Football Academy In The Andes: Redefining football in Venezuela

In South America, the world’s longest mountain range stretches 7,000 kilometres from the very bottom tip of Argentina in the south to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela in the north. When one thinks of the peculiarities the continent’s topography has thrown up in football, it is the stories of giant killings in Bolivia’s Estadio Hernando Siles, in La Paz, that first come to mind. At 3,637 metres above sea level, the hosts have a natural ally in the altitude they are acclimatised to but that plays havoc with the preparation of their visitors. It has led to results that would have otherwise been deemed freak: their 2-0 triumph over Brazil in 1993, the first time their opponents had lost a World Cup qualifier in 40 years, the 6-1 mauling of a Lionel Messi led and Diego Maradona managed Argentina side in 2009, and their sole Copa América title, which they won in 1963 and was hosted across their Estadio Hernando Siles and Estadio Félix Capriles–itself 2,558 metres above sea level. Yet, Venezuelan football has its own Andean curiosities too; far less known but no less fascinating.

As Bolivia were steamrolling their way to that Copa América trophy, unbeaten with five wins from six and the top scorers with 19, whoever you could say constituted the national team of Venezuela were sat watching at home. Like was the case for the first 27 editions of the tournament, Venezuela did not participate in this–the 28th–one, either. In fact, they were yet to kick a ball competitively at all. Their first World Cup qualifying campaign was not until 1965, with Argenis Tortolero having the honour of scoring Venezuela’s first ever competitive goal, in a 3-1 defeat to Uruguay, in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Their first competitive victory came two years later, defeating Bolivia by three goals to nil in the fourth game of their first Copa América. Venezuela would have to wait 30 years to experience that winning feeling again in the tournament, drawing seven and losing 34 along the way. 

Art by Onkar Shirsekar

The architect in the dugout for their second triumph, a 2-0 win against Peru, was Richard Páez. It was 2007 and Venezuela were hosting the Copa América for the first time. For six years, Páez had been reengineering the continent’s perennial whipping boys. He was so successful in doing so that the national team’s nickname changed from “The Cinderella” (La Cenicienta), because they always came last, to “The Red Wine” (La Vinotinto), thanks to the colour of their shirts. Páez’s transformational mission was a personal one. Not only was he taking great pride in being the first Venezuelan to take charge of the national team for competitive fixtures, but he had endured the pain of being part of La Cenicienta as a player. 

The moment he realised he had to do something came in the 1975 Copa América. He was part of Venezuela’s heaviest defeat in history when they lost 11-0 to César Luis Menotti’s Argentina, a game in which the aptly named centre-back Daniel Killer scored a hat-trick. After the game, Páez promised himself that he would one day change the national team’s identity.

One of 12 brothers, Richard Páez is positioned at the top of a dynastical family perhaps unparalleled in world football. “Thirty of us have been footballers, from goalkeepers to strikers,” Richard’s sister-in-law, Sara, told me. “They did not all make it professionally and some became coaches, but football has become our family business.” Richard’s apprenticeship began in 1970, winning the State Youth Championship in the Andean city of Mérida, home to the country’s highest mountain peaks and the place of his birth, with an amateur team made up of students. A year later he turned professional with the newly formed Estudiantes de Mérida, just one of many teams in the Venezuelan Andes coming into existence around the time.

With baseball occupying the hearts and minds of the Venezuelan population as the country’s sport of choice, it was out of the cities and away from the pervasive American influences, which were ubiquitous across the country thanks to the then heavy presence of American oil companies such as Shell, that football began to flourish. Founded in the same year, further south along the mountain range and 80 kilometres from the border with Colombia, Deportivo Táchira would rival Estudiantes to form the first great native derby – the Clásico Andino (the Andean Classic). Before the emergence of these two clubs–as well as the likes of Portuguesa FC and Caracas FC, founded in 1972 and 1967–Venezuelan football was dominated by colonial teams created by settler communities from Italy, Spain, and Portugal. 

Despite their quality, these colonial clubs were little more than teams, purely existing to entertain the expatriate communities they were built around. They neglected to invest in lasting infrastructure and tended to avoid assimilating the local talent into their heavily emigrant sides. They were responsible for some of the best and most entertaining sides in the history of Venezuelan football, but their presence hindered the development of the game in the country, and the influence it had meant the consequences were felt long after they had dissolved. Their legacy was one of great memories and bad habits.

The Páez family and their desires for Venezuelan football stood in stark contrast to the status quo, which was maintained by an uninterested Federation. Richard looked elsewhere for his coaching education, spending time in Colombia and Italy shadowing the likes of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, before putting into practice what he had learned. “I saw another way of playing and had a change of heart, a change of ethos,” Richard told me. “When I was [in Colombia], I realised there was another way to develop our game, different from what I had grown up knowing.”

The success he had as a player–two Copa Venezuela titles with Estudiantes and one league title with both Portuguesa and Unión Atlético Táchira–accompanied him into management, where he first achieved success with Estudiantes’ cross city rivals, Universidad de Los Andes FC (ULA FC), winning them promotion from the Second Division and then the Copa Venezuela in consecutive seasons. What made the achievement all the more romantic was that two of his brothers played under him during the promotion season, Andrew and Raymond, and although Raymond then left after the promotion, Andrew went on to lead ULA FC to the 1996 Copa Venezuela title.

Three years earlier, amongst the Merideño mountains, Richard and four of his brothers had put their footballing philosophy not only into practice, but into brick and mortar, starting up the Academia Emeritense Fútbol Club.

“We currently have around 450 young players on our books,” Sara told me, who, as of 2019, is the club’s first female president. “We did have 600, but like everything in the country, our numbers are down at the moment.” A proud trophy cabinet documenting the 17 years that have passed since its founding is testament to the Páez project: three back-to-back titles from Denmark’s Dana Cup, one of the most prestigious annual youth tournaments in the world, are flanked by Championship trophies from Sweden and medals from the Mundialito Cup in Portugal. “Our 1995 generation,” Andrew told me, which includes his son, Ayrton, a former Mallorca midfielder now himself at Estudiantes, “is the only team in history to win the Dana Cup three times in a row.” In 2006 they hammered Welwyn Pegasus (England) 7-1 in the U-11 Final, in 2007 they narrowly beat Spartak Moscow 1-0 in the U-12 Final, and the U-13 2008 final saw them complete the hat-trick.

Emeritense’s successes on their yearly Scandinavian Tours led to them being invited to the Mundalito, a Club World Cup style competition predominantly aimed at professional academies across the world. With Ayrton Páez scoring at will, Emeritense made the quarter-finals, where they were joined by seven Champions League academy sides: Ajax, Rangers, Inter, Valencia, Betis, Sevilla, and Benfica. Drawn against Rangers, Emeritense twice missed from the penalty spot before the Scottish side took a two-goal lead. Ayrton levelled the scores with a brace and the momentum was then firmly with the Venezuelans. Unfortunately, as Andrew remembers, the Rangers goalkeeper was equal to everything for the rest of the game, and after running themselves into the ground, Rangers sucker punched Emeritense with two late goals to win the game 4-2. Emeritense finished the tournament in fifth place and in Ayrton they had the team’s Golden Boot winner with nine goals.

When they’re not participating around the world, Emeritense host international guests themselves. “In the last three tournaments we have organised, we even had professional youth teams come across from Colombia,” Sara informed me. “Millonarios FC, Cúcuta Deportivo, Atlético Bucaramanga, and Deportivo Cali.” It was an impressively comprehensive undertaking, consisting of 288 games that Sara was proud to tell me all kicked off on time and all played across their impressive complex. “Transport was provided, meals were prepared for 800 players, and 12 hotels were booked out–we created a system that made our city work and move.” In 2007, Paraguay and Peru even used Emeritense’s facilities as a training camp for the Copa América.

With the groundwork put in and the foundations established over the past 15 years, Emeritense are looking at moving up the professional ladder themselves. Six of their graduates are first team regulars for Estudiantes, with a further five in the squad, and another 20 in the reserves, and Emeritense’s own senior side are in the Third Division, competing with a squad averaging 22 years of age. The Páezs’ now have their eyes on the top flight. 

