Copa America 2019: Venezuela shine in Brazil in front of a gloomy political backdrop

Rafael Dudamel’s young, talented side deserve the plaudits after their victory over Bolivia but the very real problems lying just beneath the surface cannot be ignored

Ewan Mackenna
Belo Horizonte
Sunday 23 June 2019 09:17 BST
Copa America: Brazil 2019

This may not be the big time.

In fact it’s definitely not the big time.

There’s no queue at security when there’s always a queue in Brazil. For everything. Indeed the same guy who during the week pronounced a banana as a serious risk and demanded it be eaten outside the perimeter or be destroyed (genuinely), suggests not taking the laptop from the bag and not so much as putting the bag through the x-ray machine. The guy behind sets off the metal detector and says he has a belt without lifting up his shirt to prove as much. It’s met with a bored and lazy and disinterested wave from officials. It sets the tone for the level all day.

Brazil are playing and winning elsewhere.

There’s a bitterness they are stuck at this.

Bothering therefore would be like burning down the house to get the flies out of the kitchen.

On the surface there may not be a more low-key or less attractive game in the entire tournament, which is saying something. Yet that’s to miss out on so much. A bit like looking at Conor McGregor solely for his ground work in MMA or Johnny Manziel for his arm strength or Tiger Woods for his swing. Scratch at the surface. Pick at the veneer. This after all is Venezuela.

The last time a footballing side from their land were in this town, the journey rather than the destination was a peek into the unsettling chaos that has existed long enough so as to become a normal existence for those forced to carry such a load. With club team Deportivo Lara sharing a group with local giants Cruzeiro in this season’s Copa Libertadores, twice it was called off as they couldn’t get to the city on time, or at all depending on who you listen to. Their hosts offered to help and, having rescheduled their journey, left home for the capital Caracus on a five-hour trek, before taking a six-hour flight the wrong direction to Lima, before passing right over Belo Horizonte en route to Sao Paulo, which took close to five hours, before an hour flight back.

Venezuela's Copa America clash with Bolivia was hardly the biggest story in town on Saturday

A couple of weeks before Arsenal and Chelsea fans bemoaned the effort to get to Baku, they lost only 2-0 to a side that dwarf their budget, the second goal coming deep in stoppage time. They left that night with frustrated smiles but, more tellingly, with deserved pride in their efforts.

Those seeing them off wondered what they were leaving for.

The mystery of the unknown. The mystery of what we don’t want to know.

* * *

Back in March, after a 3-1 win over Argentina in Spain, the press conference held by Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel was strange by any standards. Victory over one of the continent’s superpowers, one who they’d tried to copy and mimic in terms of underage structures, was a decent step forward despite it being only a friendly. Yet faced by the media, he offered to resign.

It was sport as a microcosm of his country, as something with so much potential that had been ruined by the ego and greed of politics. It turned out before that game Antonio Ecarri, the Spanish representative for self-and-US declared president Juan Guidó, had visited the dressing room.

“Everything has been politicised,” Dudamel said. “I am the manager of a team that represents the whole country. We have received the ambassador's visit, with respect, because we are the Venezuelan team that covers the whole country. In Rancagua, we also attended a meeting with Mr [Nicolas] Maduro's ambassador, but the visit has been used, sadly, for other purposes.”

Venezuela's head coach Rafael Dudamel knows all-too-well the political pressure that comes with leading the national team

Even the slightest and most fleet-footed cannot forever walk on egg shells successfully.

The inevitable cracks had appeared.

Many of that team of course would absolutely support Guido and have publicly stated as much. Newcastle’s Salomon Rondon who has been superb at this tournament in a role of holding up defences on his own, Atlanta United’s Roberto Rosales, and captain Tomás Rincón of Torino, have repeatedly spoken out against the Maduro regime. The latter started the year on social media stating that "in our beloved Venezuela, we are experiencing a moment of extreme hardship and adversity and we must get out of this, let's return hope to Venezuelans who want to rebuild our country. I will be an active part of the reconstruction that we all hope for, let's not lose hope”.

While it has made their on-field achievements more impressive, let’s not pretend sport is what it is not and cannot be. If anything, it creates as many problems as it only briefly soothes over.

And to this day there are those who believe sport and politics shouldn’t mix when reality is in every area they are deeply intertwined. Here though the knot is such that it can never be picked.

