-2014). Furthermore, earlier this year, one of his team-mates from this period, a certain Marco Reus, paid tribute to him in an interview; he is far from alone in his admiration.

Following the dismal day out at the waterpark with Panama, his Vinotinto companions joined him at a teary-eyed press conference and soon afterwards were quick to express their gratitude and respect for El Capi, at times approaching idolatry with their praise. Arango had announced that he had been mulling over retirement for a while and that, ultimately, he did not possess the motivation for another lengthy campaign and it was time to give others a chance.

Talk of the post-Arango era has steadily increased ever since his 2014 move back to Mexico with Xolos de Tijuana following a decade in Europe shared between Spain and Germany. Undoubtedly, he was slowing down, tracking back less and being less of a decisive factor in games. However, as he remained an on-field influence right up until his last competitive game, the claims that his iconic status combined with his diminishing mobility made him a hindrance to reshaping the national team’s attack still needs some visible supporting evidence – this may take some time to emerge. Indeed, though Venezuela could only manage two goals at Copa América, Arango played a major part in both. Against Colombia, it was his hooked cross on the turn that Alejandro Guerra nodded across for Rondón to head in and against Brazil it was one of his trademark free-kicks – one of only a few he was actually allowed to take – that was parried back for Miku to halve the deficit late on and cruelly get everyone’s hopes up. .

Furthermore, in the last qualification cycle, he scored three goals – including this stunner against Ecuador – and set up some other memorable ones, including Fernando Amorebieta’s history-making winner against Argentina and Rondón’s late equaliser away to Uruguay.  Who then, could possibly fill his boots?

Team Preview: In Search of an Attack

No-one, is the gut reply. Instead, it seems Sanvicente will attempt to ensure that those in the attacking positions can combine to offer something different which adds up to more than the sum of their individual parts. Guerra and Ronald Vargas were the two wide-men who flanked Arango in June, though based on Sanvicente’s press comments as well as sources close to the side, they may not be reprising their roles against Paraguay. Indeed, renowned journalist Humberto Turinese, who regularly travels with the squad, has stated that Venezuela will line-up in a 4-2-2-2 formation, Rondón being joined up front by Juan Falcón with César González and Jeffrén Suárez playing in the space behind.

While the formation may well alter during – if not before – the match, if the personnel changes are accurate then this is a wholesale supplanting of the Guerra-Arango-Vargas triumvirate that began behind Rondón in all three Copa games. Long-time followers of the national side will be aware that despite the lack of recent success in this area, it is the most competitive in the squad, yet no-one in the current crop has been able to claim a regular spot supporting the West Bromwich Albion striker for any sustained period of time. Nevertheless, for any newcomers, here is a brief overview of some of the other attackers who may feature:

Falcón, a forward at Metz who was not even in the Copa squad, won some praise for his lively display against Panama after he came on as a first half-substitute for Christian Santos, the NEC Nijmegen attacker who is also in this squad and is currently one of the top-scorers in the Eredivisie with 5 goals in 8 games. 33-year-old González, a regular under Farías who had to make do with being a substitute in June, appears to have won a start off the back of his scintillating domestic form with Deportivo Táchira – 7 goals in 8 games. Jeffrén, by contrast, only made his international debut last month just as Arango was departing. One in, one out, some might say. The 27-year-old graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia academy and erstwhile Spain youth international finally agreed to play for the country of his birth and is doing well rebuilding his career at Belgian side KAS Eupen following some injury setbacks.

Needless to say, if such an attack does emerge from the tunnel then it is quite a bold risk from Sanvicente, who has named very similar line-ups for the past five games. While Turinese is a respected figure, it must be noted that other outlets, such as the popular Twitter account Mister Vinotinto, are anticipating a different line-up. Whatever the reality, should Sanvicente opt otherwise or perhaps need to make further adjustments after the first whistle has been blown, then along with Santos, Guerra and Vargas, there are at least two other options at his disposal. For one, there’s Josef Martínez, a slippery. versatile attacker who many in his homeland feel is a definite star for the future but who has struggled to really nail down a regular place at Torino. A second possibility is another much-vaunted prospect, 20-year-old Jhon Murillo, who is on loan at Tondela in the Portuguese top-flight from Benfica. The Lisbon giants signed him on a five-year-deal following two eye-catching seasons at domestic club Zamora.

