The ubiquitous nature of Twitter in celebrity circles ensures that us less exalted types are always kept up to date on their thoughts whenever an event of significance is occurring and it was no different at this year’s Copa America.
But amongst all the usual assortment of Latin American ex-players, silicone enhanced models and other two-bob celebrities, the most compelling account to follow was that given by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (@chavezcandanga).
Tweeting from Cuba, where he was receiving treatment for cancer, Chavez posted message after message of unwavering support for the Vinotintos – so named because their burgundy coloured shirt is reminiscent of red wine.
‘Brazil are trembling’ he wrote during the 0-0 draw between the two nations that kicked off Venezuela’s campaign. ‘Bravo to our artilleryman Cesar Gonzalez’ followed the strike from the midfielder that defeated Ecuador 1-0. ‘Gooooooooooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllllllllllll!’ and shouts of ‘long live Venezuela’ came during the thrilling 3-3 draw with Paraguay that completed the group stage.
It is hard to imagine David Cameron tweeting with such genuine enthusiasm about the England team, nor could one imagine Cameron promising to go straight to the head of his continent’s football association following a perceived wrongdoing, as Chavez did following Venezuela’s semi-final defeat to Paraguay. But then Cameron hasn’t been required to offer the same resolute support to the development of a sport that still falls someway behind baseball in the affections of the Venezuelan people.
From its beginnings, Venezuelan football was dominated by foreigners. When the professional league was established in 1957, a number of the clubs were owned by foreign investors, who built clubs around immigrant communities from Italy, Portugal and Spain. In the first 30 years of the professional league, only four of the seasonal top scorers were Venezuelan, while only one Venezuelan-born coach, Ivan Garcia, successfully led a team to the league title.
The national team became FIFA affiliated in 1952, but didn’t compete in their first Copa America until 1967, finishing fifth in a six team competition with one win and four defeats. In 1975 they were on the receiving end of 4-0 and 6-0 thrashings by Brazil and 5-1 and 11-0 maulings by the hosts Argentina. In the following years they continued to be the customary whippings boys of the competition, going into the 2007 edition still having recorded just the one win and with a record of 149 goals conceded to just 29 scored.
The 2007 Copa was to be held in Venezuela for the first time and serious investment was required to put in place the necessary infrastructure. $900million was spent on the remodelling of existing stadiums, construction of three new ones, improvement of public transport links and increasing hotel capacity. In comparison, the previous Copa, hosted by Peru, had cost $13.2million.
President Chavez supported the project with his customary gusto, having previously invested government money into youth football development and modern training facilities for the senior national team. With the infrastructure in place and acclaimed by foreign journalists upon their arrival in the country, it was on the field that success was now required in order to convince the local populous of the joys of the beautiful game.
The seeds for the relative success Venezuela achieved in that 2007 Copa had been sewn eight years earlier with the appointment of Argentine coach Jose Omar Pastoriza. Venezuela had traditionally employed foreign coaches, presuming their expertise to be greater than that of local coaches, but none were able to have the same impact as the former Independiente, Boca Juniors and Atletico Madrid trainer. He instilled a disciplined professional attitude into his squad and introduced techniques and strategies that are still employed to this very day. His results weren’t spectacular – six wins, five draws and 18 defeats – but his impact was huge.
Richard Páez succeeded Pastoriza in 2001, becoming only the second Venezuelan born coach to direct the national team, and it was he who led Venezuela into the 2007 Copa. Two draws and a superb victory against Peru saw the Vinotintos qualify from the group stage for the first time in their history. Their subsequent 4-1 defeat to Uruguay in the quarter finals did little to dampen the goodwill of the Venezuelan public, who truly took the team into their hearts.
Paez, though, felt that after six years at the helm it was time for him to move on to another challenge and submitted his resignation in November 2007. Cesar Farias was announced as his replacement a month later.
A prodigious young coach who took his first job at Nueva Cadiz at the age of 25, Farias had slowly built up a reputation as a coach capable of steadying and then improving the fortunes of clubs in flux. Alongside his duties with the senior national team he also oversaw Venezuela’s Under-20 team in their successful qualification campaign for the 2009 Under-20 World Cup, and filtered a number of players from that squad into the senior team in the latter part of qualification for the 2010 World Cup proper.
Come the 2011 Copa, clad in black leather gloves and a tan leather jacket with his black hair slicked back, Farias stalked the Argentine touchlines like some Mafioso hit man staking out his target. His team were impeccably organised defensively and he also displayed a keen eye for detail, making subtle changes to the positioning and functions of his players for each team they faced. Farias’ men even had the better of the semi-final with Paraguay and were extremely unlucky to be eliminated having hit the woodwork three times.
After a record breaking Copa America performance there is now genuine optimism that Venezuela can qualify for their first ever World Cup. There are potentially five places on offer to nine countries in the South American qualifying group and if Venezuela’s 2011 Copa performances are anything to go by they should be there or thereabouts come the end of the process. If they do make it, you can be sure Hugo Chavez will let the whole world know about it on Twitter.
By Nick Dorrington
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona