Venezuela makes first World Cup final amid unrest at home

Long considered the weakest team in South American soccer, Venezuela is the only country in the region that has never played at a senior World Cup.

Venezuela’s players celebrate victory during the U-20 World Cup semifinal football match against Uruguay. The team will face England in the final.   -  AFP

Milagros de Astudillo woke up early in the morning, startled by the shouting and loud noises coming from her home in a working-class neighborhood in Venezuela’s capital.

After another restless night of anti-government protests and violent repression, the 66-year-old grandmother feared the worst. “I thought, ‘Things are getting worse,’” De Astudillo said. “But no, it was my sons and grandsons celebrating because the ‘Vinotinto’ had reached the final.”

Like many in this country stricken by political, social and economic turmoil, De Astudillo’s family celebrated Venezuela reaching its first soccer World Cup final after beating Uruguay in a penalty shootout in the semifinals of the under-20 tournament in South Korea.

Venezuela will face England in Sunday’s final, and there is a marked difference between the two squads. While 17 of England’s 21 players belong to English Premier League clubs and have access to the best facilities in the richest league in the world, 17 players in Venezuela’s roster play for local cash-strapped clubs that, just like the rest of the country, have been affected by widespread shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.

Long considered the weakest team in South American soccer, Venezuela is the only country in the region that has never played at a senior World Cup. That streak will continue next year in Russia with Venezuela in last place in the continental qualifying campaign.

Venezuela is also one of two teams, along with Ecuador, to never win the Copa America. The under—20 squad is playing in its second youth World Cup, after a round-of-16 exit eight years ago in Egypt. And no Venezuelan team has made it past the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores, the top club tournament in South America.

“This success will be a turning point for Venezuelan soccer,” said Rafael Dudamel, who coaches both the under-20 and senior squads. “And, of course, also for them (the players), because it’ll allow them to be seen and establish themselves in international soccer.”

The 44-year-old Dudamel, a former national team goalkeeper, took over the coaching duties from Noel Sanvicente in April 2016 during a difficult period. Several members of the senior squad threatened to boycott international matches because they were not paid bonuses and other benefits like plane tickets and hotels. The local federation had trouble obtaining U.S. dollars to pay for basic expenses because of the strict currency controls imposed by the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

The situation has worsened over the past two months as the government reacted with a bloody crackdown to daily protests against Maduro that left 67 dead, more than 1,000 injured and over 400 detained.

Both Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles tweeted their support for the team, and Dudamel made a rare call from the sports world for the President to stop the bloodshed.

“President, it’s time to put down the weapons,” Dudamel said in post-game TV comments from South Korea after the semifinals. “These kids that go out on the streets, the only thing they want is a better Venezuela.”

Overshadowed in popularity by baseball, soccer made strides in Venezuela over the last decade when the oil-rich country had its biggest achievements.

In 2011, the “Vinotinto” Spanish for red wine, because of their shirt color reached the semifinals of Copa America, South America’s quadrennial national team championship. In 2016, the team lost to Lionel Messi-led Argentina in the quarterfinals of the special edition Copa America Centenario.

With European-based players like West Bromwich Albion striker Salomon Rondon and Juventus midfielder Tomas Rincon, the senior team still struggled in World Cup qualifying. Meanwhile, Dudamel and his coaching staff searched for youth talent in the 18-team Venezuelan professional league, where matches are often played in mostly empty stadiums.

Venezuela finished third in the South American U-20 championship earlier this year in Ecuador, its best result in history in a tournament that in the past has featured future stars like Messi, Brazil striker Neymar and Colombia playmaker James Rodriguez.

“We have a commitment and a responsibility with our country,” said goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez, one of the stars of the tournament who plays for Venezuelan club Caracas FC and has conceded only two goals in six matches. “We have to keep giving them this well-deserved happiness.”

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