“We are perhaps the only academy to have made international transfers directly,” Andrew was proud to tell me. “[Franco] Signorelli to Empoli, Ayrton and Gustavo to Mallorca, and Octavio Páez to Deportivo Alavés.” The last example is contentious. With a loan deal arranged, which included a $450,000 to-buy clause and followed FIFA protocol, the FVF cancelled the paperwork, forbidding Emeritense to receive money for the transfer of players. Why? Well, as an amateur club, it is not permissible in accordance to the Venezuelan Football Federation’s rules and regulations. Instead, Octavio joined Alavés’ Croatian affiliate, NK Istra 1961, who play in the top division, as a free agent. Hopefully Emeritense will one day see a return on their exports. Once they turn fully professional, Sara says, they have an impressive network of clubs ready to do business with. “Cruzeiro, Gremio, Colón, Newell’s Old Boys, Kaizer Chiefs, Malaga…we already have relationships with teams such as these.” 

Later that same day, I took a break from the history lessons and watched the U-12s train. Next to me stood a man head to toe in CF Granada teamwear. “I’ve come to Venezuela once a year for the past few years. I like what I see, but I see too many players who are trained to win but lack technique. I’ve been [at Emeritense] for a month now and here it is different.”

While watching them, I had to remind myself of how young they were. I had wrongly presumed they were at least two age categories up, because the confidence and care with which they kept possession and manipulated the ball was far beyond their years, as was their social awareness. “You know there’s no fuel here, don’t you?” one kid said to me. It was as if he was taking a perverse pride in knowing it, like it was something only adults should know. In a way, it was telling; a nationwide fuel shortage should not be something a 12-year-old worries about, but the reality was that it was the first thing he thought I should know.

“We have children from a very low socioeconomic level here,” Sara explained. “We handle 30% of the scholarship holders in the country, but you don’t always have children with football ability and the benefit of economic security, so we have a mix and we divide the costs among the parents who can afford it. There are no longer sponsors who are able to help.”

It makes the Federation’s decision to forbid Emeritense from profiting from their exports all the more frustrating. In January 2019, the Federation issued a resolution instructing that clubs are obliged to pay training clubs, such as Emeritense, a compensation fee, but Andrew says that in the first 12 months of its existence, nobody has paid. “Integrity, honesty, every value that can help us, we try to live by, yet we face situations in which we have to fight, be it with FIFA or the Federation. We are still alive in spite of them. If we had the ability to collect payment, we could be on par with the great academies in Europe.” Considering they were making the final eight of Champions League standard tournaments back in 2008, Sara’s assertion hardly seems braggadocious.

But what since? Why have the European adventures stopped? “We have wanted to continue participating but it is difficult. Mérida is a university city, it thrives off of the business that brings. The average salary here used to be $3,000 per month; now it’s $6. The people’s purchasing power has declined and declined again, which has made attending these tournaments much harder. Practically every child we have is now a scholarship holder.”

Although the economic and political crisis has not spared Mérida, and the oil and electricity shortages affect its residents all the more severely due to the city’s mountainous location, the Academia Emeritense and the Páez family continue to challenge the orthodoxy and oppose what they deem as corrupt Federation practices–or at least, wholly detrimental to the advancement of Venezuelan football–while continuing to professionalise their organisation and appreciate their small victories. At the end of the 2019 season, Estudiantes faced Caracas in the Liga FUTVE Gran Final. After two legs, the scores were tied and Estudiantes lost on penalties. Still, it was the first time they had reached the final since 1998, which foreshadowed a run to the quarter-finals of the 1999 Copa Libertadores. A familiar pair were behind that success, too: Richard on the sidelines and Andrew in the midfield. It was the furthest a Venezuelan side had reached in the modern format of the competition and has not been bettered since. Fifty years have passed since a Páez first entered the Venezuelan football scene and the family has been a constant, positive presence ever since. With the Academia Emeritense blossoming, I would safely bet another fifty years will pass without that changing.

Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. He reads and writes about Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology. He is the author of "Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion".