With Venezuela set to host Honduras and Panama in their last warm-up games before the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup begins, Hispanospherical.com shines a light on a certain 27-year-old whose likely debut has divided opinion in the country of his birth…
Jeffrén: Venezuela’s Wildcard on the Wing
29 November 2010, just coming up to 10:45pm local time, Camp Nou. A feast was in full swing…
Metronomic maestro Xavi, who initiated proceedings just over an hour-and-a-half prior, walked towards the touchline to receive a rapturous reception from the stands, before being replaced by Malian international Seydou Kéita. Hot on his heels was the man who had continued the festivities shortly after the first blow to the eternal enemy had been struck: Number 17, the 23-year-old already simply known as Pedro, who had become a regular fixture on the Blaugrana flanks during the preceding victorious campaign. Taking his place was another product of the envy-inducing La Masia academy also affectionately known, as is common in Spanish-speaking football cultures, by just his forename. Bearing the number 11 shirt formerly worn in his first few seasons at the club by Brazilian magician Rivaldo, 22-year-old Jeffrén (Suárez) had at this point barely made a handful of official appearances for the first team. Venezuelan-born but raised in the Canary Islands since the age of one, he was nevertheless a familiar face to much of the faithful due in part to his feats at youth and reserve level and enthusiastically ran on to experience his brief share of this memorable triumph. Little did he know just how much he would soon be contributing to both local folklore as well as his own personal myth.
Just four minutes later the game had entered stoppage-time and the ball was suddenly nudged by Andrés Iniesta forward on the right to another home-grown star-in-waiting also more commonly known by his first name. Bojan ran into space towards the edge of the area and crossed in a low ball that narrowly evaded the stretch of the incoming 2010 World Cup final goalscorer. However, having already sensed a potential opportunity, dashing in from his designated left side of the field was Jeffrén, instantly reaching what Iniesta could not and beating Iker Casillas at his near post. If the person in charge of the electronic scoreboard was neglecting their duties in the immediate aftermath it would have been understandable, for when they came to their senses it was to read: Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid. Jeffrén rapidly reeled away and immediately darted over to Pep Guardiola and the Barcelona bench where he was mobbed by Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and all the other men absorbed in the methods that had made this the greatest team of the 21st century.
As Sid Lowe, an historian of El Clásico wrote: ‘Jeffrén Suárez’s late goal made little difference and yet it made all the difference: the fifth goal turned victory into something more historic, more emblematic: a manita, a goal for every finger.’
When Gerard Piqué detached himself from the throng, he raised five fingers to the crowd who needed no encouragement in obliging with similar gleeful celebrations of their own. When the final whistle was blown a couple of minutes later, it is unlikely that Sergio Ramos’ dismissal and subsequent petulant assaults on his La Roja team-mates Carles Puyol and Xavi immediately after the goal celebrations had fully registered with Jeffrén. He was on cloud nine and had every reason to believe that the good days would keep on coming.
Indeed, in 2006, he had featured regularly in Spain’s victorious Under-19 European Championship side. He played in Poland alongside the likes of Juan Mata, Mario Suárez, Gerard Piqué, Javi García, Antonio Barragán, Gorka Elustondo and Esteban Granero, chipping in with the first goal that got the ball rolling in a 5-0 semi-final thrashing against Austria. He also came on as a substitute in the final in Poznań a few days later, helping to see out a 2-1 win over Scotland, courtesy of two goals by recent Porto signing Alberto Bueno.
Thus, while in 2010/11 there was congestion in the attacking berths from, most notably, Messi, Pedro, Bojan and David Villa, Jeffrén nevertheless possessed the pedigree to strongly suggest that he was capable of remaining at a respectable top-flight level for some time yet. He was to play eight league games in total that season and went some way to further cement his credentials when he once again represented the country that had reared him at the 2011 Under-21 European Championships held in Denmark.
Born on 20 January 1988, had the then 23-year-old been born just 20 days earlier, he would not have have been eligible to participate, which is just as well for Spain as it could be argued that their eventual triumph never would have occurred without one of his contributions. Indeed, with Jeffrén having come on to replace Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain with 20 minutes remaining, La Rojita were trailing Belarus 1-0 in the semi-final and this was still the score with little more than a single regulation minute left on the clock. However, following some characteristically patient and pinpoint passing play involving, amongst others, Mata, Bojan and Thiago Alcântara, Jeffrén received the ball on the right and, stretching, instantly played in a low cross that the alert Adrián reached first to knock into the back of the net. 1-1 and another much-fancied generation of Spaniards were suddenly back on track.
Extra-time therefore followed, during which the same striker (who would soon after transfer to Atlético Madrid and has since recently moved on loan to Villarreal from Porto), headed his side in front with his second of the game in the 105th minute. Just under ten minutes later, Jeffrén was once again on hand to provide the icing on the cake, cutting onto his left foot and rifling in a sensational left-footed golazo from over 20 yards. 3-1, game over. Three says later, the side also containing David de Gea, Ander Herrera, Javi Martínez and César Azpilicueta thus marched into the final in Aarhus, where they defeated Switzerland 2-0, with Jeffrén appearing as a late substitute.
Jeffrén and his Spain team-mates winning the 2011 Under 21 European Championship (WAATP)
So, maybe sometimes a bridesmaid rather than the bride, but a rather attractive one all the same. In search of regular first-team minutes, he was to depart from Catalonia just over a month later for Portuguese giants Sporting, though a testament to how highly Guardiola and his colleagues still thought of him was the buy-back clause they ensured was inserted into his contract as part of the deal.
However, despite evidently still being thought of as a potential high-level talent, his time in Lisbon was to be a huge disappointment to all, as he struggled with injuries, form and, ultimately, starting opportunities. He played in fewer than 25 league games in his two-and-a-half years there, before moving back to La Liga with Real Valladolid in February 2014. Here, the misery was to continue as a few months later the team was relegated. Subsequently, despite playing the closest he ever has to a full season, as only 19 of his 35 second-tier league appearances for 2014/15 were as a starter (of which he was substituted 12 times) and his combined number of goals and assists could be counted on one mano, this could hardly be considered a year of rejuvenation.
Thus, following their failure to regain their top-flight status after they were eliminated in the play-off semi-finals, Valladolid released Jeffrén. In the past month or so, while old rumours of a move to the English Premier League were no longer doing the rounds, there had been some speculation that he may return to the Canary Islands to join Tenerife, the side at which he had a brief association as a teenager. A far cry from where ex-colleagues Pedro and Bojan currently reside but perhaps the kind of morale boost he needs. Instead, in the past week, in what on the surface at least may appear to inaugurate the latest chapter of his downward spiral, he has signed a three-year contract with Belgian second-tier club KAS Eupen.
Jeffrén posing in Venezuela colours with his new national identity card (GradaDigital)
Or is it? Eupen only narrowly missed out on promotion last season and, as of 4 September 2015, currently top their league. Moreover, a certain Christian Santos finished a two-year spell at the club a couple of seasons ago, during which he regularly found himself on the scoresheet and, excluding the injury-plagued year that followed, has since seen his career flourish. Last season, for someone often fielded on the flank he was banging in the goals at a heroic rate (23 in 34 league games), helping NEC Nijmegen steamroll their way into the Dutch top-flight. It is not yet known as to whether Jeffrén sought Santos’ advice, but given the parallels in the lives of these two men, it is certainly possible. Thus, the dual adventures that the ex-Barça man is about to embark on could well prove beneficial to providing the incentives to get him back on track.
Indeed, for as well as finding a new club, he has also found a new country. Like Santos, he was born in the Venezuelan state of Bolívar but grew up from a very young age in Europe (Germany, in the case of the NEC attacker). Within the past year, both men have acquired the necessary documentation and status in order to represent the country of their birth, with Santos having already made his international debut in March. Given Jeffrén’s impressive progress through the youth ranks of the Spanish national set-up and his La Liga appearances, playing in senior international games with Xavi, Iniesta and co. must have long seemed an attainable dream that could not be easily relinquished. Thus, in the past, he has either batted away or outright rejected calls to instead play for La Vinotinto, much to the chagrin of many from his birthland. Indeed, as a teenager he reportedly turned down calls from then-manager Richard Páez to play at the historic 2007 Venezuela-hosted Copa América. Then, three years later when César Farías was at the helm, with words that would come back to haunt and for which he has since apologised, he declared: ‘I don’t want to hear anything more about Venezuela.’
A trawl through social media sites and the Venezuelan press reveals that there are plenty currently unwilling to forgive him for these comments and the issue has certainly sparked some debate in the days leading up to his likely debut. It has, after all, only been in the last two years or so that he has publicly expressed more openness to switching allegiances. As this has coincided with his club career sliding downhill and his chances of representing La Roja evaporating, most Venezuelans do not kid themselves that they are anything but his international back-up option.
However, albeit with less public rejection to apply selective amnesia to, the national side’s devotees have most certainly been in similar situations before. Most famously, it was only four years ago that defender Fernando Amorebieta – Venezuela-born but to Basque parents – gave up on his ambitions to represent Spain, having previously been part of the Under-19 European Championship-winning side of 2004 and, latterly, even receiving a call-up to Vicente Del Bosque’s senior squad for a 2008 friendly. He made his Vinotinto debut in 2011 and went a significant way to emerging victorious in the PR battle with the belligerents in October of that year by scoring the history-making winner against Argentina – Venezuela’s first-ever competitive win against their illustrious opponents.
One commentator on ForoVinotinto stated his belief that such goals aid the cause of convincing the hostile and the fence-sitters of a player’s commitment to the nation, referencing another one scored the following month as further proof. Indeed, in November 2011, Swiss-born Frank Feltscher, who spent some of his childhood in Venezuela and is a nationalised citizen, scored a late equaliser away to neighbours Colombia, gaining another vital point for what was an impressive start to the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. Curiously, while Feltscher may not be in the current squad, he is not completely out of the loop and if he receives one in the future at the same time as Jeffrén, the pair can reminisce about their experiences of the 2011 Under-21 European Championship final, when Feltscher had to endure Jeffrén and co. lifting the trophy from the Swiss bench.*
These are just two examples of many, as complex identities are nothing new for Venezuelans to have to contend with when cheering on their representatives. Indeed, in a country where baseball has traditionally held the greatest sway over the affections of sports fans, football has instead often received much innovation and development from those with what some may perceive as divided loyalities. Many of the domestic clubs were originally formed by immigrant communities, from whom plenty of the nation’s leading players have also been derived, most famously Juan Arango, the Venezuela-born son of a Colombian couple. Thus, though Jeffrén carries with him some additional self-inflicted baggage, he can take some heart from the experiences of many of his forebears. If, as seems likely, he makes it onto the field against Honduras and/or Panama for his debut, should there be any vocal hostility, he can cling to the belief that so long as he gives his all, his hard work should ultimately be appreciated. That said, a goal in a big game wouldn’t hurt either.
Alas, as this site’s detailed preview relates, his new international side is not short of pacy wide men, so one can not be confident of his future after these two games are over. Despite having a disproportionate number of potential providers to call upon to both assist and take some of the burden off lead man Salomón Rondón, the attackers have nevertheless struggled to combine and gel effectively. Collectively, since manager Noel Sanvicente’s arrival in July 2014, Venezuela have scored a mere 14 goals (12 officially) in 11 games. Work amongst those in the two front lines evidently needs to improve. Given that Sanvicente himself concedes that Jeffrén is not currently in the best of form, there is certainly some scepticism as to whether the player can come out of the blue to force his way into the coach’s burgundy plans.
Nevertheless, the Masia graduate’s international debut is something that many have been anticipating for years; so much so that, irrespective of the outcome of this experiment, it almost feels necessary for it to occur. Will it be the end to a protracted saga? Or perhaps the launchpad for a bright new phase in what could well be the peak years of his career? Only time will tell.
Expected to appear against at least one of the upcoming Central Americans opponents at the Estadio Cachamay in Puerto Ordaz, the boy whose family uprooted from nearby San Félix 26 years ago may feel less out-of-place than some anticipate. Indeed, in the build-up to his Vinotinto bow, he has spoken of his excitement at playing in the state where relatives of his still live. Aptly poetic or false sentimentality? With Venezuela’s latest bid to finally qualify for a World Cup starting next month, one suspects that for his detractors, his on-field actions will speak considerably louder than any of his words.
Article originally published on 4 September 2015.
*Author’s Indulgence: Over a decade ago at his English secondary school, your faithful Venezuelan football enthusiast regularly sat in German lessons next to a boy who is largely remembered for having once asked the teacher who had summoned him to the desk, if she was “‘avin’ a giraffe’. Somehow this Mockney qualified to represent Scotland and played in the final of the 2006 Under-19 European Championships, where he came up against none other than Venezuelan newboy Jeffrén – then, of course, wearing the colours of the victorious Spain. As noted in the article, the then-Barcelona man would later go on to help La Rojita lift 2011’s Under-21 European Championship trophy while his new compatriot Frank Feltscher – then donning the tracksuit of Switzerland – watched on with his defeated team-mates from the sidelines. Identities, eh…?
UPDATE: Jeffrén did not feature against Honduras (4 September 2015). As Venezuela slipped behind in the second half and ultimately lost 3-0, it was probably for the best that he was not introduced at any point on what was a fairly dismal evening. That said, the sparse crowd that did attend nevertheless maintained fairly good spirits until the final whistle so if, as is predicted, he makes it onto the pitch against Panama on Tuesday, it seems like he can expect a good reception in the state where he was born.
UPDATE 2: As Juan Arango made what he later announced to be his last ever Venezuela appearance, Jeffrén made his debut. One out, one in, some might say. He played the final 30 minutes in the rather dismal 1-1 draw against Panama. Click here to read about how he got on.
Friday 4 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.
Venezuela vs Honduras
Tuesday 8 September 2015 – Estadio Cachamay, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State.
Venezuela vs Panama
Estadio Cachamay in Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, Bolívar State (Wikimedia).
Getting the Gang Back Together to Prepare for the Greatest Challenge
We meet again. Casually resented by great swathes of European fans who are spoilt-for-choice domestically, yet eagerly anticipated by many in the talent-exporting Latin American nations, an international break is once again upon us.
Venezuelans, for whom the national team inspires infinitely more passion amongst the general population than the neglected local fare, are amongst those in the region readying themselves for two further opportunities to run the rule over their representatives. Indeed, it may have been a mere two-and-a-half months ago that La Vinotinto’s Copa América campaign ended in dejection almost as soon as it had been inaugurated by unexpected euphoria, but with World Cup qualifying commencing next month, there really is little time or appetite to be absorbed by self-pity and scapegoating. After all, as mainstream football coverage of the nation rarely misses the opportunity to point out, Venezuela remains the only CONMEBOL country yet to feature at a World Cup.
Thus, warm feelings and intrepid eyes greet the bulk of this 26-man squad of players derived from four continents, 13 countries and 15 distinct leagues. Such diversity means that the attempts of even the most caffeine-addled, antisocial and aspiration-free fanatics in tracking every movement of the individuals in with a shot of a selección call-up will be hopelessly thwarted. Instead, those who are so inclined tend to resign themselves each weekend to an overseas game or two featuring one or more of their pioneering compatriots, supplemented by some online highlights of several other cracks – if, that is, they can find them.
The inadequacies and skewered view of the team intrinsic to this particular footballing consumption should be apparent. It is, after all, not often one comes acoss much visual material of merit featuring the players who are fielded in less headline-grabbing and highlight-friendly positions, such as defence and defensive midfield. Moreover, newcomers to football in this corner of the world will be unsurprised to learn that the disparity in the locations of the players’ clubs is often matched in the wide differences of opinions held amongst fans, with certain favourites being held in high esteem by some for feats observed in YouTube videos and vines, yet achieved in the distant past.
One can only wonder how coach Noel Sanvicente and his staff manage to keep tabs on their potential history-makers. Some repeatedly ignored players, such as Yonathan Del Valle who announced his retirement from the international game in May a couple of weeks shy of his 25th birthday, doubtless think that they have grave difficulties coping with their workload.
Nevertheless, for both the fans and the serial-winner leader they call Chita, this all conspires to make the scant amount of time the players have together golden. With the symbol to inspire and unify the sometimes suppressed footballing passions of this nation reactivated once again, most of the men who take to the pitch in the upcoming days know that irrespective of what they have achieved recently at club level, what they do for their country will carry most weight in the minds of those in the stands as well as in the dugout.
‘Don’t I Know You From…?’ Familiar Faces in the Central American Opposition
Honduras and Panama, though undeniably substantial opponents, may lack the star power to entice a full house to Estadio Cachamay, but the atmosphere inside Mineros de Guayana’s home ground could still take a few by surprise. Indeed, for various logistical and administrative reasons, opportunities to fly the flag have been at a premium recently, with only one game having been played on home soil in Sanvicente’s near-14-month reign – a 2-1 win in February, also against Honduras.
This result marked the conclusion a double-header between the two nations and also the second Venezuelan win, as the preceding week in San Pedro Sula a 3-2 defeat was inflicted upon Jorge Luis Pinto in what was his debut game in charge of Los Catrachos. While the Colombian mastermind behind Costa Rica’s run to the quarter-finals of last year’s World Cup has continued his poor start, exiting July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup at the group stage, he has seemed in good spirits upon his arrival in Venezuela. Indeed, no doubt partly alluding to his 2010/11 title-winning tenure at the helm of Deportivo Táchira, he remarked to the local press in Puerto Ordaz that the country holds ‘very fond memories’ for him. As the encounters earlier this year were contested mainly by home-based players (plus a few MLS-dwellers on the Honduran side), in more ways than one, he will be hoping for an altogether different match on 4 September.
By contrast, Panama have won their last two internationals with Venezuela. While both games did occur back in 2010 and the Vinotinto line-up contained a mixture of fringe players alongside first-teamers, Los Canaleros have consistently shown, through their admirable, if similarly unlucky, 2014 World Cup Qualifying and 2015 Gold Cup campaigns, that they are more than capable of a third consecutive win. Furthermore, due in part to the country’s relative proximity to their opponents, a fair few Panamanians have enjoyed considerable recent success on Venezuelan soil playing in the domestic league, such as last season’s leading goalscorer, Edwin Aguilar of Deportivo Anzoátegui. He is not in the current squad but Marcos Sánchez, a midfielder for the 2014/15 champions Deportivo Táchira, is.
Squad Overview: Defence Less Tight for Friendies but the Core is Seemingly Settled
How much weight Sanvicente puts on getting results, irrespective of the performances, from these two friendlies is debatable, though several in the Venezuelan set-up have spoken of the necessity of a strong home record to help keep them at least within touching distance throughout the two-year qualifying campaign. Given the contrast between the woeful, defensively porous displays in the games leading into Copa América and the resolute, compact performance in the surprise 1-0 group win over Colombia, many could be forgiven for questioning the merits of such internationals. Indeed, while La Vinotinto may have lost their subsequent two group games – 1-0 against Peru, 2-1 versus Brazil – their defensive record for the tournament still stood at an ostensibly admirable three conceded in three games – quite an improvement on the 18 (19 officially) that were knocked into their net by largely weaker opposition in eight warm-up games. Then again, as Group C at Chile 2015 was rather low-scoring, with a mere nine goals in total, more considered verdicts on the defence may have to wait until at least a few qualifying games have been played.
Nevertheless, what can be said with some certainty is that while Sanvicente has been a little coy on his line-up plans for these friendlies, nothing has occurred to suggest a dramatic change of personnel regarding the majority of his first-choice picks, particularly at the back. Barring injuries/suspensions/colossal mishaps, between the sticks next month for the qualifiers with Paraguay and Brazil will be Alain Baroja who, after winning a last-minute battle to be the national no. 1 in June has since left Caracas FC and has played the opening two league games of the season for AEK Athens. At right-back will be Málaga’s tenacious Roberto Rosales, with the centre-back pairing comprising of the towering, dependable Oswaldo Vizcarrondo and Buriram United’s Thai-based Gladiador, Andrés Túñez. All of these men were amongst their clubs’ most consistent and reliable performers last season and also played the entirety of their country’s three games at Copa América. If there is to be any experimentation in this area, Deportivo Táchira’s 22-year-old centre-back Wílker Ángel, who is already very much part of his club’s folkore, may be given a run out. He sat on the bench in Chile and may well find himself in future competitive line-ups, but there has been no suggestion that he is on the cusp of a breakthrough just yet.
Owing to Fernando Amorebieta’s tournament-turning red card against Peru and subsequent suspension, the front-runner to occupy the left-back berth for at least the Paraguay game next month is the man who filled in for him after his dismissal and against Brazil, Gabriel Cichero. Now back at Swiss side Sion after a year on loan in his native country, he will be looking forward to Europa League games against, amongst others, Liverpool and also to proving Sanvicente that he was wrong to ditch him so late on, after he had started all but one of the warm-up games in the year preceding Copa América. The only competition he has in the current squad is from Caracas’ Francisco Carabalí, but while he has been an integral part of his club’s miserly defence, having not been included in the Copa América squad, he currently stands less chance than Ángel of starting a competitive fixture.