Over the course of two years, observers can expect to see at least a few different organisational and personnel changes in this area of the field. Outside of the current squad, there is a handful of other players who could well be in with a chance, with two names in particular standing out as long-term prospects. Firstly, the injured Rómulo Otero, a jinking playmaker/wide-man whose set-pieces have at times drawn comparisons with those of Arango; a few months back he made his long-awaited move away from Caracas ending up, somewhat surprisingly, at Chilean outfit Huachipato. There is also 21-year-old Juanpi who, to the chagrin of some, Sanvicente feels needs a bit more first-team club experience. Indeed, while he may not always be named in the Málaga line-up, he does already have substitute appearances at the Bernabéu and Camp Nou under his belt this season. Time will tell whether he is best-suited to an attacking-midfield or a more reserved, deep-lying role.

Team Preview: Rincón’s Role Crucial

Despite the focus on the forward problems, the defence is certainly not without its flaws, conceding at a rate of two per game under Sanvicente. However, although they have been porous in non-competitive encounters, they only let in three in as many matches at Copa América, with the clean sheet and solid, disciplined performance against Colombia earning them plaudits around the world. While there are still some debates to be had here, things are, at the moment at least, a little more settled in this area. Against Paraguay, Alain Baroja will definitely be in goal, with Málaga’s tenacious Roberto Rosales at right-back and Sion’s Gabriel Cichero at left-back (though the suspended Fernando Amorebieta could return for the Brazil game). In the centre of defence will be the towering Oswaldo Vizcarrondo of Nantes, though Thailand-based Andrés Túñez may lose his spot to 34-year-old Franklin Lucena, if Turinese’s reporting is accurate. If this is the case, Túñez may be paying for his roles in the goals of Brazil’s Thiago Silva and Roberto Firmino – both of whom, incidentally, are not in the Seleção squad – in June as well as some errors in September’s friendlies. On a related note, the defence as a whole should also be pleased that Robinho – who had a great game three-and-a-half months ago, setting up the first goal – has not been called up; Chelsea’s Willian, however, who jinked past Rosales to cross in for Firmino to tap in the second, is.

In front of the back four will surely be the usual partnership of Seijas and new captain Tomás RincónMany will be looking to El General, currently with Serie A side Genoa, to assert his character on all his colleagues and instil within them the determination and mental toughness that he has long displayed, most notably in the run to the semi-finals of 2011’s Copa América. He has worn the armband on many occasions in the past and now with the official designation, he can be proclaimed with firmer justification to be the most important player in the Venezuelan ranks. Indeed, while Rondón may ultimately grab more headlines, with goals not anticipated to fly in with any regularity, Rincón’s leading role in repelling attacks and communicating with the defence-minded players around him will be key. To have any chance of prospering in this qualifying campaign, similar tactics, work-rate and organisation to those witnessed against Colombia will surely be essential. If Rincón and co. can successfully thwart, the onus will be on Rondón and whoever is immediately behind him to capitalise.

Ultimately, to state the blindingly obvious, it is not going to be easy for Noel Sanvicente. As well as the issues raised here, he must contend with the quality of the CONMEBOL region being arguably at its strongest in living memory as well as the additional problem of having Brazil return to the qualification trail to compete for what are potentially five World Cup places.

Indeed, their south-easterly neighbours, now managed by Dunga, are the only team left in the confederation that Venezuela have never beaten in a competitive match. Only the eternal optimists are considering this record to be broken next Tuesday. For now, the attention in the camp is narrowly focused on Paraguay, against whom in the same fixture the campaign for Brazil 2014 officially ended following a frustrating 1-1 draw in westerly San Cristóbal. That occurred on Venezuela’s final matchday; if Sanvicente’s pre-game words are to be taken at face-value, a failure to beat La Albirroja this time around could mean he feels their quest for Russia 2018 is all-but-over at the first hurdle.

Such an outcome would be disastrous for morale and the pressure on the coach and players would undoubtedly increase. Still, as long-time followers of football in this continent know, if a week is supposedly a long time in football, then try two years. Players can gradually emerge, teams can belatedly gel and circumstances can change. Whatever happens this week, it is going to be quite the long-distance assault on the senses. Hispanospherical.com hopes you manage to remain in one piece and stick around to see it to its conclusion.

Venezuela Squad

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

Defenders: Fernando Amorebieta (Middlesbrough, on loan from Fulham), Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Gabriel Cichero (Sion), Alexander González (Young Boys), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Andrés Túñez (Buriram United), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).

