In New York, a day before his team are set to play their second league game of the season, Cristian Cásseres Jr. starts to talk about his first year at the New York Red Bulls (NYRB).
Cásseres’ agent Gerardo Hernández had arranged the interview and he willingly obliged with an immediate warmth to his words. Preferring to chat in his native Spanish – although Red Bulls boss Chris Armas insists he is the first to his English classes – Cásseres referred to me as his little brother throughout our conversations.
Cásseres left Venezuelan side Deportivo La Guaira for NYRB two weeks after his 18th birthday and, 13 months later, he is starting to feel settled in his new surroundings, where he shares an apartment with three of his teammates – Allen Yanes, an American-born Guatemalan international, Tom Barlow, a striker in the reserve team, and Omir Fernández, who made his league debut this season. Cásseres is the youngest by a year, but his coach believes he’s ahead of his time.
His move was the culmination of a youth spent dedicated to making a career in football happen. He tells me of long and difficult days, when he would have to get up at 5am and catch a train and then a bus to complete a two-hour journey just to get to training. When the session had finished, he would head straight to afternoon classes to study. At times he would have training in the evening, not starting his homework until 7 or 8pm. “It was a good life in Venezuela,” he says, “but a little difficult – it is what I wanted and what I liked.”
When asked what his back-up plan was, in case he wasn’t successful in his pursuit of a footballing career, he says he didn’t have one. There is a conviction in his simple replies that made the realisation of his dreams seem an act of endeavour, rather than a naiveté that went unpunished.
Studious in his football as well as his academics, Cásseres spent any free time he had watching his father train and play. A former international in his own right, Cristian Cásseres Snr. had a 20-year career spanning his homeland, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, even overlapping his son in 2012. When both father and son were at Atlético Venezuela, albeit with Cásseres jr playing at under-14 level, Cásseres snr was confident his 12-year old son could make it if he applied himself.
“I think he’s going to be smarter than me in terms of the game, he’s more explosive, he sees the play better, that will help him. He has to think about the future, to stay here or play abroad, [and think about the] the national team,” Cásseres snr. told the club’s official website in 2012.
A young Cásseres was already becoming the man he is now when he spoke of his father’s advice: “He told me to play to be someone, to give everything to my family, he feels proud of me.”
Seven years on and Cásseres has heeded his father’s words, sending his mother money every month. It is the scholarly approach to every aspect of his life, prevalent even in what he found enjoyable about the game as an adolescent, that saw him make it to Major League Soccer. “I liked to watch Barcelona a lot, so I could see Iniesta. I liked the way he was professional, both on and off the field, and I liked to watch him because of the calmness he had. Each time he had the ball it was safe. I liked how fast in thought he was, to get ahead, and see the pass before the play.”
While his favourite player was the metronomic Spaniard, it was his father, a striker, who he first wished to emulate. “When I was younger, I played as a striker, then they played me right wing, until I reached under-15s and the coach liked me playing as a defensive midfielder and it was a position that I liked, where I felt comfortable. I decided that I will play there. I like to play as a central midfielder because I like to attack and defend. I can do both without any problem.”
The switch from attack to midfield may have ensured him a professional career, but the move seemed a natural one given his father’s assessment of his young son and his adulation for Andres Iniesta. It is a position he has grown to become a scholar of, naming Arthur Melo, again of Barcelona, as the one player he would like to play alongside. For now, he tells me his Red Bulls teammate Kaku is the best player he has played with.
It was at the South American under-17 Championship in Chile in 2017 that NYRB first came calling, but as a 16-year old he would have to wait eight months before he could sign for them. Once he did, it would mark a drastic change in his life and one that was not always easy for him. “It was a very difficult change because I had to travel alone, live without my family, and be in another country where they spoke another language. It was a new team and new tactics. The unique way Red Bulls play is a bit complicated, but with the support of my teammates and the coaching staff, it was all made a little easier.”
Undoubtedly, Cásseres’ hunger to learn helped him through his first few months at the club, but he says it was the welcoming nature of his fellow players that enabled him to quickly grow in confidence and feel part of the group.
