Venezuela's journey from maligned 'Cinderella' to FIFA Top 30

Venezuela heads into June's Copa America sitting 30th in the FIFA world rankings, ahead of fellow South Americans Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia.

File image of Estadio OlImpico Universitario, Caracas, Venezuela.   -  Pool via Reuters

For decades, Venezuela's national football team was disparagingly nicknamed "Cinderella" for perennially failing to attend, being the first to depart, or finishing bottom of the pile in the Copa America and World Cup qualifiers.

Now it heads into June's Copa America in Colombia and Argentina sitting 30th in the FIFA world rankings, ahead of fellow South Americans Paraguay (35), Ecuador (53) and Bolivia (81).

Here are some facts about Venezuelan football:

* Known as "La Vinotinto" (The Red Wine), thanks to the colour of its shirts, Venezuela is the only South American team to have never qualified for a World Cup. Only Ecuador joins it in having never won the Copa America.

* Venezuela hosted the Copa America for the first time in 2007, recording its first victory in the competition for 40 years with a 2-0 defeat of Peru. It was knocked out in the quarterfinals, 4-1 to Uruguay.

* Juan Arango holds the record of most appearances for the men's national team (129), while Salomon Rondon has scored the most goals (31).

* The last decade has been one of success for the national youth teams: the U-17 women won back-to-back South American Championships undefeated and twice finished fourth at the World Cup, while the U-20 men’s team finished runner-up at the 2017 World Cup, losing 1-0 to England in the final.

* Unlike many of its continental neighbours, Venezuela’s football players were late arrivals to the European game. Stalin Rivas was the first professional to play in Europe, debuting with Belgium’s Standard Liege on May 24, 1992.

* The first Venezuelan in England’s Premier League was Fernando Amorebieta, signed in 2013 by Fulham from Athletic Bilbao.

* At the domestic level, Venezuela's top-tier Liga FUTVE is undergoing its second season of playing under a different format, in light of the coronavirus pandemic. For 2021, there are 21 teams competing in three groups of seven in the first stage. A second stage will determine the league champion, continental qualification, and relegation.

* Venezuela's top flight was founded 100 years ago in 1921 and turned professional in 1957. Despite this, 12 of the current Liga FUTVE teams are less than 20 years old, including 2020 champions Deportivo La Guaira.

* The fiercest derby is contested by Deportivo Tachira, 80 km (50 miles) from the border with Colombia, and capital club Caracas FC. While "El Clasico Moderno" can trace its origins to the 1990s, the rivalry sharpened in December 2000 when an 89th minute winner for away team Caracas led to a pitch invasion by the home fans at fulltime. The ensuing chaos culminated with the Caracas team bus being pushed onto the pitch by Tachira fans, looted, and then set alight while the players locked themselves in the changing room.

* Venezuelan football has also played its part in the much wider known Spanish "El Clasico" between Barcelona and Real Madrid. In 1982, the encounter was played overseas for the first time, in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. A sole goal by Real's Vicente del Bosque decided the tie and just 700 spectators were in attendance.

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