Midfielders: Rafael Acosta (Mineros de Guayana), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, on loan from Mineros de Guayana), Franklin Lucena (Once Caldas, on loan from Deportivo La Guaira), Jhon Murillo (Tondela, on loan from Benfica), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fé), Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens).

Forwards: Juan Falcón (Metz),  Josef Martínez (Torino),  Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen), Jeffrén Suárez (KAS Eupen).

Note: Fernando Amorebieta is suspended for the first game against Paraguay.

Darren Spherical

@DarrenSpherical

Venezuela 1-1 Panama – International Friendly (8 September 2015)

International Friendly

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

Venezuela 1-1 Panama

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

Goal Highlights of Venezuela 1-1 Panama, International Friendly, 8 September 2015 (YouTube)

Team Selections

Venezuela (4-4-2): Baroja; Rosales, Vizcarrondo (Carabalí, 80′), Túñez, Cichero; A. González (J. Suárez, 59′), Rincón, Seijas (C. González, 74′), Guerra (Arango, 74′); Santos (Falcón, 31′), S. Rondón.

Panama (4-4-2): Mejía; Henríquez, Torres, Parris, Machado; Gómez, Cooper, Quintero, Godoy (Macea, 24′) (Escobar, 80′); Pérez (Buitrago, 77′), Blackburn (Addles, 26′) (Calderón, 90+6′).

Match Report

Little Learned as Venezuela Sneak a Draw in Bog-Standard Conditions

On a rain-soaked pitch that would have been classified as waterlogged in other parts of the world, Salomón Rondón’s stoppage-time tap-in enabled La Vinotinto to narrowly avoid two consecutive defeats at the hands of Central American opposition.

Pre-kick-off torrential downpourings delayed the start of game by over 20 minutes and were to mire proceedings. The Panamanians, stung from a narrow 1-0 defeat against Uruguay at the weekend, initially seemed unfazed, taking the lead with barely two minutes on the clock. A central free-kick from distance was hoisted into the area where, after a knock-on, defender Gabriel Cichero uncomfortably nudged it into the path of Rolando Blackburn. Escaping from Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, the Comunicaciones forward squeezed in a fairly tame, bobbling effort from the right byline. However, goalkeeper Alain Baroja misjudged the shot’s trajectory and was caught off-balance, with the ball instead ghosting through his attempted grasp to trickle a mere inch or two over the goal line.

Certainly not the start desired in the stands by the hearty souls who shunned any sheltering from the elements. However, in terms of actual footballing action, it proved to be a false dawn. The subsequent half-hour was bereft of goal-mouth opportunities, with the teams instead seemingly trying to outdo each other in providing the referee with justifications for abandoning the match. With the soggy turf regularly halting the ball’s unpredictable movement, challenges that only the most nihilistic would not wince at frequently came flying in. Club managers watching on were doubtlessly horrified and there were to be two early victims as goalscorer Blackburn and team-mate Aníbal Godoy had to be taken off in quick succession around the 25th-minute mark.

Five minutes later, a third substitution was made, though this time it was by the hosts and not due to injury. Much online dismay greeted the removal of Christian Santos, who was making his second appearance – and home debut – for his country, having only received the green light to represent the country of his birth within the past year. Last season, the Germany-reared attacker had a spellbinding year with promotion-winning Dutch side NEC Nijmegen, yet this rare opportunity to show manager Noel Sanvicente if he could transfer his goalscoring club form to the international arena was abruptly truncated. In post-match comments, Chita claimed that this was because the conditions were not conducive to Santos’ typical style; whether true or not, few can argue that his replacement Juan Manuel Falcón thrived in the circumstances, troubling defenders with his pacy runs and dribbles, getting away several attempts at goal.

The forward, now languishing in France’s Ligue 2 with Metz but who has much experience of Venezuela’s largely substandard playing surfaces, even thought he had scored a mere four minutes after his arrival. Indeed, shortly after the hosts’ first attempt on target – an Andrés Túñez header from an Alejandro Guerra corner that was comfortably saved – Falcón anticipated a hoisted ball into the area and beat the onrushing goalkeeper Luis Mejía to nod home. Alas, within a second or two, the Venezuelan was confronted with the raised offside flag.