An injury soon after joining RBNY meant his impact was delayed, but perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, allowing him time to adapt to a considerably different environment. Other than international duty for Venezuela’s under-17s and 20s, Cásseres had not been outside of his homeland.
“When I arrived last year, I could not do pre-season because I had an injury, and I couldn’t train for a month, but then I joined up with the second team and I was gaining experience and learning new things both on and off the pitch. It has strengthened my way of playing, my aggressiveness, my pressing, and I think these are things that will help me in the future.”
His evident hunger for the game is something that his manager has praised in post-match interviews, fawning over his midfielder’s work-rate and labelling his attitude “infectious.” “I always try to take advantage and listen to everything they tell me to learn new things every day. I am already very comfortable with the team; I am calm, and I have confidence.”
His lifelong dedication to the sport he loves has its downfalls, however. Admirable though it may be for a player his age to shun the many attractions New York has to offer, there were elements of his life he described that leave little envy. Unable to sort visas or paperwork for his family to join him, Cásseres said he regularly spends his time alone, and instead of seeing the city, he prefers to spend his free time at home in his apartment resting. For each one of his triumphs, and his short career so far has had its small victories, there have been the obvious sacrifices.
“It is no secret to anyone what is happening in Venezuela. Everything is difficult but thank God it isn’t for my family. They are well and what I send them allows them to live in peace.”
After spending his first year with Red Bulls’ second team, Cásseres believes he has learned how to handle himself in US football, as well as understanding the way his team plays. He amassed 26 appearances for them over the course of 2018, scoring and assisting three along the way, and with the new season two games in, he is ready for what is shaping up to be a big year on all fronts.
“This is a very important year for me because of all the good things that have happened to me, and I feel that this is going to be a very good season for me and for the team. In regard to the national team, I am currently more focused on club football because if I win my place here and I do the right things, I know that the call will come.”
With the Copa América coming up in the summer, hosted by Brazil, a good MLS season could see Casseres debut for the senior team on the biggest South American stage. If the call does indeed come, he is confident that Venezuela are better placed than ever to compete with the likes of Brazil and Argentina. “I am 100 percent sure that we will be very well prepared for this. This Copa is going to be the best we’ve done, it is going to be in the history books, of that I’m sure.”
Venezuela have been drawn in the same group as the hosts, and Cásseres believes they are in possession of the best player he has coming up against on the pitch in Real Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior. Should they progress out of the group they may well come up against the player he deems the best in the world – Lionel Messi.
If the tournament comes too soon for the 19-year old, he will certainly be ready for Qatar in 2022. Should they make it – and they may well have an increased chance should FIFA expand the tournament by 16 teams to 48 – it would be their first appearance on the global stage. “We are a nation that has never been able to go to a World Cup finals, but we have been working well for five years now, where we have been able to go to the youth World Cups, such as the under-17s in 2014 and recently the under-20s in 2017. We have good players and good coaching staff. I am sure that the 2022 World Cup will be the first for Venezuela.”
In 2017, Venezuela reached the under-20 World Cup final. Facing them that day was England. Neither nation had reached the final before, so both had already made history, but only one team could win it and it was the Three Lions that did so. Yet it was incredibly close.
In the 74th minute, Adalberto Peñaranda missed a chance to level the score from the spot. Golden Glove winner Freddie Woodman saved the penalty and England held on to their 1-0 lead. For a country that has never seen their senior side compete at a World Cup, Venezuela’s performance in the tournament gave them hope for the future.
In the months that followed, a number of Venezuela’s side made the move to Europe: Sergio Córdova, who won the goal of the tournament and finished second in the Golden Boot, moved to Bundesliga side Augsburg on a five-year deal; Williams Velásquez joined Watford on loan, later joining permanently; and Josua Mejías made the journey to Spain, impressing at Cartagena who loaned him from Leganés.
