“We’re in the middle of a ‘generational renovation,’” Ruben Villavicencio, executive president of the Venezuelan Premier League, told me as we discussed Venezuela’s Copa América performance. I thought that was a wonderful turn of phrase – the kind that only happens when speaking a language that isn’t your own – and it is such a perfect description of what is happening with the Venezuelan national team. Before, the squad picked itself because the options were so limited; now the decisions Rafael Dudamel, the head coach, has to make are difficult ones because, for the majority of positions, there are at least two strong options. Their time in Brazil perfectly encapsulated this and where they are as a footballing nation.
To understand how the performance was received back home and what is expected next from La Vinotinto, I spoke with several Venezuelan experts and professionals: David McIntosh, veteran centre-back of two Copas and former international teammate of Rafael Dudamel; Verónica Herrera, U17 South American Championship winner in 2013 and 2016; Marie Ferro and Eduardo Pino, TV and radio football journalists for Meridiano TV and Difusión Latina; and Carlos Bustamante, an independent producer and sports journalist based in England.
“The selection caused a lot of controversy,” McIntosh explained, tapping straight into the public discourse that is so symptomatic of national football. “It was controversial because there are, let’s say, millions of Venezuelan managers, each one with their own criteria. I think we performed well, but there was a bitter taste that if we had been more ambitious it could have been better.”
It’s a sentiment echoed unequivocally among the jury I had assembled for La Vinotinto to stand before. The consensus was that Argentina were there for the taking. “Over-respected.” “A missed opportunity.” “Shown excessive respect.” Ferro believes the ‘more creative’ Jefferson Savarino could have made the difference, and Herrera and Bustamante were left pondering what could have been had more time been given to Yeferson Soteldo.
Despite his limited game time – 95 of the 360 minutes on offer – Soteldo impressed across the board. Before moving to Brazilian giants Santos and being handed the #10 shirt of Pele and Robinho, the 5’2” attacking midfielder was entertaining crowds in Chile with Club Universidad, completing the most dribbles in the league with 89 – 30 ahead of his nearest competitor. To the surprise of many, he was not in Dudamel’s Copa squad, with US visa difficulties cited as the reason for him not being able to join them there for pre-tournament training. When Watford’s Adalberto Peñaranda dropped out late through injury, Soteldo stepped up.
“I didn’t like how little the involvement of Soteldo and Josef Martínez was,” Pino said to me. “In my opinion, the coach lacked a little more daring. I have a lot of respect for Dudamel, especially since he achieved great things with the U17s and U20s; however, I do not share the way the game is played at certain times.”
So effective was Soteldo considered by Pino’s colleague Ferro, she included him in her three standout performers for La Vinotinto despite playing just 25% of their minutes. “Soteldo did an incredible job, he didn’t start any game, but as an impact sub for the team his work was great. He created a lot of opportunities, opening spaces, dragging markers, unbalancing the other team, and he also helped the defence when they needed him.”
Alongside the bleach-blond-haired forward, Ferro completed her picks with Darwin Machís, who was chosen in four of the five ‘top three’ selections, and Wuilker Faríñez. Machís’s highlight was the game against Bolivia. Needing a win to guarantee a spot in the quarterfinals, Machís kept his place in the starting line-up after a very disciplined and hardworking performance in the goalless draw with hosts and eventual champions Brazil. It took just two minutes to pay dividends, as Ronald Hernandez crossed from right to left and Machís headed in.
“His performance, individually and with the team, was great, knowing that for Dudamel it’s very important to help the team in every way: defensively, where he sacrificed a lot, and offensively.” Praise for his goals also came from McIntosh and Pino, but it was Faríñez’s name on everybody’s lips, however.
Out of the teams that made it to the quarterfinals, Venezuela’s average age of 25.7 was the youngest by over a year. The youngest of them all was their first-choice goalkeeper, 21-year-old Wuilker Faríñez Array, who made his international debut at 18 and was being suggested as a replacement for Jasper Cillessen at Barcelona, before they opted for Neto from Valencia.
“[It was] again another reliable performance overall for the Millonarios goalkeeper,” Bustamante, who commentates for talkSPORT, stated. “When he makes a mistake, you can see how fragile the backline is.”
It was an opinion shared by Venezuelan international Herrera – “even when the last game wasn’t his best performance, he had the best performance,” – and Ferro: “even though he committed a mistake for the last goal against Argentina, he is so young with an amazing future and he made some amazing saves.”
While Machís, Soteldo, and Faríñez received much of the praise, Dudamel deserves equal credit, and his successes were arguably the greatest fuel for his detractors: priority on defensive robustness and a whole-team approach to providing it.
“Often people believe that only defenders should defend,” McIntosh, a defender of 23 years and counting, observed. “It is not so; it requires tactical concentration, where the first defender is the forward, and in all parts of play, the players should do so.” It is something blatant in Dudamel’s approach and doesn’t go unrecognised: Pino picked leading striker Rondón in his top three performers because he “sacrificed a lot for the team; work that almost nobody sees, Rondón does easily’”; and Ferro used the same word – ‘sacrifice’ – in her reasoning for picking Machís out.
Dudamel’s international managerial record from the youth sides up are littered with records that pay homage to his approach: in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Venezuela went 213 minutes without conceding – the longest they had gone without conceding in World Cup qualifiers; in the 2017 South American Youth Football Championship, Faríñez conceded just six goals in nine games, which was the fewest in the tournament; and in the 2017 U20 World Cup, Venezuela reached the quarterfinals – 506 minutes of football – before conceding, which is the second longest streak in the record books of the tournament. In the 2019 Copa América, La Vinotinto went 278 minutes before conceding, including clean sheets against both the eventual finalists, Peru and Brazil.
The achievement is all the more remarkable when the forced rotation of their backline is taken into consideration. In their three group stage games, La Vinotinto used three different centre-back combinations: Jhon Chancellor and Mikel Villanueva (vs Peru), Yordan Osorio and Villanueva (vs Brazil), and Luis Mago and Chancellor (vs Bolivia).
“I think the defence is one of the most important things in a game,” Herrera, who’s had her fair share of tournament success, told me, “and I have learned from different coaches that defence should not be changing during competitions.” Unfortunately, Dudamel had no choice.
“I think that we had a pretty complete squad,” Ferro concluded, as we discussed Dudamel’s team selection, “but I feel that Rolf Feltscher [right-back, LA Galaxy] wasn’t ready for the tournament from day one – he was injured. I never understood the reason why he was there.
“I think that Alexander Gonzalez [right-back, unattached] was the best option, and we missed Wuilker Angel, a great defender [Akhmat Grozny]. At the end we needed him because neither Villanueva or Osorio were able to play against Argentina.
“Venezuela started the tournament with Chancellor and Villanueva, but I always felt that the best partner for Villanueva was Osorio as they showed against Brazil. Then there were rumours of Villanueva and Osorio starting against Bolivia, but Villanueva got sick with a disease that here in Venezuela we call lechina, and Osorio had some problems with his knee. But the reason why we conceded just one goal in the group stages was the defensive tactic of Dudamel and also the organisation of the entire team, especially in the game against Brazil.”
By a large proportion of the Venezuelan support, however, it was seen as an overreliance on defence. Here was a team, they thought, whose DNA had become so ingrained with playing damage limitation football that they didn’t know how to command the attacking talent and creative potential they now possessed.
“Honestly, I was disappointed with La Vinotinto in this Copa,” Pino admitted. “They didn’t know how to play with the ball. Dudamel must keep working so that in the face of the World Cup qualifiers, the system we have improves. This team needs to step up more in order to accomplish great things.”
“Dudamel believes in his tactics and to be fair, it works during the group stage,” Bustamante said, “but also it doesn’t help to establish an identity, a Vinotinto way to play.
“If they get good results, you can say the tactics worked, but there is not much room to dream about the next level. Against Argentina we should have pressured much more instead of allowing them to find their way into the game. La Vinotinto had their moments because the players somehow found their way and only excellent work for Armani denied them.”
It was a running theme throughout the professionals’ responses. “I think the tactics at least in the group stage were appropriate,” Ferro explained. “We drew with the Champions and it’s no secret that they are better than La Vinotinto in every way, so of course we needed a defensive tactic. Then there’s Peru. We all saw what they did at this tournament. It was the first game and I think we made a lot of mistakes, but still, we earned a point.