So then, barring misfortune and/or catastrophe, all these positions for at least the first October qualifier seem fairly predictable and, as of this moment, so are the two spots in front of them. Indeed, Genoa-based roaming midfield warrior Tomás Rincón will undoubtedly start, with much of the team’s success dependent on the levels of commitment, organisation and belief he can help instil and inspire in those around him. His partner-in-crime in June was Santa Fe’s Luis Manuel Seijas, a more graceful midfielder capable of some stunning strikes and creative passes, but who is also not averse to mucking in. His most likely competition in current squad comes from Franklin Lucena, who has recently joined him in Colombia on loan at Once Caldas. However, at 34, he may be feeling uncertain as to whether Sanvicente fancies him in the long run for a position that demands zero lapses in concentration and, ideally, optimum levels of energy to meet head-on what can be frequent onslaughts. He may nevertheless take to the field in the upcoming days, as may 24-year-old Franco Signorelli, whose last two – also his first two – brief appearances for his country came last year. Having recently agreed to a loan from Serie A Empoli to Serie B Ternana, he will undeniably be seeking to make the most of his rare time with Sanvicente, as who knows how much the boss will see of his club outings this season.
Ultimately, while Sanvicente is likely to opt for a more open approach against Honduras and Panama, which may well afford their opponents more opportunities than the likes of Colombia, Peru and even Brazil could muster, he can allow himself a considerable degree of confidence regarding his defence-minded players in competitive games. After all, despite the two defeats endured in June, they never embarrassed themselves, nor were they ever far from gaining a result – that is, had their attacking players been able to link up more effectively, more frequently and create more goalscoring opportunities.
Squad Overview: Better Teamwork and More Target Practice Needed for Attackers
Indeed, while Venezuela surprised their Colombian neighbours by having the better of the chances in the first hour or so (and, should any football-fatigued soul have forgotten, scored the match-winning goal), this proved to be something of a false dawn. Exiting the tournament with a mere two goals from three games just compounded the already meagre returns under Sanvicente, whose overall record now stands at 14 goals scored (though 12 officially) from 11 games. Thus, with his defensive personnel and tactics having largely been proven to aid the cause, Chita must surely place far greater emphasis in these two warm-up games towards finding the net more often.
As in all three of the group cames in Chile, he started with the same three players in the attacking midfield positions as well as the same striker up front, it is tempting to think that they are all likely to retain their spots next month. Transfer record-breaking striker Salomón Rondón undoubtedly will and the three behind him all have strong claims for places as well. After all, Atlético Nacional’s Alejandro Guerra on the left repeatedly linked up well with Rondón, gaining an assist for the goal against Colombia and could well have notched more had Venezuela’s chief marksman maintained his composure in front of the framework. In the centre, Juan Arango, despite persistent speculation that his age (35) renders almost every game as ‘quite possibly his last’, nevertheless managed to play some key, elegant passes and had a vital role in both tournament goals. On the right, the resurgent Ronald Vargas impressed so much against Colombia with his abilities to beat his marker, hold the ball up as well as link and switch with his team-mates, that he had the Athens-based press salivating over what he would be bringing to his new owners AEK. He was, however, less visible in the subsequent two games and though he has since scored on his debut for his Greek paymasters, as was the case in the summer, he is still unable to complete a full 90 minutes. If it is fitness which ultimately sees him sidelined in the future, for Guerra the most likely factor would be his inconsistency and tendency to give the ball away, whereas for Arango it would probably be his comparative lack of tracking back, as he was often left in a high, free role in Chile.
Thus, while these men collectively may all be currently in pole position to get the nod next month, they will not be feeling as secure of this as the defensive players surely are. The Venezuelan attacking midfield has long been the most competitive area of the pitch and, with at least ten versatile players of note capable of filling any of the three roles, there are almost as many players outside of the current squad as are within it who could receive a spot in the line-up within the next two years.
Indeed, for one, there is 22-year-old Rómulo Otero, who was ruled out of Copa América with injury and is currently again sidelined, frustrating his new owners Huachipato, for whom he got off to an explosive start in early August. He has long been considered an international star-in-waiting and had been linked to teams in countries such as Portugal and France, so when his long-anticipated move away from Caracas took him instead to a fairly unprestigious Chilean outfit, many were bemused. Similarly high hopes have been expressed for 20-year-old Jhon Murillo, who scored the winning goal against Honduras on his international debut earlier this year and was called up to the Copa América squad. He was eagerly snapped up just before the tournament by Benfica on a five-year-deal and is now a regular starter on loan at fellow Primeira Liga side Tondela. Sanvicente has stated that the speedy, if volatile, winger is one for the future but has been left out as he knows what he can do and instead wants to allow him to settle in with his new club, while he takes a closer look at other players. No explanation has been forthcoming regarding the absence of 21-year-old Juanpi of Málaga, though it is most likely that a lack of first-team experience in La Liga is the cause. However, with a recent exodus of midfield talent having occurred at the Andalusian club, he has come off the bench in both league encounters this season. Having already been granted a lengthy contract extension, this could prove to be his breakthrough year and will hopefully go some way to determining which of the positions he has hitherto occupied is best suited for him: in the hole, on either flank of an attacking midfield trident or, further back in a deep-lying playmaker role.
Regarding those in the actual squad, Torino’s Josef Martínez is currently the strongest challenger for a starting berth. Indeed, it surprised many that he was not in any line-up in June, yet when he did come on, he showed glimpses of his abilities to unsettle defenders and make things happen. Had fellow substitute Miku either been born a few inches taller or jumped a similar distance higher (the jury is still out on that one), then he would have been able to convert Martínez’s whipped cross in the dying moments of the Brazil game and thus secured Venezuela’s progress. Alternatively, there is Christian Santos, who Sanvicente has said he wants to take a closer look at and is likely to feature in at least one of the warm-up games. After confirming his eligibility to represent the country of his birth, there was much fanfare for the Germany-raised attacker when he made his international debut earlier this year. However, having lasted only an hour of a dismal friendly loss against Jamaica and subsequently missing out on Chile 2015, fans will this time be hoping to see him replicate some of last season’s phenomenal goal-scoring club form which helped NEC Nijmegen’s charge into the Dutch top-flight. Elsewhere, Mario Rondón, the most surprising omission from the Copa América squad, has earned a recall and rather than being consumed by bitterness is instead seemingly filled with determination to ensure he is regularly in Sanvicente’s plans for at least the next two years. Indeed, a February move from Portugal to China may not have entirely helped his personal cause as beforehand he had been one of the most common names on Sanvicente’s teamsheets, yet come late May when the final cut was made, alleged justifications for his exclusion included his supposedly inferior fitness levels and lack of unique qualities in relation to his rivals. As he will be 30 next March and has earned roughly half of his caps under Sanvicente, he knows that the upcoming qualification cycle is likely to be his last chance to shine for his country. Another man in contention who has also earned a recall is Juan Falcón, who owes much to his international manager for converting him from a midfielder to a striker when the pair won the Venezuelan title twice together with Zamora (2012-14). He subsequently moved to Metz in Ligue 1 where he started in strong goalscoring form, yet succumbed to a long-term injury and struggled to regain his place in the side, who ultimately slipped down to the second tier. Nevertheless, with less than a handful of caps to his name and a strong personal association with the boss, this is a vital opportunity to remind everyone what he is capable of. However, if he is given a chance, it will more likely be as one of the attacking midfield three, possibly playing off Salomón Rondón.