Aside from captain Tomás Rincón using the farcical conditions as perhaps the only time in his professional career when it will be excusable to channel his inner Lionel Messi and embark on some uncharacteristic dribbles infield, there was just one more moment of note in this half. This came in the 40th minute when left-back Cichero nearly latched on to a free-kick curled in from the left but could not quite direct a low volley on target.

Nine minutes into the second half, it was again Cichero, currently back in Switzerland with Sion, who had his side’s next chance of note.  Luis Manuel Seijas’ left-sided free-kick was met on the edge of the area by the defender, whose header was tipped just over the bar. Subsequently, the resulting corner was flicked on towards the back post where Falcón was readying himself for a tap-in; fortunately for the visitors, defender Leonel Parris just about cleared the ball away for another corner.

Offering the promise of some much-needed urgency, on the hour mark came the long-anticipated international debut of former Barcelona starlet Jeffrén Suárez. Drawing to a close a saga that lasted the best part of nine years, he has seemingly given up on his ambitions of representing the country in which he was reared – Spain, for whom he won two major trophies at youth level – and has instead accepted the long-standing offer to play for the nation of his birth. Now at Belgian second-tier side KAS Eupen, a few years ago when he was still considered an emerging name worth remembering, he may have received his Vinotinto bow on a grander stage. However, little did the sparse Cachamay crowd know at the time that while they had just seen the beginning of one international career, they were also to witness the end of another.

Indeed, at the post-match press conference attended by the entire squad, a teary-eyed Juan Arango, undoubtedly Venezuela’s greatest and most important player of all time, announced his retirement from the national team. No word yet as to whether this was to definitely be the very last of his 129 official appearances, though many fans are already clamouring for a farewell match more befitting of his achievements than a friendly cameo in a stadium only fractionally full.

He arrived onto the pitch in the 74th minute, at which point the match was beginning to look like another toothless, morale-sapping Vinotinto defeat. However, though perhaps not entirely related, his introduction was to coincide with a slight increase in tempo and urgency, as the number of chances and incidents began to rise. The first of these was arguably the most gilt-edged. On the right, Jeffrén cut inside to slide the ball to Rincón, whose finely weighted pass towards the right side of the area found Falcón. However, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, to the dismay of every home fan in the ground, he skied his shot a few yards over. Nevertheless, Jeffrén here provided a brief glimpse of his capabilities and was to be a confident and positive presence on the ball, often looking to get forward and link up from the right.

Venezuela’s forward forays continued into the last ten minutes of regulation play, serving up a host of noteworthy moments: Firstly, Rondón beat the opposition goalkeeper to one of Arango’s pinpoint long balls but was unable to get a shot away in time; Cichero went up for a corner but could not quite make effective contact from a cross; soon after, Falcón outpaced his marker on the left before passing to Jeffrén who nudged it on for fellow substitute Francisco Carabalí, before the move broke down; finally, in the 87th minute, Arango’s ball into the area was well-chested and then struck low by Falcón, whose shot was parried out to Carabalí, who could only blaze over.

Soon afterwards, the hosts’ chances of an equaliser appeared to have been ended as Carabalí received a red card, a mere ten minutes after entering the fray. The reason for his dismissal remains somewhat unclear but it is likely that he raised a hand (or two) amidst some heated altercations involving several players.

However, Venezuela were not to be deterred, continuing their attacks and, three minutes into stoppage-time, they were to get their deserved reward. From the right, César González’s corner was uncomfortable for goalkeeper Mejía, with the ball falling downwards before being nudged over towards Rondón, who instinctively struck home a fairly straightforward finish.

Immediately afterwards, Panama goalkeeper Luis Mejía evened things up, receiving a second needless yellow card in a matter of five minutes, having previously been awarded one for timewasting. Despite a total of eight stoppage-time minutes being played, this brief return to parity in the playing personnels did not lead to any further goals and thus the game ended in a draw.

Given the conditions, it is unlikely that Sanvicente will feel much was gained from this encounter or, for that matter, the preceding 3-0 loss against Honduras. Nevertheless, Venezuela went into this international week needing to improve their attacking play and goalscoring rate, but it can hardly be said that much has changed in these departments. A few players showed glimpses of what they can do, most notably Falcón and Jeffrén, as well as Josef Martínez (in combination with Rondón) in the Honduras game. Ahead of next month’s World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay and Brazil, Juan Arango’s retirement opens up an attacking berth either behind or in tandem with Rondón. However, not only is it unclear who will replace him – or if any other attackers have contrived to play their way out of the line-up during these games – but it feels as if little progress in the teamwork of the attackers has been made. Thus, while the defence – who, admittedly, hardly covered themselves in glory either – proved in Copa América that they are more than capable of doing a respectable job in big games, Venezuela’s attacking problems are set to be an ongoing issue well along the road to reach Russia 2018.

