As Venezuela get set to kick-off their Copa América Centenario campaign, Hispanospherical.com takes a look at how they may fare in this USA-hosted 16-team competition. Following on from a general overview that lays out the state La Vinotinto currently find themselves in, there are profiles of some of the key players, which also touch upon their team-mates most likely to see action this June.
Copa América Centenario Preview
The official 23-man Venezuela squad for Copa América Centenario (FVF).
(See bottom of page for clearer details on the clubs of the players)
Rock-bottom of CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying and with a manager barely two months into the job, this is not ideal preparation ahead of a challenging group containing Mexico, Uruguay and Jamaica.
Then again, compared to the norm for Venezuela, can it really be considered bad? Last year, with Noel Sanvicente at the helm, the players had been gradually mentally worn down by a year of lacklustre performances, FIFA/FVF scandals and played no warm-up games, yet still managed to make headlines across the world with a surprise opening day win against Colombia. This time around, they have played an eyebrow-raising four games in the fortnight preceding kick-off and the changes made to the coaching staff are still fresh enough for the players not to have become too jaded. So, swings and roundabouts. While an exit at the group stage seems probable, one can not help but feel that will be far from the full story in the USA.
What is more, while many of the starters will be familiar, only ten players remain from last year’s squad in what is the selección with the youngest average age in the entire tournament (in fact, three of the ten youngest players are Venezuelans). Thus, although inexperience could be a problem, there will also be several high-profile players along with plenty of fresh faces looking to impress and make their mark on a big stage.
Who then, is this new manager who has hitherto been alluded to? Rafael Dudamel’s the name and, for the time being at least, ‘Latino Loco Goalscoring Goalkeeper’ will be how he is caricatured. Indeed, in common with the likes of José Luis Chilavert and Rogério Ceni, the 43-year-old spent his playing career not only thwarting goal attempts but scoring them as well. In total, he scored well over 20 goals at club level in Venezuela and particularly in Colombia, but he also notched a phenomenal free-kick for his country back in a 1996 World Cup qualifier against Argentina. At the moment, his heroics in this department may be of more interest to broadcasters with broad audiences but, make no mistake, this is a man of substance who already has a strong idea of the task he has inherited.
The youthfulness of his squad is no doubt, in part, due to his work in recent years as head of the Under-17 and Under-20 national sides (the latter of whom, he will retain his role with). The nation’s football authorities – who have suggested they would have preferred a foreign manager had they the cash – will nevertheless be hoping Dudamel will be able to unite the seniors in more ways than one. As well as assimilating the newcomers with the well-travelled, they will be hoping he can act as an effective mediator between the federation and the players. Indeed, back in late November, an open letter voicing serious grievances with the FVF that largely concerned poor conditions and a lack of respect was signed by 15 senior players (with several more subsequently offering support). In the immediate aftermath, there was a public war of words and then-boss Sanvicente travelled to meet some of the players but there does not appear to have been a resolution (if one can even be found – this is, after all, partly a clashing of personalities). Problems still linger then and if little cohesion is to be found on the pitch in the USA, rest assured there will also be speculation about the lack of it off-field.
The four recent friendlies will have surely given the new manager some food for thought, although results were not very encouraging and performances were – barring the promising first-half attacking display against Costa Rica – similarly uninspiring. Indeed, unsurprisingly, Venezuela are hardly set to take their group by storm after a 1-1 draw with the largely La Liga-based representatives of Galicia, a dull 0-0 draw with Panama, a mixed-bag of a 2-1 defeat against Costa Rica and a curious 1-1 draw with Guatemala. Given how this rather high number of warm-up games all occurred away from home soil, one can not help but wonder if they will have taken some toll on the players who joined up with the squad at the start of this friendly-frenzy. In Group C, La Vinotinto will be travelling over 3,000 miles to predominantly NFL stadiums in Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston – how many starters against Jamaica will finish the closer (and possible decider) with Mexico?