Traditionally a baseball nation in a continent rich with footballing history, Venezuela rarely threatened to make a dent on the annals of international football until recently. In 2007, they hosted the Copa América and reached the quarter-finals. The team included just one player plying his trade in one of Europe’s big five leagues – Juan Arango of Mallorca, who would go on to become his country’s record holder for both goals and appearances, with 23 in 129.
As is so often the case, hosting an international tournament galvanised the country in support of their national side and, four years later in Argentina, La Vinotinto earned their highest ever finish in the Copa América. In fact, only a penalty shootout denied them a place in the final with Uruguay.
After a goalless 120 minutes, Paraguay scored all five of their penalties, meaning Franklin Lucena’s saved attempt – likened to Gareth Southgate’s effort at Euro 96 by Guardian writer Jacob Steinberg – was all it took for his country to miss out. Paraguay reached the final without winning a single game and duly lost 3-0, while Venezuela, undoubtedly hurt by such a tragic exit, were hammered 4-1 by Peru in the third-place playoff.
It didn’t matter because Venezuelans everywhere had fallen for the charm of the sport so cherished in South America. As Venezuelan Bellingcat journalist Giancarlo Fiorelli told me: “The whole country fell in love with them.”
“I feel that we have started to see football differently in Venezuela,” Cásseres tells me, “Rafa [Dudamel] and his coaching staff have been working well, doing the right things for the players for many years and I think that is the reason why we have done well in recently.”
The children, who were just seven to ten years old when Venezuela hosted the 2007 Copa América, are now in their late teens and early 20s and form their country’s bright footballing future. Having ridden the wave of football fever through adolescence and brought home the bronze from the South American Youth Championship and the runners-up medals from the under-20 World Cup in 2017, they now arrive at the precipice of the senior team.
Overseeing that rise was Rafael Dudamel, the former Venezuela goalkeeper who played alongside Cásseres Snr for the national team. Dudamel took charge of the under-17s a year after the 2011 Copa América and has worked his way up, alongside that same age group, through the under-20s and to the senior team.
His holistic approach has reaped its rewards and he still retains control of the under-20s alongside his position of head coach of the senior team. It is he who was in charge of 2017’s successes, four years on from his first triumph with Venezuela’s youth sides – the runners-up at the South American under-17 Championship in 2013.
To discuss the accomplishments and potential of the country’s football, I spoke to Carlos Tarache, CEO of Solovenex, the leading website on Venezuelan football. “The domestic competition has greatly enhanced the technical level, producing the remarkable growth that has taken place in recent years. One of the factors most influencing the rise is the Juvenile Rule.”
Introduced in 2007, the Juvenile Rule stipulates that teams must field at least one player under the age of 20 in their starting line-up. This simple but effective introduction is also responsible for the international teams’ achievements at youth level, according to Tarache. “Having given that extra incentive to develop talent, it has manifested itself with achievements of high magnitude. For example, the under-20 World Cup [was] a utopian success. Many will consider it absurd to hold a youth championship in this regard, but for a country that has only just been born on the football map, it was very important and has undoubtedly generated a feeling of identity.”
Europe, which Tarache refers to as the Old Continent, a term coined by Christopher Columbus, is becoming home to an increasing number of Venezuelan players, and the “constant export of players abroad” is indicative of the strength and health of the domestic league, he claims.
“One of the great advantages that Solovenex has given us is that of being the radar of each one of the Venezuelan talents that make their life abroad. Our domestic league has gained a lot in terms of technique, and this is turning us into a fertile ground for many important leagues in South America too, and that is without mentioning some [players] renowned in Europe. Players like Christian Makoun came straight out of our league to join the ranks of one of the biggest clubs in Europe, Juventus.”
Makoun is fresh from captaining Venezuela’s under-20s at the 2019 South American Championship. The defensive midfielder is a player Tarache believes the world should know about. “He is another of our great bastions, a sensational player: strong in the tackle, great in the air and hardworking. His dual-nationality [Belgian] could open the doors to any other large European country soon.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Tarache was full of praise for a handful of players across England, Spain and Germany. “Sergio Córdova is above Adalberto Peñaranda, at least for now, because he is a constant in a league like Germany’s and an interesting player who should continue to excel in Europe. Peñaranda today is a lion caged. At his best he can be considered the most technically gifted Venezuelan. It is just a matter of time.”
And for the eagle-eyed and wonderkid-inclined, Tarache has some recommendations when it comes to Venezuela’s under-20 internationals already in Europe. “Other names to look out for are Adrián Cova (Atlético Madrid), David Rajchenberg and Adrián El Charani (Granada), Luis Balbo (Porto), Matías Lacava (Benfica) and Yaimil Medina (Albacete).”
His biggest praise, however, was reserved for a Manchester City player yet to kick a ball at the Etihad. Signed by City in January 2017, Yangel Herrera was immediately sent on loan to New York City on a two-year deal. He is currently at bottom of the table at Huesca in LaLiga, but it’s not indicative of his talent as an individual, and Tarache is effervescent in his description of the midfielder. “You have to follow closely the steps of Yangel, an exquisite player with great core skills. At his young age he already looks to become untouchable in midfield.”
Venezuela’s most well-known export to English football is Newcastle’s Salomón Rondón. He needs just one more goal this season to ensure his best return in England since signing for West Brom in 2015. Since then, he has averaged a goal every 3.89 games. His physicality, hold-up play and aerial prowess has made him the focal point of a resilient Rafael Benítez team, and Tarache believes he paved the way for the latest wave of Venezuelan players to make their mark on Europe.
“It seems to me that Rondón’s great first impression at Málaga has had a big influence on [scouts] looking kindly on Venezuelan talent. After his arrival, the reputation of Venezuelan players was reinforced by Roberto Rosales, a hardworking right-back who was considered among the best of the best in LaLiga at the time. Juanpi and Peñaranda [also Málaga] did not show themselves in all their splendour, however I think that the door remains open for us.”
Tarache was keen to stress that Rondón is not the blueprint for Venezuelan strikers, with several differing options for the senior team. “There is no such stereotype, not yet, but undoubtedly it is characterised by being very technical, although at the moment we have several strikers with the same physical skills of Rondón. There are strong forwards who play very well with their backs to goal: Jancarlos Hurtado and Fernando Aristeguieta, two tanks with finely-tuned goalscoring instincts. But today, Venezuela can count on a cache of different types of striker: the dizziness of Josef Martínez, the aerial ability of Jhonder Cadiz, and the elegance of Christian Santos.”
But is the production line running dry? All setups suffer from it. Barcelona’s La Masia has dry spells, Southampton’s academy and scouting network has stumbled in recent years, and Athletic Club have widened their net and loosened their strict transfer policy in the past few seasons to counter the slowing down of their conveyor belt.
“I’ll throw you three names that I think are up to the leap of foreign football soon. Jorge Fereira, an 18-year old right-back at Caracas Fútbol Club – a strong tackler and an interesting player; Ericksern Gallardo, a 23-year old left winger at Zamora, the league champions, who is fast, strong in the tackle, and crosses well. Another interesting player at Zamora is António Romera, a right-winger who can also play as a 9. He is very fast and has enviable control.”
Despite Dudamel’s responsibility for the growth of the current crop of young stars, Tarache believes the foundations have been laid over the last 20 years and has evolved with different influences as management at the top has changed. The process, he believes, is deliberate and one that he is deeply proud of.
“The great performance in the Copa América 2011 was one of the highest points in international competitions, without a doubt, but getting there was no coincidence. Everything started with Omar Pastoriza in 1998, an Argentine coach who took a chance on Venezuelan football. ‘The Duck’ taught us to compete with a narrow range of options; Richard Páez gave continuity and personality to the process; and César Farías would add the character that took us to the Copa semi-finals. Eight years later, we can say that the growth has been remarkable. In the midst of our failures, we have grown.”
It draws parallels with Germany’s conscious restructure following embarrassment at Euro 2000. After finishing bottom of their group, they revamped their youth system, doubling down on the development of technically gifted, homegrown players. In 2014, that came to a head as they romped to their fourth World Cup, humiliating hosts Brazil 7-1 in the semi-final before Mario Götze’s strike won them the final against Argentina.