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.

Don’t Call It a Comeback

…but it has been a while, hasn’t it?

This Happened

Those who have followed this site since around the time of its mid-July inception will know that The Ball is Hispanospherical started out, like many a half-baked online project, with some rather nauseating, reality-denying enthusiasm. Over time, this was tempered by the struggle to write updates that adequately reflected, and did justice to, the sizeable scope of interest outlined in the inaugural proclamations. Possessing the requisite time to write these articles has been, unsurprisingly, the chief underlying obstacle and, despite having reluctantly sacrificed certain topics in order to provide at least some substantial, albeit reduced, coverage, personal dissatisfaction with this state of affairs lingered. Consequently, in mid-September a rather hastily written post was published that alluded to a ‘fleeting moment of joy’ being partially responsible for the time-constraints and forewarned readers that updates may be even less forthcoming in the foreseeable future, as proved to be the case.

However, that temporary spell on loan to society has expired and, having traipsed back to seclusion, an abundance of free time has now become available. Thus, having spent the last few weeks doing some essential catching-up, the moment has finally arrived for us all to become reacquainted and, hopefully, for some new readers to become ensnared, willingly or otherwise. Before any new articles are written however, allow me first to clarify, having acknowledged the aforementioned experiences and given consideration to potential problems, what the refined focus of The Ball is Hispanospherical will be.

This is Happening

Although this site and its aligned Twitter account were created at around the same time, it was not originally anticipated that the latter would be used as much as it has been, as it gradually assumed a superior role to the former. Addictive, isn’t it? This imbalance needs to be redressed somewhat, though Hispanospherical  will very much be proceeding with both the site and Twitter being used in cahoots with one another. Anyone who has followed on Twitter (@DarrenSpherical, since you asked), particularly when no updates to the site were being published, may have been unsure as to what exactly they had stumbled upon. Indeed, as time progressed with the noted problems becoming more apparent, the social networking page was exclusively covering a lot of areas that were originally designated for this site. Given the transient visibility of most tweets, the average follower may have been none-the-wiser about the account’s precise purpose, which would have been further understandable as the stated scope – football coverage of Spanish-speaking nations and wherever Spanish-speakers are playing – is evasively and generously broad.

Therefore, to clear things up to some extent, what follows is a list of topics and themes that, for the foreseeable future at least, I intend to cover on Twitter and, when possible, this website:

Venezuelans Abroad

Visitors to either the site or the Twitter account will know that this has been the most common subject. Venezuela currently have several dozen players scattered around the globe, with some of the most talented plying their trade in top Europeans leagues such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, France and Russia. Others can be found playing crucial roles for their sides in countries such as Colombia, USA, Mexico, Qatar, Thailand and elsewhere. It is hoped that tracking these players over the four continents in which they can be found will not only interest those who wish to know more about one of the least mythologised nations of CONMEBOL, but also appeal to like-minded individuals who share a global perspective on the game.

While the Twitter account will continue to track the club games which feature players either in or on the cusp of the national side, this site will no longer be devoted to providing match reports. No doubt some more will appear in the future, but most likely only for very big encounters, such as title-deciding matches and cup finals. Instead, to make this area more manageable, I will be dedicated to writing features that are not quite so time-contingent and either relate to an individual player or several of them collectively. Ideas for articles have long been threatening to come to fruition and will hopefully all be fleshed out and up on the site by the end of the year.

Venezuela’s National Side (La Vinotinto)

Inextricably linked to the above area of interest, though thus far not given as much prominence simply due to only two international games having been played since the start of the season (both in early September). However, with two friendlies lined up this month against Chile and Bolivia as well as next year’s alluring twin stand-up-and-be-counted attractions, the Copa América and the commencement of the long road to qualification for the 2018 World Cup, expect in future to see some extensive pieces concerning the Noel Sanvicente era. Match reports will continue to be posted for this area of interest and, wherever possible, match previews and catch-up summaries should also make an appearance.