If it is a low number, then there could well instead be footballing reasons for this as it is unlikely that Dudamel’s first-choice XI is set in stone and fans can expect to see changes throughout the tournament. Nevertheless, his selections in the friendly games certainly gave a few indications as to who will be lining up against Jamaica. For those who last watched Venezuela at the 2015 tournament, expect to see many new faces in midfield and defence – some of which may already be familiar from their club exploits.
Before detailing some of these men, it should first be noted that there will also be a different goalkeeper from last year. Indeed, after some high-profile errors in World Cup Qualifying, Alain Baroja, who received the nod at the last-minute ahead of 2015’s opener with Colombia and subsequently went on to receive acclaim as well as a move to AEK Athens, has surprisingly been left out the squad. Thus, the experienced Tenerife shot-stopper Dani Hernández will compete with José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira) for this position though, as the number one shirt has already been given to the latter, the decision may have already been made. However, Contreras made a glaring error when he played against Costa Rica and it would not be a surprise to see the former (who is also far from innocent in the blunder department) make an appearance at some stage.
Nevertheless, despite the huge importance of this position, whoever plays there can hardly be considered to be one of the leading players for Rafael Dudamel (even if, as a former occupant between the posts, the role must play on his mind a lot). Instead, the new entrenador will be counting more on the individuals listed below to both make their mark and galvanise their compatriots towards an unlikely progression to the knock-out stage.
Thus, what follows is an overview of the most likely stand-out Venezuelan performers, which also touches upon their team-mates who will either take to the field near them or be pushing hard to supplant them should anything go awry.
Key Players in Context
Roberto Rosales (Málaga)
Over the past two years at Málaga, 27-year-old right-back Rosales has been one of the most consistent players, in terms of both performances as well as appearances. He has been a vital part of the defence that, last season, conceded the joint-fourth fewest goals in La Liga, behind only the big three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. Yet with the Andalusians being very much a selling club that has recently caused even promising manager Javi Gracia to depart, one must wonder if the diminutive bargain-buy from FC Twente will be the next out the door.
An energetic presence on the flank, he likes to get forward and help create chances. While his crossing could be more accurate, he is nevertheless responsible for an above-average number of assists at club level and possesses the tenacity and wherewithal to chase back if caught out of position.
There has, however, been repeated criticisms that his international performances of late have not matched those for his club – an assessment that, in fairness, could apply to most high-profile players in the squad. For the first game at least, he is likely to be joined at the back by left-back Mikel Villanueva, who will know him well as he plays for Málaga’s reserve side, Atlético Malagueño. He is a relative newcomer to the national side, having only debuted earlier this year towards the end of Sanvicente’s reign; his competition for a place will come from the returning Rolf Feltscher (Duisburg). There is also a slight chance that the right-footed Alexander González (Huesca) may be a back-up for this position, but he will primarily be the understudy to Rosales or, perhaps, the right side of midfield.
The very experienced Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes) cannot be said to have been up to his 2011 vintage (when he was one of the stars of the entire tournament) but he is still a likely starter at centre-back. He will have a different partner from last year; most likely it will be Sema Velázquez, a towering presence who helped Arouca to a 5th-placed finish in the Portuguese top-flight. However, it would be of little surprise if Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira) gets the nod at some point.
Tomás Rincón (Genoa)
Midfield (Defensive Midfielder)
The captain whose leadership, organisational and communication skills will be integral if his nation is to have any success. Venezuela are not renowned goalscorers so the tackling, harrying and interceptions of El General and those around him will be essential to allow the attackers to escape away up the other end. A defensive midfielder, he does not tend to get too far forward himself, preferring instead to limit his forward forays to occasionally driving the ball upfield to feed his more attack-minded team-mates. However, perhaps at the somewhat late age of 28, things may be changing in this area as last season he went some way to compensating for his relative goal-drought in Europe. Indeed, before 2015/16 kicked off, he had not scored once since moving to Hamburg in early 2009. Yet in what was his second season at Italy side Genoa (2014-), he managed to bury three of the beauties in the space of four months. One does not expect him to break his duck for La Vinotinto in what is often cautious tournament football, but with over 70 goalless games to his name, it would be a pleasant surprise.