With all this competition over three spots on the pitch, it seems counter-intuitive to many that Venezuela have struggled so much to find the net in recent times. There was seemingly some progress made in the three games in June as beforehand, the team often struggled to put together more than a handful of effective forward passes and were largely reliant on long-range efforts, set-pieces and defensive errors for goals. Still, Sanvicente knows that he is yet to stumble upon the right formula in this area. While he will doubtless trial at least a couple of the aforementioned individuals in the upcoming days, it remains to be seen whether a change of personnel is required.
Saviour or Historical Footnote? The Wildcard on the Wing
If it is, however, then there are plenty of Venezuelans hoping that one individual in particular can constitute a large proportion of the solution. This man, hitherto unnamed but who is predicted to feature in at least one of the friendlies, is precisely the kind of player whose reputation owes much to on-field achievements that occurred in what can at times feel like the distant past. An attacking winger, born in the town of San Félix in Ciudad Guayana, he has played with and won trophies alongside some of the greatest names in global football and also scored in one of the most famous club games of the 21st century. Indeed, Salomón Rondón may now be the leading Venezuelan in most people’s eyes but, despite playing in the most-watched league in the world and being serenaded with his own personalised infectious ditty, even he can only claim a mere one-third of the number of Twitter followers this purported man of the hour has. Despite this, the wide-man who some are hoping can rapidly enhance the West Brom striker’s goal tally has never yet actually played for the country of his birth and a considerable number of his compatriots feel he should not be allowed to.
Readers who already know who the player in question is may feel this build-up is unmerited; time may very well prove that to be the case. For those still in the dark yet seeking enlightenment, click here to find out just who the mystery man is. The rest of you: enjoy the games and feel free to come back here in the upcoming days to find out whether there has been a Second Coming or not.
Goalkeepers: Alaín Baroja (AEK Athens), José David Contreras (Deportivo Táchira), Wuilker Fariñez (Caracas FC).
Defenders: Wilker Ángel (Deportivo Táchira), Francisco Carabalí (Caracas FC), Gabriel Cichero (Sion), Alexander González (Young Boys), Grenddy Perozo (Zulia FC), Roberto Rosales (Málaga), Andrés Túñez (Buriram United), Oswaldo Vizcarrondo (Nantes).
Midfielders: Juan Arango (Xolos de Tijuana), César González (Deportivo Táchira), Alejandro Guerra (Atlético Nacional, on loan from Mineros de Guayana), Franklin Lucena (Once Caldas, on loan from Deportivo La Guaira), Tomás Rincón (Genoa), Luis Manuel Seijas (Santa Fé), Franco Signorelli (Ternana, on loan from Empoli), Christian Santos (NEC Nijmegen), Jeffrén Suárez (KAS Eupen), Ronald Vargas (AEK Athens).
Forwards: Juan Falcón (Metz), Nicolás ‘Miku’ Fedor (Rayo Vallecano), Josef Martínez (Torino), Mario Rondón (Shijiazhuang Ever Bright), Salomón Rondón (West Bromwich Albion).
Wednesday 11 February 2015
Venezuela 2-1 Honduras
Estadio Agustín Tovar, Barinas
Match Highlights of Venezuela 2-1 Honduras (YouTube channel: Deportes Hn)
Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Carabalí, Fuenmayor (Vargas, 46′), Sánchez, Cichero; Lucena (c), Figuera (Acosta, 58′); Gómez (Murillo, 56′), Farías (Arteaga, 64′), Lugo (L. González, 46′); Blanco (Ocanto, 82′).
Honduras (4-3-3): Valladares; Crisanto, Figueroa, Leverón, Sánchez (Palacios, 69′); Peralta (Delgado, 76′), Claros, Martínez (Cardona, 82′); Quioto (Discua, 62′), Lozano (Tejeda, 75′), Castillo (Acosta, 36′).
Following last week’s 3-2 away victory, Venezuela picked up their second consecutive win against Honduras in the two nations’ friendly double-header, with local debutant Jhon Murillo ensuring that his former club manager Noel Sanvicente enjoyed a triumphant return to his erstwhile stomping ground.
The Estadio Agustín Tovar, built in anticipation of Venezuela’s hosting of Copa América 2007, is the home of Zamora FC, the current leaders of the Torneo Clausura and the reigning two-time champions of Venezuela. Before taking the national job last July, it was Sanvicente who managed this club to these two titles – the only two in their modest history – and appropriately, in what was La Vinotinto‘s first home game under his guidance, he received a hero’s welcome upon his return.
Banner Tribute to Noel Sanvicente, expressing the fans’ support and belief that he will fulfil the nation’s dreams by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup (Image: Bet365 match feed).
The game itself was contested by home-based players plus one MLS-based Honduran who lasted little more than half an hour – more on this later. Whereas Jorge Luis Pinto, mastermind behind Costa Rica’s World Cup run, opted to experiment with his new squad by making seven changes from last week’s encounter, Sanvicente only made one alteration – one which was forced upon him. Indeed, Rómulo Otero – the pivotal figure who played a crucial role in all three of Venezuela’s goals – was injured in club action for Caracas FC at the weekend and was replaced in the line-up by club colleague, Edder Farías. That the majority of the Venezuelan players were also in domestic action at the same time as Otero was a factor that their Honduran counterparts did not have to contend with and may have had some effect on this game’s dynamics (or lack, thereof). The play was, for the most part, sluggish and devoid of any sustained rhythm or fluidity, something that the players’ relative unfamiliarity with one another was no doubt also partly responsible for.
However, the opening exchanges were rather lively, with Farías driving a loose ball at Honduras’ returning World Cup goalkeeper, Noel Valladares, and within 17 minutes the two sides were level. The visitors looked to be relishing their role as potential homecoming saboteurs when, with 9 minutes on the clock, Rubilio Castillo’s decent low long-range effort was parried by Alain Baroja, only to be rapidly chipped back into the area from the left by Romell Quioto for Anthony Lozano to powerfully head in.
The hosts responded 8 minutes later from a free-kick just outside the right edge of the area. Argenis Gómez – who played a role in two of the goals in last week’s encounter – swung in a fine left-footed ball that was met by left-back Gabriel Cichero, whose header into the goalmouth found the trailing left leg of captain Franklin Lucena. Though Jorge Claros managed to hook it away, the linesman flagged that it had already crossed the line – parity had been restored.
One recurring theme of the first game between this pair was the high number of petulant fouls committed, a feature that was to recur to a slightly lesser extent in the subsequent phase of play. Within no more than two minutes of play, both Honduras’ Castillo and Venezuela’s Juan Fuenmayor were booked for offences on each other, though the likelihood of their tussles resulting in a red card or two was abruptly averted when Castillo went off injured after 36 minutes.
Before the match reached this point, however, two notable incidents had occurred. Firstly, after 22 minutes, from the free-kick conceded by Fuenmayor on Castillo, Mario Martínez lined up a free-kick from the right flank 35 yards out. Struck with his left peg, his curled ball was met on the volley by Lozano’s outstretched right boot and his effort caused a few jitters but went narrowly wide into the side-netting. However, any Honduran hopes of regaining the lead were dealt a blow by the second incident worthy of comment in this period: Jorge Claros, arguably the most high-profile player in this line-up owing to his performances with Sporting Kansas City, receiving his marching orders for a wild high-foot challenge in midfield, some 5-6 feet off the ground.
Yet with ten men, the visitors certainly did not crumble and were to have at least a few more chances worthy of comment in the game, the closest one coming on 37 minutes, just several minutes after the dismissal. An exquisite left-footed diagonal ball by Martínez on the turn from the half-way line was taken adeptly in the stride of Quioto who, from inside the area on the left lashed a low shot that was to come off the inside of the post and agonisingly trickle back across the goalmouth. Whether or not Baroja got any of his left glove on this is open to debate, though if he did, as the margins involved here were so thin, this contact surely stopped the ball from crossing the line.
Though this reminded Sanvicente of the threat Honduras could pose even with the numerical disadvantage, he opted to make some attack-minded substitutes at the break. Off came centre-back Fuenmayor and attacking midfielder Jesús Lugo to be replaced by Luis Vargas, who appeared to operate in a deep-lying playmaker role, and debutant Luis ‘Cariaco’ González, who was largely to be found in advanced positions on the left.
The second half, perhaps partly due to it consisting of one side with many players who were contesting their third game in eight days up against a team trying to compensate for being a man down, was rather short on chances. However, when the first of note came after 57 minutes, it resulted in the winning goal. This was scored by Venezuela’s third substitute, local hot prospect – and hot-head – Jhon Murillo, a remarkable 37 seconds after arriving on the pitch. The Zamora winger as well as the unused José Marrufo were both not in the original squad but were called up on the strength of their performances at the recent South American Youth Championship.
He replaced Gómez on the field and was soon found on the right side of the area by the long searching ball of club team-mate Vargas. Murillo won an aerial duel to guide the ball into the area, where defender Johnny Leverón – back home after a season with Vancouver Whitecaps – horribly miscued an attempted clearance. Under no real pressure around his own six-yard box, he acrobatically hit the ball over goalkeeper Valladares – who had come out to claim it – and Murillo, with predatory anticipation, burst forward to chest the descending ball in from little more than a yard out – a dream debut for the substitute. It was certainly not a bad moment for Sanvicente either, with the move beginning with one former charge of his at club level and then finished off by another in what is their present, and his former, home ground – an ideal winning scenario.
In the rest of the half, after Cichero, González and Vargas all hit shots either wide or over from rather optimistic positions, Venezuela had their only other concrete chance. This came from another substitute, Manuel Arteaga, who capitalised on a poor midfield pass to rob a defender but then, from the edge of the area, shot far too close to Valladares.
Up the other end, the visitors mildly threatened first with a cross that was well-headed away for a corner and then a subsequent effort from outside the area that went comfortably wide. Their best chance, however, came with what proved to be the last kicks of the game, as Bryan Acosta’s free-kick was flicked on by Ángel Tejeda, which Baroja did well to see at a late stage and dive down low to parry out to the left.
Not long after, the whistle sounded and Noel Sanvicente had attained his second consecutive victory over his Central American opponents – also the second win of his reign, following defeats in his opening four games.
A Worthwhile Pair of Games?
Quite what the coach will draw from both games is difficult to ascertain as the constitution of the teams bore very little – if any – resemblance to the sides he is likely to select when Venezuela play competitive fixtures and the full overseas contingent is called up.
Left-back Gabriel Cichero is the only player likely to retain his place in future line-ups and he will be pleased to have had little to trouble him on his side of the pitch, as well as notching an assist.
Defensive-midfielder Franklin Lucena will surely have been buoyed at starting, being named as captain for both games and scoring a goal – he is surely now back ahead of Rafael Acosta and Édgar Jiménez (the latter of whom was not in the squad) in the pecking order. However, he is unlikely to receive a first-team place ahead of the supposed preferred pairing of converted right-back Roberto Rosales and official captain Tomás Rincón. Furthermore, with his 34th birthday coming up within a week, it remains to be seen how much of an international future the Deportivo La Guaira man has.
Alain Baroja, though he is very unlikely to replace Tenerife’s Dani Hernández as number one goalkeeper, will nevertheless be delighted to have played both games and surely consolidate his position as second-choice ahead of Rafael Romo. Regarding the defence as a whole, though their performance certainly improved and was more assured, that they still failed to provide Sanvicente with his first clean sheet will be a lingering concern.
Further upfield, both Argenis Gómez and, to a greater extent, Rómulo Otero did much to enhance their claims for a regular squad place. Though the attacking midfield slots are the most competitive positions at present, Otero’s absence from the second game arguably only helps to preserve the perception of his star performance in the first game and bolster his personal cause.
Finally, in the forward positions, though both Edder Farías and Richard Blanco scored in the first game, to see either in a future squad for a competitive game would be a surprise. Not only are there plenty of overseas-based rivals in this area but there is also competition from the top-scoring home-based Venezuelan who was unable to join this squad as he was busy enhancing the domestic league’s reputation in sensational fashion.
Indeed, immediately after the second national game had ended, Gelmin Rivas fired Deportivo Táchira through to the Copa Libertadores group stage, getting both goals away to Paraguayan giants Cerro Porteño as his side’s 2-2 draw ensured a 4-3 aggregate victory. To have three sides involved in this phase of the continent’s premier competition is very rare and this, along with the two national victories, marked a much-needed morale-booster for Venezuelan football.
It will be curious to see whether Rivas can maintain his form and earn what would be a somewhat unanticipated call-up to the senior side for their two friendlies in late March against Peru and an as-yet-unconfirmed opponent. These two games are currently the last scheduled chances to alter Sanvicente’s plans ahead of Copa América, so whoever ends up in the squad will be best-advised to make the most of their opportunity. With the coach having always been at least a few key players short in his squads up until this point, those that do receive a call-up will be acutely aware that there are certainly some places still yet to be determined.
Wednesday 4 February 2015
Honduras 2-3 Venezuela
Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, San Pedro Sula
Match Highlights of Honduras 2-3 Venezuela (YouTube channel: Futbol Hondureño)
Honduras (4-4-2): Escober; Peralta (Crisanto, 61′), Montes, Velásquez, Palacios; García (Quioto, 73′), Garrido (Acosta, 66′), Méndez (Claros, 46′), Martínez; Castillo (Tejeda, 61′), Lozano.
Venezuela (4-2-3-1): Baroja; Carabalí, Fuenmayor, Sánchez, Cichero; Lucena (c), Figuera; Gómez (Farías, 66′), Otero, Lugo (Acosta, 66′); Blanco (Vargas, 89′).
At the fifth attempt, Noel Sanvicente achieved his first victory since taking charge of La Vinotinto – and the nation’s first since September 2013 – as Rómulo Otero enhanced his claims for a regular place by playing a prominent role in all three goals.
Though this game, the first in a double-header between the two nations, was contested by sides consisting of home-based players (plus three MLS-dwellers in the case of Honduras), it was nevertheless a much-needed morale-booster for Venezuela.
Sanvicente’s opposite number here was Jorge Luis Pinto, taking control of his first Los Catrachos match, having had some time to recharge his batteries following his exceptional World Cup quarter-final run with Costa Rica. With his considerable experience in both Central and South America, he no doubt was unsurprised to witness a first half in which his new charges, as well as their opponents, committed fouls at a rate of nearly one per minute. As the nature of these offences could rarely be defined as anything more than petulant or calculated, only four players ended up in the book.
Something that was also anticipated before kick-off that came into being was the inability of the relatively unacquainted players on both sides to build effective moves and engage in interplay for any sustained period of time. Nevertheless, Honduras saw more of the ball in the opening stages, often looking to attack down the right flank, but their crosses were either blocked or effectively dealt with in the centre.
When Venezuela scored in the 21st minute, it came very much against the run of play and was the visitors’ first shot on goal. Indeed, though La Vinotinto were to struggle throughout the game with any build-up play that involved lengthy possession, on three separate occasions they made rapid use of the ball in the final third to create goals out of nothing.
The first of these came from a move that began from a loose ball just outside the right edge of the Honduran area, where right-back Francisco Carabalí nudged the ball to Argenis Gómez. The sole representative of Apertura champions Trujillanos caught the defenders off-guard by swiftly playing an incisive ball into the area to Rómulo Otero who immediately passed it across the goalmouth for Richard Blanco to tap in. Quite what an international future the 33-year-old striker has beyond these two matches is unclear, but this will no doubt go down as a memorable goal for him and he will be hoping to enjoy similar moments in the upcoming Copa Libertadores group stage with Mineros de Guayana.
As an attacking threat, Venezuela were not to be greatly feared for the remainder of the half as instead the majority of the play consisted of the hosts’ quest for an equaliser. However, with the exception of a well-struck free-kick being deflected a couple of yards over and a soft shot in a promising position from Román Castillo, Honduras did not really threaten their opponents’ goal. Instead, aside from debutant goalkeeper Alain Baroja’s rather hasty advancements off his line to thwart attacks – which on one occasion saw him drop the ball that consequently trickled goalwards – the Venezuelan defence looked rather assured dealing with the attacks down the flanks and the crosses that drifted into the area.
Soon after the second half got underway, Honduras registered another shot on target, as Olimpia striker Anthony Lozano – who, in 2013, earned some online notoriety for this glaring miss at club level – received a low cross and got away a decent effort that was nevertheless comfortably, if acrobatically, caught by Baroja. However, barely a minute afterwards, the visitors were to provide the second sucker punch. This time it began with a Gabriel Cichero throw-in on the left, which bounced through to Gómez who passed it to Otero on the edge of the area who, with two deft touches and a turn, played it back to his onrushing team-mate. From inside the area, Gómez collected it and slid it over to Arquímedes Figuera to gently chip in for his first international goal.
In response, Honduras continued their fruitless quest for a goal, but though they sometimes advanced into good positions, their crosses were again either blocked or not met with enough intent/direction and their shots were of little concern to Baroja. In this period, the Caracas FC goalkeeper again only really encountered trouble from his own, seemingly nervy, desire to impress, as evidenced when he mishandled a comfortable catch from a header.
In the 76th minute, Venezuela were to deliver to the hosts what, at that point, was surely almost an anticipated blow. Otero’s role was again crucial as the 22-year-old starlet – a club team-mate of Baroja’s – picked up the ball on the inside-right, beat a man, then got the better of another inside the area, before playing the ball into the six-yard box. Here, another Caracas colleague – substitute Edder Farías – scored a cheeky effort sideways-to-goal with his trailing right foot to put the result beyond doubt.
Or at least that is how it seemed until a nervy climax emerged following two home goals, the first of which was as fortituous as it was an instinctive finish. It came on 80 minutes as a corner by Mario Martínez – formerly of the Seattle Sounders – was headed out only to be hit straight back into a crowded area for Anthony Lozano to divert past Baroja. The second came in the final minute of regulation time as Martínez swung in another corner from the opposite side that bounced through the crowd and was knocked in by incoming 2014 World Cup squad member, Juan Montes. The error that always seemed a possibility for Baroja had occurred as he was caught in no man’s land when the cross he came out to claim evaded him, though the failure of any of the outfield players to pick up the run of Montes must also be highlighted.
Despite these late lapses, Venezuela’s saw out the four additional minutes to attain their first victory of the Sanvicente era. ‘Chita’ can be proud of the improved defensive performance, with Carabalí, and especially his fellow often-maligned full-back Cichero, doing well to thwart many of the attempted crosses. Those that did make it into the area were largely dealt with effectively by Andrés Sánchez and the 35-year-old Juan Fuenmayor, neither of whom shirked from the frequent pressure they were put under.
Further upfield, though La Vinotinto were unable to put together many forward passes, engage in much possession play or even create a great deal of chances within the final third, the three that mattered were executed swiftly and clinically. Rómulo Otero, with two assists and a pivotal role on the other goal, has to be the man of the match and though the constitution of the side means that even a star performance like this can not guarantee a spot for him in future squads, it will nevertheless be of great benefit to his personal cause.
Before the game kicked off, gaining at least one victory from these two games seemed a necessity for Sanvicente in order to keep some of his impatient critics at bay. Having already achieved this away from home, expectations have increased and a solid win in his former stomping ground of Estadio Agustín Tovar – home of the reigning champions Zamora FC, whom he led to two successive titles – now seems the order of the day. Whether this has any bearing on his undoubted desire to use this rare opportunity to experiment ahead of the 2015 Copa América will remain unclear until the game kicks off next Wednesday.
23 January 2015
2015 South American Youth Championship Group B
Uruguay 0-1 Venezuela
The final group game of the first stage of the prestigious South American Youth Championship between host nation Uruguay and Venezuela ended with some shady and unsavoury scenes that combined the playground with the pub league as La Celeste were denied a legitimate goal.
Deep into stoppage-time, the referee committed a shameless U-turn following several minutes of vociferous Venezuelan protests, revoking from Uruguay what would have been an equaliser despite having previously signalled for the goal.
What follows beneath the video of the events is a recounting of this farcical episode.
Stoppage-time Fiasco at Uruguay vs Venezuela (U20s), 23 January 2015 (Video courtesy of YouTube user Elite Player).
Venezuela went into the game having lost their three previous games and were already out of the competition, whereas their opponents possessed a 100% record and had arguably been the best side on display in either of the two groups. However, in a game contested largely by each nations’ second-string, La Vinotinto had been leading 1-0 courtesy of a first-half Jaime Moreno strike when they appeared to concede a late equaliser four minutes into stoppage-time. Their goalkeeper, Deportivo Petare’s Keiner Escorcia – who had up until that point been earning plaudits for his performance – completely misjudged a high, hanging cross, thus allowing Agustín Ale to nod the ball in.
After conceding, Escorcia remained face down on the ground and so initial Uruguayan celebrations were put on ice as the referee, Bolivia’s Alejandro Mancilla, darted over to his assistant on the far touchline, where he soon found himself crowded by members of both teams. After some brief consultation, he signalled towards the half-way line with the universally understood gesticulation confirming the awarding of a goal. Unsurprisingly, this was met with jubilation by the Uruguayans close by, relieved as a loss in front of their compatriots appeared to have been averted.
Referee Alejandro Mancilla confronted by Jhon Murillo and his Venezuelan team-mates (Image courtesy of Reuters).
However, literally within a second the referee was furiously confronted by Venezuela’s Jhon Murillo, a man who has been nicknamed ‘Balotelli’ by his compatriots and not only for his appearance. The talented, if temperamental, livewire – who had been one of his team’s best performers – physically blocked the official’s atttempt to run back to the centre of the pitch for the restart, nearly clashing heads in the process. The Zamora FC forward then aggressively intimidated the referee Mancilla, incensed as he wildly gestured with his arms while releasing a seemingly relentless verbal diatribe. Two other officials soon also found themselves in a claustrophobic position in between the advertising hoardings and what was now nearly all of Venezuela’s outfield players, with Murillo as the ringleader. Some of his team-mates such as Rubén Ramírez, Franko Díaz and Carlos Sosa made attempts of varying conviction to restrain him though it never took long for him to find a way through the burgundy-bedecked bodies and back into the officials’ faces. However, though he was the leading protagonist, he was not alone in his actions, so riot police eventually had to step in to quell the situation and stop it from getting any uglier than it already was.
In all, this segment of this elongated episode that took place by the far touchline lasted around three minutes, before the referee had managed to find a police-aided pathway through to the penalty area where he could inspect the origins of the Venezuelan players’ complaints. Here, Escorcia was still down with two of the backroom staff crouching over him. It had no doubt been alleged that he had been fouled by Ale before the Uruguayan’s header hit the back of the net and so the referee appeared to be checking on the goalkeeper’s condition. It did not take long for Venezuelan players to again surround him, though they appeared to have cooled down a few degrees. One, erstwhile peacemaker Ramírez, could be seen communicating with him with his hands over his mouth, though whether this is of any significance is impossible to tell at this stage.
Two further minutes elapsed, at which point Escorcia had been gradually helped to his feet and, astoundingly, handed the ball by the referee to resume the game. The tone of the crowd’s noise suddenly changed and as soon as what must have been a free-kick was taken, the game was abruptly ended. Immediately, Uruguayans took their turn to encircle the referee, understandably angry as well as confused as everyone in the stadium and at home was at what the official scoreboard soon confirmed to be a barefaced reversal by a referee who had caved in under pressure. An increasingly volatile situation threatened to erupt, so it was to his credit that Uruguayan captain Gastón Faber opted against joining the rabble and instead stepped in to ensure that his team-mates did not completely lose their heads. Whilst the Danubio midfielder no doubt had an eye on avoiding suspensions for the final stage of the competition – something the Venezuelans had no reason to worry about – he nevertheless did an admirable job of taking some sting out of a potentially poisonous atmosphere and ensuring none of his compatriots descended to Murillo-levels of intimidation.
Nevertheless, Uruguay can feel justifiably aggrieved as replays show beyond dispute that, rather than being fouled, Escorcia completely misjudged the dipping cross that Ale rose to head in. Whether or not he was seriously hurt on his way down is a separate issue, though it seems unlikely.
Thus, it remains to be seen what, if any, punishments will be meted out on the Venezuelan players and the officials, though it would be a considerable surprise if at least Jhon Murillo and the referee avoid any disciplinary action.
Ultimately, from a Venezuelan perspective, this fiasco did take some gloss off what was a much-improved performance following three straight defeats. However, coming at the end of their participation in a tournament in which they had received four red cards in as many games and frequently allowed ill-discipline to overshadow their talents, it was in many ways fitting.
(This article was originally written in English. To read it, click here.)
Ayer, 28 de noviembre de 2014, el equipo sub-20 masculino de Venezuela recibió la medalla de plata en los XXII Juegos Centroamericanos y del Caribe, quedando subcampeones tras México, la nación anfitriona, que acabaron cómodos ganadores con un 4-1 en la final.
Este resultado supone un contraste con el rendimiento de La Vinotinto en su camino hacia la final, puesto que progresaron habiendo llegado al primer puesto de su grupo tras una victoria de 4-0 sobre Haití, un 1-0 sobre Costa Rica y después un empate sin goles contra Cuba. Posteriormente se encontraron con Honduras en la semifinal y los vencieron 1-0 gracias a un temprano penalti de Jhon Murillo del Zamora.
Aún así, por varias razones, los jóvenes venezolanos no deberían sentirse demasiado desanimados por la final y un aspecto al que se le debe prestar una breve atención aquí es la diferencia de edad de las alineaciones titulares del encuentro. En efecto, sus oponentes no sólo eran el equipo oficial Mexicano sub-21 si no que también había, de media, una brecha de más de dos años entre los dos conjuntos – una diferencia que, en muchas competiciones internacionales, habría visto a los equipos separados y colocados en distintas categorías de edad.
Es bastante notable el hecho de que el venezolano de más edad para empezar, el defensor de Caracas Jefre Vargas (nacido el 12/01/95), es más joven que el más joven de los mexicanos nombrado en la alineación de los oponentes, el jugador del torneo, Jonathan ‘Jorge’ Espericueta (nacido el 09/08/94).
Además, el jugador más mayor en la alineación de El Tri era Erick Torres (nacido el 19/01/93), un hombre que tiene una tasa de 1 gol cada 2 juegos para el equipo de la MLS Chivas USA – donde ha estado como préstamo durante casi un año y medio por el equipo mexicano superior en prestigio – y quien también marcó el gol ganador para su selección contra Panamá en Octubre. Es más de tres años y nueve meses mayor que los dos jugadores más jóvenes que empezaron el juego para La Vinotinto: Jefferson Savarino del Zulia y Andrés Ponce del Llaneros de Guanare (los dos compartiendo la fecha de nacimiento del 11/11/96), el último de los cuales tuvo algunas impresionantes actuaciones y fue el máximo goleador de su equipo con cuatro goles.
Muchas más observaciones se pueden recoger de la información proporcionada en la tabla inferior, pero seguramente la conclusión más relevante que se puede hacer es que el progreso de este equipo juvenil venezolano hasta la final ofrece mucho optimismo para el futuro.
Se debe tener en cuenta que todas las edades de los jugadores han sido redondeadas al mes más cercano, dependiendo de su fecha de nacimiento en relación con el partido jugado el 28/11/14. Por lo tanto, si un jugador ha vivido más de 15 días en un nuevo mes, su edad ha sido redondeada. Por ejemplo, José Marrufo, habiendo nacido el 12/05/96 tenía 18 años, 6 meses y 16 días el día del partido y por lo tanto su edad ha sido redondeada a 18 años y 7 meses. Si alguien lo desea es libre de crear una comparación más precisa, aunque es sospechable que el promedio de diferencia entre los dos equipos no cambiaría por más de un mes o así, reafirmando por lo tanto que hay una brecha de aproximadamente dos años entre los dos conjuntos.