The Round of 16 at the 2009 Under-20 World Cup; the group stage in the 2013 Under-17 World Cup and no appearances at any World Cup tournament in over 100 years of competing. A single sentence can summarise the sad history of Venezuelan football, but that is about to change. Or better yet, it has already changed. To truly understand the transformation and why the future looks so bright, we must rewind back to the CONMEBOL Under-20 South American Championship played in Ecuador earlier this year.
On the surface, Venezuela looked unspectacular throughout the tournament, drawing all four group stage games, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find their performances painted a different picture altogether. The individual quality of their players, their tactical development and typically raw South American physicality caught the attention of the continent – and even some European clubs too.
Which leads us to July 2017, where La Vinotinto defied all the odds to reach the final at the Under-20 World Cup. They qualified from their group beating Germany, hammering Vanuatu 7-0 and scraping through against Mexico, all without conceding a single goal. Japan, the USA and Uruguay fell to the Venezuelans in as they set up a mouth-watering clash with England. They may have fallen short at the final hurdle, eventually losing out on penalties, but make no mistake this was a huge milestone for manager Rafael Dudamel and his players.
While reaching the top of the youth game is hugely encouraging, they now need to develop and find ways to translate this talent to the senior side. Dudamel, his players and other senior figures at the Venezuelan Football Federation must now think about what happens next. The question for those in charge is simple: is this success a case of pure coincidence, having a great selection of players born within a few years of each other, or is this the result of work being undertaken across the country at grassroots level?
Look across to Chile for example. Most that know just a little bit about the game are worried that they will fail to replace what is perhaps their greatest ever generation of players. You simply don’t see the abilities of Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez or even Claudio Bravo being matched by those who are now coming through. The aforementioned three will likely have one World Cup left at their best and fans are concerned that the nation may slide back into the middle tier, with their place in Russia already in doubt.
This is a reality too close to home for Venezuela to ignore. If this generation is indeed a product of coincidence, then now should be the motivation to start working to ensure a more consistent crop of talent coming through. If it’s because of the coaching methods being implemented at grassroots levels, then now is the time to consolidate. Their recent success has been built on a core of young stars, with Adalberto Peñaranda, Yangel Herrera, Yeferson Soteldo, Ronaldo Peña, Sergio Córdova and Wuilker Fariñez who are all still under the age of 21. Plenty rests on their shoulders both in the present and the future, and the goal must be to ensure that it makes them and doesn’t break them.
Peñaranda is a wonderfully talented forward, both fast and skilful, who usually plays off the wing or as the main centre-forward. But despite being on the books at Watford, he has struggled to further his career in Europe after a number of loan spells in Italy and Spain. His attitude has been known to hold him back, however, he does own the record of being the youngest non-Spanish scorer in La Liga, previously held by Lionel Messi.
Yangel Herrera is the team captain and archetypal defensive midfielder. A leader at heart, his game is based on awareness and physicality which is an example many of his team-mates follow. Always well positioned in both the defensive and attacking phases, he can contribute at both ends of the pitch thanks to his marathon-worthy endurance. He was acquired in January 2017 by Manchester City and immediately sent on loan to their North American partners New York City, where he has impressed since the beginning of March.
Yeferson Soteldo is the side’s creative force. Standing at 5ft 3in tall, he is agile in tight spaces and will always find a way to escape immediate pressure from defenders. His touch is magnificent, allowing him to control the ball at speed, whilst still possessing that bite needed to survive in such a physical game. Ronaldo Peña has strength in abundance and is at his best when deployed as the lone striker, sharing qualities with Diego Costa. He currently plays for Las Palmas B in the second-tier of Spanish football and is being tipped for first-team action this season.
Sergio Córdova – now of Augsburg – was arguably the surprise package under Dudamel. Capable of playing across the frontline, he is quick and tactically switched on, finishing as the team’s top scorer at the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea. Much like Thomas Muller, the 20-year-old has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and will welcome any chance to score, no matter how scrappy. Wuilker Fariñez is a goalkeeper with an eye for the extravagant, excellent shot stopping abilities and unrivalled reflexes who has already established himself in the senior side.
It feels unfair to highlight mostly attacking players from Venezuela’s successful campaign, but this is what they represent under their coach – vibrant, attacking football. Dudamel favours a 4-4-2 shape that turns into a 4-3-3 or even a 3-4-3 when attacking, which is why they ended up as top scorers in South Korea this summer with 14 goals.
Despite the obvious challenges they must overcome, their World Cup success signified a major shift in what it means to talk about football in Venezuela. From a nation once considered the weakest of all in South America, hope is rising and we ate certain to hear more about this crop of young stars as they find their feet in Europe and beyond.
While this group may have come too late to help the senior side qualify for Russia 2018, hopes remain that they can guide the nation to Qatar in 2022 and pave the way for a more successful era of football in what remains a nation still crazy about football. Especially with the political issues, violence and terrorism that clouds the country today, finding a way to unite its people and offering them something to believe in has been the greatest victory of them all.