While it may have not seemed the case thus far, the Venezuelan national side is the central, guiding topic of this website though as with most matters of the heart, I would struggle to give a rational explanation as to why.

Venezuelan Domestic Football

Much as the Liga Movistar offers quality, intrigue and much else besides, with so many other leagues competing for the attention of fans, coverage on both Twitter and this site has been intentionally limited. Indeed, though part of the motivation behind starting this site was to shine some light on areas hitherto off the radar of the average English-speaking football fan, it was never the intention to be writing primarily for the benefit of insomniacs, contrarians and/or online gamblers (though these groups are very much welcome!).

Thus, so far, while a couple of thinking-while-typing articles did appear on this site in early August, Twitter has been the main preserve of this area. The focus of the coverage has largely been on the following: leading players (national team members, emerging youngsters, experienced ex-Vinotinto players etc.), the top sides involved in the title-race as well as those who had a brief spell in the Copa Sudamericana (most notably, Caracas FC), as well as any stories of interest (such as the Copa Venezuela run of second-tier Arroceros de Calabozo, who are preparing for a semi-final tie, having defeated top-flight sides Tucanes, cup-holders Caracas and Metropolitanos).

I will continue in this vein on Twitter, though am hesitant to make any commitments regarding articles on this website. Gaining comprehensive access to the Venezuelan domestic game is seemingly impossible for even those who live in the country, so irrespective of the miniscule Anglophone audience for this league, providing substantial coverage is rather problematic. Nevertheless, if any articles do emerge on this site, they will more than likely be concerned with the battles for the Apertura, Clausura and the Gran Final in May, as well as the progress of the three teams (Zamora, Mineros de Guayana and Deportivo Táchira) who have qualified for the Copa Libertadores.

International Teams and Players from Latin America 

According to the broadest definition of Latin America, the region constitutes just over 25 nations. Understandably, one person can not cover all of these and I do not intend to. Instead, given the primary interest in Venezuela and the desire to provide substantial coverage of the Copa América as well as the South American World Cup Qualifying process, when the international breaks occur attention will turn (as it has already) largely to the nine other nations in the CONMEBOL region (Brazil may not be Spanish-speaking but it seems churlish to ignore the one exception). If time allows for it – as it did in October – then some of the other Spanish-speaking nations from CONCACAF, such as Mexico and Costa Rica, will also be featured to varying degrees, though I am very conscious of spreading myself too thin.

For the majority of the year when players are with their club paymasters, I will endeavour to draw attention to Latin (primarily South) American footballers wherever possible, whether that be in games I am watching or in news articles I have read.

How all of this transfers into articles on this site remains to be seen, as it is probable that the first time a substantial number of words are expended on a Latin American nation other than Venezuela will not be until at least the Copa América.

Spanish Domestic Football

Followers on Twitter may have noticed me taking advantage of the near-200 top-flight games that are being broadcast in the UK this season, often giving updates of matches whenever time permits. Attention has largely been focused on ‘Los Otros 18’ sides as there is no shortage of coverage of the other two. The two teams that have featured the most are the ones that have Venezuelans in their ranks: Málaga (Roberto Rosales and Juan Pablo Añor) and Granada (Darwin Machís). All the other teams are very much of interest to me – particularly the two less-fancied sides of the Comunidad de Madrid, Rayo Vallecano and Getafe – but again, time is a barrier.

Thus, while on Twitter I will continue to provide match updates and news as well as venturing some opinions of my own, if any articles appear on this website, they will more than likely be rather general in nature relating to the league as a whole or, possibly, lengthy research pieces on Málaga and/or Granada.

Miscellaneous

No doubt other topics will emerge as potential candidates for articles. As can be gleaned from this update, I do have a habit of writing at length so am rather keen on undertaking some considerable research and then constructing extensive, and hopefully insightful, longform pieces. Ideas are welcome though I do already have some of my own that may or may not see the light of day.

Nevertheless, regardless of what does and does not come to fruition, I hope you now have a better idea of what my intentions are and feel curious enough to return to this site from time to time or at least follow me on Twitter. While there will not be one person who is attracted to everything that will be covered (if there is, I’m not sure even I would like to meet them), I hope that I can provide at least something of interest to everyone who passes by. I look forward to continuing what is, effectively, as cringeworthy as it sounds, language-driven football coverage and hope to get into contact with as many varied people as possible.

Darren

@DarrenSpherical