The fairytale becoming a reality for Venezuelan football

The fairytale becoming a reality for Venezuelan football

The Round of 16 at the 2009 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Egypt; the group stage in the 2013 FIFA Under-17 World Cup that took place in the United Arab Emirates; no appearances at any FIFA World Cup tournament; and only two previous participations, one if you consider only the under-20 category. In only two or three lines you can summarise the history of Venezuelan football in the main categories of World Cup tournaments. That is about to change, or better yet, it has already changed.

In December 2013, South Korea won the bid to host the 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, after 12 countries submitted bids to organise the event, becoming the third nation to host all major FIFA men’s international competitions. 

A few years earlier, in October 2013, José Hernández, only 16-years-old back then, was part of the Venezuelan under-17 squad that was defeated by Tunisia, Russia and Japan in the first round of the under-17 World Cup hosted by the UAE. The left-back is the only player from that roster who was today part of the under-20 Venezuela side that made history at the recently concluded tournament in South Korea.

Venezuela may not have been crowned champions, but that is not the point of this feature – in fact, most of this was written before the 1-0 final defeat against England. To understand the changes in Venezuelan football and why the future is so bright, you need to rewind back to the CONMEBOL Under-20 South American Championship, played in January and February 2017 in Ecuador.

Venezuela failed to shine during the tournament, drawing all of their four games in the group stage, but their performances painted a different picture to the results. The outclassed many of their illustrious neighbours, defeating eventual winners Uruguay 3-0 in the final group stage to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup. The individual quality of their players, their tactical development and their physical toughness caught the attention of the whole continent – and some European clubs, too.

The story that unfolded recently in Asia is now well known. They qualified from the group stage after defeating Germany, subsequently hammering Vanuatu 7-0 and recording a tight win 1-0 against Mexico. Promisingly, they didn’t concede a single goal in the group. Into the knockout rounds and Japan, the USA and Uruguay fell to the Venezuelan sword as they set up a mouthwatering clash with England.

Analyse it from whatever angle you want, but their performance represents a big milestone for Venezuela. While reaching the top of the youth game is a great achievement, they now need to progress and find ways to translate this talent to the senior side. As the national coach, Rafael Dudamel, and his players focused on the England game, the folk at the Venezuelan Football Federation must have been thinking about the future.

The question for those in charge is simple: is this success a case of pure coincidence, having a great group 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? 

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To figure that out, you need to head to Chile. Most in the South American nation that know even just a little about the game are worried that they will fail to replace what is perhaps their greatest generation of stars ever. They’re worried that there’s no new Arturo Vidal, no new Alexis Sánchez and no new Claudio Bravo coming through the ranks. The aforementioned three will likely have one World Cup left at their best; beyond that, fans are concerned that the nation may slide back into the middle tier of South American football powers, with diminishing results and fewer fans in the stadiums. 

The Chile example is too concerning and close to home to ignore it for Venezuela. 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 coaching methods being implemented at grassroots levels, then now is the time to consolidate.

The stars of the current side, Adalberto Peñaranda, Yangel Herrera, Yeferson Soteldo, Ronaldo Peña and Sergio Córdova, are all between 19 and 20, and the hopes of a nation rest on their young shoulders, today and tomorrow.

Peñaranda is a right-footed forward, fast and skilful. He is lethal in one-on-ones and can play off the wing or as a centre-forward. He was sold in 2015 to Udinese, when he was just 18-years-old, but has struggled to further his career in Europe. After short hops in Udine and at La Liga’s Granada, he landed on loan at Málaga in January 2017 where he only managed to make three appearances, totalling 171 underwhelming minutes.

Although his technical skills levels are excellent, he can sometimes be seen as arrogant and defiant, occasionally disrupting the attacking flow of the team by executing unnecessary flicks, or taking too long to release the ball. He does, however, own the record of being the youngest non-Spanish scorer in La Liga, previously held by Lionel Messi.

Yangel Herrera is the team captain. A defensive midfielder, he is all about equilibrium, space management and leadership. He is usually well positioned in both the defensive and attacking  phases, participating in every aspect of the game thanks to his strong 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 made six appearances since the beginning of March.

Yeferson Soteldo is the creative force. He is only five foot three inches, which makes him agile in small spaces, allowing him to find tiny gaps between defenders and escape equally well. His technique is simply magnificent, affording him stunning close control at speed, as well as a brilliant first touch to escape the clutches of defenders.

His greatest weakness is his inconsistency; while he enjoys some spectacular moment, he can also disappear for several minutes without seeming interested in proceedings. He moved in January 2017 to Chilean side Huachipato, the same side that in 2015 signed Venezuelan Rómulo Otero.

Ronaldo Peña has strength, speed and pace in abundance. He is best deployed as a number 9 and is a complete striker. In football you have some strikers who use their strength well to hold off one or two defenders while keeping the ball – Christian Vieri was one of the best at this – while you also have forwards that are powerful and fast enough to leave behind defenders through sheer strength, Diego Costa being a noteworthy example. Peña has a bit of both, proving very useful by scoring and assisting. He currently plays for Las Palmas B in the second-tier division of Spanish football and is touted for first-team action in 2017/18.

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The most surprising addition to the list of Venezuela’s most talented stars is Sergio Córdova. A right midfielder, he is very versatile and usually ends as a third forward when attacking. He is quick and tactically complete, helping with both defensive and attacking phases. Córdova finished as the team’s top scorer at the World Cup and joint second in the overall standings, highlighting his ability to take up intelligent goalscoring positions when in attack. Though still plying his trade in Venezuela, he has been heavily linked with a host of big European clubs, including Manchester United.

It is unfair to highlight just a few of the players from Venezuela’s successful campaign, but there is a common theme, with no defender listed and four out of the five making up the base of the attacking structure. That is what the under-20 Vinotinto represents today. Rafael Dudamel prefers up a clear 4-4-2 that turns into a 4-3-3 or even a 3-4-3 when attacking. And that is why Venezuela scored the most number of goals in the tournament – 14.

Defensively the four-man back line is shielded by two holding midfielders, while the two offensive ones, usually Soteldo and Córdova, start on the wings, flat four in midfield. The formation is wonderfully fluid, however, once the side has the ball, with player interchanging and becoming difficult for opponents to mark them. Perhaps that’s why they’ve been so clinical in attack.

Of the 14 goals that Venezuela scored, just five were from dead ball situations, with the rest shared between attacks down the left and right, and through the middle. They’re a complete unit when forcing the issue.

While their attack is undeniably potent, it is also important to highlight that they conceded just three goals throughout the finals, although, despite the impressive statistics, they have work to do before taking the next step forward defensively.

To start with, Venezuela had both the highest number of fouls committed and fouls per game ratio of any team in the tournament, with an average of 20 fouls per game. They also had the highest number of booked players. While it didn’t ultimately hamper their passage to the final, their players will need to understand the importance of marking cleanly and not gifting opponents opportunities from set-pieces.

The other question mark defensively is in the team’s ability to press. While the midfield and strikers tend to press well into their opponent’s half, the defence are usually languid in moving forward, allowing space between themselves and the midfield for opposing players to take advantage of. As a result, players that receive the ball in this large pocket of space are often able to turn and attack the Venezuelan defence, leading to fouls committed and goalscoring chances. At the highest level, they’ll be punished more often.

Despite the challenges they need to overcome, the World Cup signified a major shift in what it means to talk about Venezuelan football. From a nation once considered the weakest of all the big players in South America, hope is rising and we’ll inevitably hear more and more about this crop of young stars as they find their feet in Europe and beyond.

While these young starlets may have come too late to help the senior squad qualify for Russia 2018, hopes are now high that they can guide Venezuela to Qatar n 2022 and pave the way for a more successful era of football in what remains a nation still obsessed with the sport 

By Nicolás García-Huidobro    @niscolas

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