* * *

In some areas not everyone can be winners, although almost everyone can be a loser.

These are places that are cold and hard and sharp and surgical. Yet as a sporting narrative we try to make them warm and soft and fluffy to avoid what we don’t have to endure to begin with.

Remember the Syria team and their voyage to the edge of the last World Cup? The popular fiction quickly became how it was a team rising from the ashes when the truth was far more complex. Some players didn’t want to speak about what was happening and others didn’t feel the need. After one win manager Fajr Ibrahim and player Osama Omari showed up to talk about a result in t-shirts sporting a photograph of Bashar Al Assad. Meanwhile exiled in Lebanon, a side representing the Free Syrian Army was hoping to some day be the official representatives of the nation with their coach Walid al-Muhaidi loudly suggesting the official team’s flag was blood red and urged their players to leave. “It is not Syria’s team. It is the team of a criminal regime.”

That too often didn’t suit the cuddly story though. So it was wrongly bypassed.

At least in that circumstance there was a semblance of clarity and some clear division. With Venezuela though it can be hard to tell what’s what. So much so that around this team, both political sides are on board for the very same reason. Basically, that they are all Venezuelan.

The political undertone to Venezuela's Copa America campaign cannot be ignored

Across South American cities in recent years, those forced from the country are often seen working in street markets and many sport caps with their blue, yellow and red colours. Being driven away has only increased pride in what they believe their home ought to be. There’s a fundamental issue though as while the rest of the world figures that because Maduro is bad, by extension that must make Guidó good, they are mistaken. Instead it’s the latest country ready to be carved up by external powers with the commonality being a readiness to shaft the locals.

It may be vile but it’s also very real.

So few see it. Trying to find Venezuelans at the game yesterday was hard - the official figures showed that 4,500 actually paid in with another 7,000 given free tickets. But in such conflict there are rarely moderates. The few here were made up of those that had left, and one spoken to outside when asked where he lived described himself as “a nomad who goes around making YouTube videos”. Turns out, along with his French girlfriend, he lives on Miami Beach and while complaining about Venezuela’s reality, the reality he wants is as bad.

Thus while those at this game took pride in what they hate and want to change, it’s one side.

There are also those you don’t hear from who take pride in what yet isn’t forced upon them.

No one can win.

Even if Venezuela did in a football match.

* * *

Rafael Dudamel didn’t walk away that night after the Argentina game in March.

Whatever about politics, it has served them well.

Yesterday they beat Bolivia 3-1 to advance to the last eight of this Copa America, possibly and probably against Argentina although it’s a sign of the fortunes of both that they wouldn’t be fearful. Their first goal was within two minutes with Jefferson Savarino landing a cross onto Darwin Machís. A second came shortly after the interval via the Cadiz midfielder. Meanwhile after Leonel Justiniano got one back, Josef Martinez made sure of it all. It was well deserved.

As was their second place in the group behind a Brazil slowly coming to boil.

Venezuela beat Bolivia to book their place in the Copa America knockout stages

This is part of a wider trend though. Once the side that guaranteed you a victory in this part of the planet, their rise has been formidable. In 2007 at this very competition they topped their group on the way to the quarters, in 2011 they lost a semi-final on penalties, in 2015 they reached the quarter-finals and now they’ve done it again. What it’s built on is obvious too. In the recent continental under-20 championship, their reaching the last six was via beating Colombia, Chile, Bolivia and Brazil, yet was arguably and tellingly a step back having been to a World Cup final with England in 2017. Under-17 is filled with seeds too, having been second and fifth in recent continental efforts. But like everything you cannot remove politics from progress.

Twelve years ago, the state-run oil company PDVSA decided to come on board as a main sponsor of the national team. Hugo Chávez brought the Copa America to the country and his interest grew. Why is open to interpretation, but sport is often a projection of authoritarianism. It’s both a prophecy and hugely grim that Irish pundit Eamon Dunphy once remarked that to be a successful country it helps to be either poor or have a dictator. How many boxes are ticked here?

Within a decade of Chávez’s use of the sport, the Venezuelan Soccer Federation made Pedro Infante, Minister of Sports for Maduro, their vice president as the lines were completely blurred. It may well have helped and may well help on the field further, but away from it it confuses.

As the division grows between both sides, those cheering on the team become more vocal and more together in what makes them so different. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is definitely not the big time, although they are getting there.

For better or worse, depending on who you ask.

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