This June, Venezuela will have the chance to showcase the fruits of their labour. They’ve been drawn in a Copa América group with Peru and Bolivia, alongside the hosts, and Tarache is quietly confident. “Although we have to face Brazil in the first round, we do not look at teams like Peru and Bolivia with any fear. With no disrespect, they are beatable teams for us. We must take into account that Peru comes from a World Cup which was indeed successful. However, Dudamel has players at the height of their ability, able to give joy to the country. I consider the second round likely. In the knockouts, anything is possible.”
Beyond this summer, Dudamel will have one eye on the 2022 World Cup, by which point the players he has nursed through the ranks since 2012 will be in their mid-20s and with ten years of their manager’s style ingrained into their play. It is this long-term aspect of the project that gives the nation a license to dream. “The expectations for the future are quite broad. The golden generation, together with the experience of several of our senior players in Europe make us an interesting team, which is undoubtedly capable of making the finals. We have the technique and leadership that we lacked years ago.”
If La Vinotino are to succeed in the coming years, they do so against the current backdrop of civil unrest. Though inflation is slowing down – it practically halved from 97 percent in January to 47 percent in February – the country is still in a state of hyperinflation. The president, Nicolás Maduro, is still unpopular with many, but even more unpopular is the recent American intervention – nobody on either side of the internal debate wanted that. “The fact that the US is involved now is one of the worst things that could have happened. I don’t want them anywhere near this, and yet here they are,” Bellingcat’s Giancarlos Fiorella told me.
The US sanctions will hurt ordinary Venezuelans – and are already doing so – and those that hoped it would weaken the presidency have seen the opposite happen. Juan Guaidó’s attempt to self-declare as president failed to materialise into anything other than a week of bizarre headlines, and most of the damage being done remains the fault of the US sanctions.
On the night that Venezuela announced themselves as genuine dark horses for the Copa América, politics threatened to directly hinder the sport. Having beaten a Messi-led Argentina 3-1 at Atlético Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano in Spain, Dudamel announced that he would be offering his resignation to the Venezuelan Football Federation.
Before the victory, a feat they have only achieved twice in their 25-game head-to-head record, Dudamel and the national team received Guaidó’s ambassador to Spain, Antonio Ecarri. Despite Dudamel telling Ecarri that any photos or videos of the meeting were not for publication, during the game Guaidó used his social media to upload quantities of both.
“We have been living through very complicated times,” Dudamel said in his post-match conference. “We respectfully received the visit of the ambassador, just as we have received the ambassador of President Maduro [in the past]. Today was denigrating, it’s unfortunate how they have acted,” he said, in reference to what he deems as Guaidó “politicising” the visit. “I will put my role up for review.”
It is far from the first time opportunistic politicians have attempted to piggyback the successes of a national team, but for a country in the midst of an existential struggle, where football has been one of the only beacons of hope, to lose it to governmental feuding would be a crime against the sport.
Both Carlos Tarache and Federico Rojas, a Venezuelan football journalist for DIRECTVsports, believe he will remain in charge, with the latter tweeting that “the plan remains the same” in regard to their Copa América preparations, and the former telling me it is simply too close to the tournament and too long in planning for the man responsible for so much of the development to fall on his sword. Venezuelan football fans will be hoping that proves to be the case.
The final words belong to Cristian Cásseres and Carlos Tarache. The latter says: “It is not a secret to anybody the deplorable condition in which our country is in at the moment. With this I do not seek to politicise, however we must highlight the great power that football has to heal wounds in the midst of calamity. Our first World Cup finals is one of the biggest dreams. I’m sure we will not rest until we achieve it.”
As for Cásseres and his future, does he hope to one day play on the Old Continent? “Yes of course. That’s something I want, and one of the many challenges that I’ve given myself is to play in Europe.” Few should bet against him.
By Jordan Florit @TheFalseLibero