Joining him in stemming the tide in front of the back four could well be Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira), who has played there in some recent friendlies. However, he faces strong competition from Luis Manuel Seijas, one of the stand-out players at Colombian side Independiente Santa Fe last season who has recently joined Brazilian giants Internacional. An experienced international of 29 who has played in Belgium for Standard Liège, he partnered Rincón last year as well as in many qualifiers. With such pedigree, he will definitely get on the pitch at some point, whether in a protective position of further upfield in an attacking role.
Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga)
Midfield (Attacking Midfielder – left, right or centre)
Juanpi has been known on occasion to play in front of the back four in a deep-lying playmaker position but will probably be fielded further up the pitch in the line behind the forward(s). Having previously been overlooked during much of Sanvicente’s reign -presumably due to his inexperience as well as the cautious approach of Chita – the 22-year-old has somewhat belatedly made his way into the senior set-up and has a strong chance of starting. His personal cause was undoubtedly aided by an impressive second season for Málaga, during which he emerged to become a regular in the line-up and scored four league goals along the way. Three of these came in consecutive weeks (with one being against Barcelona), which really raised his profile.
A graceful, creative player who often exudes much confidence and poise on the ball wherever he plays, he was granted a starting position in Sanvicente’s last two qualifiers in March and has continued to be named in line-ups under Dudamel. He is a fine left-footed set-piece taker and offers something different in attacks by playing through-balls from central positions as well as instigating some more intricate passing moves. He has already set up some goals in his brief international career and also possesses the capacity to force himself forward to score. A player of tantalising potential.
Rómulo Otero (Huachipato)
Midfield (Attacking Midfielder – left, right or centre)
Perhaps even more so than Juanpi, attacking midfielder Otero could well be the Venezuelan on most neutrals’ lips after this tournament. Indeed, the 23-year-old has turned many heads in Chile with Huachipato in his debut season outside of his homeland and many of his compatriots feel that, quite frankly, he could do a lot better. Injury ruled him out of last year’s Copa América as well as much of Sanvicente’s reign, but like Juanpi, he did feature in the last two qualifiers (scoring a sensational free-kick against Chile) and has since appeared in some of Dudamel’s friendlies.
While not identical to Juanpi in that he has a propensity to run at defenders more and, so far at least, tends to score more goals, they do both share strong abilities from dead-ball situations and are rather versatile in the attacking midfield positions. Perhaps for more than any other player in the squad, this tournament serves as an opportunity to impress the scouts.
Although both Otero and Juanpi appear likely to start the first game, it is not guaranteed and, as always, there is much competition and inconsistency in the attacking positions. Should Dudamel opt for a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1), they could find themselves on either wing, but both in these formations as well as in a 4-2-3-1, there are plenty of players who are eager to nab their places.
One of these who has already been mentioned is Seijas, who can also play as a left-sided attacker, but there is also the similarly experienced Alejandro Guerra. He was a regular during last year’s tournament and this season for Colombian giants Atlético Nacional has scored at a rate of one in every two games, being a key player in their run to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, where they will meet São Paulo in July.
Another player of note who could well make a mark in these positions is one of the youngest in the tournament and who has already made quite a name for himself: Adalberto Peñaranda. The then-18-year-old burst onto the La Liga scene with Granada last season and immediately grabbed headlines and broke records, both setting up and scoring goals that ultimately aided his club’s survival. Despite speculation that some of Europe’s biggest clubs would snap him up, he eventually signed a deal with ‘sister’ club Watford, who loaned him back to Andalusia where he finished the season.
However, though he has had a meteoric rise in the European game, at international level he only has three recent substitute appearances to his name and this is where he is likely to start the tournament. Nevertheless, given his abilities, at some point he will surely receive an opportunity from the bench to run at defenders and cause havoc.
There are some other players who could potentially play in attacking midfield/supplementary forward roles, but these are mentioned in the following profile.
Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion)
The most famous current Venezuela international, Rondón will be integral to his nation’s chances of progressing and will undoubtedly start up front. It has been a big year for this talismanic figure, as he swapped Champions League football at Zenit St. Petersburg for a more stressful – if, potentially, career-enhancing – life at West Bromwich Albion. While many feel that, owing to his stature and attributes, he was born and bred to play in the Premier League, a more glamorous move had been desired and throughout his debut campaign quite a few of his compatriots have criticised how he has been used by manager Tony Pulis – a man who, incidentally, seems unaware that he was signing a South American international given that his complaints are as predictable as clockwork whenever his top-scorer is called up.
On the other hand, in his early outings in particular, many West Brom and Premier League followers felt he could be wasteful – something he has since accepted himself – but as the season progressed, he grew in importance to his team. When all was said and done, he had scored ten goals in all competitions, including the winning goal in five different matches, including the 1-0 win away to Everton and, most notably, the 1-0 home victory against Manchester United. Many doubters were won over.
While he may not take all his chances, he certainly works hard and comes deep to join in with some of the build-up play, although his primary strength is probably as a target man, to knock down and head in balls.
There is a chance that he may have a partner in attack. If so, the most likely candidate is Josef Martínez (Torino), who has played alongside him both under Dudamel and Sanvicente – albeit, usually in friendly encounters. Perhaps more so than any other player not granted the honour of an individual profile in this article, he could well emerge as one of the leading Venezuelan players in this tournament. What prevents one from confidently stating his importance to the team is that, despite his undeniable talents, he often gets overlooked as a starter, instead often being used in competitive games as an impact substitute.
Nevertheless, when given opportunities, he often displays a promising understanding with Rondón and is good at running at defenders as well as playing a key role in more direct attacks. He could also be used in an attacking midfield role though what, in the long run, could enhance his national team prospects is a move away from Torino, where he has also been used primarily as a substitute.
Otherwise, Christian Santos could be given a chance in a similar manner to that suggested for Martínez – albeit utilising different characteristics. Indeed, while he can also play as a striker, he has frequently been used at club level in a deeper role and possesses considerable abilities in the air. A late-bloomer at 28, who only decided to play for the country of his birth last year, he has been a phenomenal goalscorer for NEC Nijmegen over the past two years, scoring, on average, well above one in every two games. A move to La Liga has been strongly rumoured – perhaps this tournament will determine where precisely he ends up.
Venezuela’s tournament may well hinge on the very first game on 5 June against Jamaica – stern opponents but on paper, their weakest in Group C. For the sake of this niche blog – if not the author’s social and profressional life when the games from the USA are being played concurrently with those from Euro 2016 – one hopes that they can prolong the guessing game somewhat longer. To keep up-to-date with La Vinotinto’s progress, please follow @DarrenSpherical on Twitter and check back on this website for match reports, highlights and who knows what else.
Venezuela’s 23-man squad for Copa América Centenario
José Contreras (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas, Venezuela) & Dani Hernández (Tenerife, Spain).
Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela), Rolf Feltscher (Duisburg, Germany), Alexander González (Huesca, Spain), Roberto Rosales (Málaga, Spain), José Manuel ‘Sema’ Velázquez (Arouca, Portugal), Mikel Villanueva (Atlético Malagueño, Spain) & Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes, France).
Juan Pablo ‘Juanpi’ Añor (Málaga, Spain), Arquímedes Figuera (Deportivo La Guaira, Venezuela), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, Colombia), Yangel Herrera (Atlético Venezuela, Venezuela), Rómulo Otero (Huachipato, Chile), Adalberto Peñaranda (Granada, Spain on loan from Watford, England), Tomás Rincón (Genoa, Italy), Luis Manuel Seijas (Internacional, Brazil) & Carlos Suárez (Carabobo, Venezuela).
Yonathan Del Valle (Kasımpaşa, Turkey on loan from Rio Ave, Portugal), Josef Martínez (Torino, Italy), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen, Netherlands) & Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion, England).