“Then against Bolivia we put on a great game. I believe that in the quarterfinals, the tactic wasn’t the problem. Instead of Murillo we should have played with Savarino – he’s more creative, he has the vision of a “10” – and maybe again changing one player in midfield (Yangel out for Añor, for example).
“We can’t force this team into playing 4-4-2 in order to give some minutes to Josef Martinez because we never played that way in the friendly matches. Maybe a 4-2-3-1 but again, I think that 4-3-3 was a good tactic but with different players, more offensive. We missed the opportunity to beat Argentina. We arrived in better form than them to both the tournament and the game.”
The next 12-18 months of international football provides a busy calendar for Dudamel’s men. In 2020, the senior side will face the 2022 World Cup qualifiers scheduled to start in March, another Copa América, and the CONMEBOL Pre-Olympic Tournament, which starts on January 15. Should they perform well enough to secure one of the two berths given to South America, Venezuela will have Olympic football at the end of July to look forward to.
The Olympics in particular offer Venezuela a perfect showcase for what is being described as their strongest generation. Run as an U23 competition, with an allowance of three ‘overage’ players, the Olympics come at a time when all of La Vinotinto’s U20 World Cup runners-up cohort from 2017 will be eligible, as well as those who missed out but have since risen to prominence, such as Savarino, and they can be bolstered by the likes of Tomás Rincón, Roberto Rosales and Rondón.
Alternatively, it could be used as a test run for life without the lattermost, or a chance to try out a two-striker formation. It’s a notion Ferro and I discussed and agreed could work in a 4-3-1-2, which would have the benefit of retaining the robust triumvirate of players in the mould of Rincón, Yangel Herrera and Júnior Moreno in midfield, and allowing Martínez to partner Rondón in attack. Linking the two could be one of Soteldo, Savarino, or Rómulo Otero, who many, including Herrera and Pino, felt shouldn’t have been omitted from the 2019 Copa squad. In one way or another, 2020 is shaping up to be a year in which many are hoping for the shackles to come off.
“I have pretty high expectations,” Ferro admitted. “I think that we need to work very hard in the attacking department and try different tactics in order to have a more competitive and complete team that knows how to be defensive but still able to create more opportunities and be offensive when needed.
“There’s a dream, and that’s the goal: we want to be in our first World Cup, and I believe we have great players that are at good points in their careers.” It is a positivity that isn’t alone.
“This team is super-talented,” Herrera said of her fellow pros. “It has a lot of experience and I think they are prepared for the next challenges. I think this team could be the first Venezuela national team to get to the World Cup.” For Bustamante, it is all that matters; “anything else,” he says, “would be a high profit.”
TV anchor Pino and former Vinotinto defender McIntosh were more reserved, with the latter explaining in some depth what issues remain and must be overcome if La Vinotinto are going to enter the world’s biggest football tournament.
“Bit by bit, Venezuela’s national team improves thanks to the number of players it exports today, but I think we still have a long way to go to reach a World Cup.
“God willing, it happens in these qualifications, but I don’t think we’ve done it before because those in charge believe that football grows from top to bottom, and this has perhaps seemed the case due to the adaptivity of the Venezuelan.
McIntosh, who offers advice to young players across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, believes the entire attitude has to change.
“For our football to become elite, we must start with our battered academy system. The kids should be treated the same or better than the professionals, that is the mentality we need because they are going to be the future of our football, and at the moment, they produce a footballer who has been mistreated and poorly fed, both in their physical, emotional, and mental nutrition. My advice is, if they really love football, to reflect.”
Pino’s reservations were more immediate, telling me that the Copa performance has left a bad taste and he hopes that it signals to Dudamel that continuing to play in the same manner will make World Cup qualification very difficult. Don’t change, the message was, and an unsuccessful 2020 could leave the manager in a “sea of doubt.”
Dylan Wiliam, an Emeritus Professor of Educational assessment, believes that “in education, ‘what works?’ is not the right question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.” For Dudamel, this point is key to how he will be remembered as Venezuela’s manager, and how his squad will rank against those that have come before them. Until now, though formations change, tactics have remained relatively unchanged. “So what’s interesting,” Wiliam concludes, “what’s important in education, is ‘under what conditions does this work?” Dudamel is an educator and he must ask himself this question; the answer will define the next 18 months.
Jordan Florit is the author of the upcoming book “Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion.”