When Salmon Rondon knocked a rebound home in the 36th minute against Uruguay, he provided something his home country of Venezuela has been searching for – joy. Rondon’s strike paved the way for Venezuela to shock an entire hemisphere and advance to the quarterfinals of Copa America.
What the Venezuelan Men’s National Soccer Team -- La Vinototinto (The Burgundy) -- is doing in the United States during Copa America Centenario is of stark contrast to the current situation back in their home country. While the team has found success, their country has been struggling amidst vast political unrest over the situation surrounding the administration of current president Nicolas Maduro.
The country holds the highest inflation rate of any country in the world at a staggering 700 percent. Hospitals are failing, the government cuts power countrywide for about three hours a day and citizens are being forced to steal to get essentials. The whole country is in a state of emergency.
“The country is really bad right now,” said Maracaibo resident, Jose Perozo. “We don’t have toilet paper, we don’t have milk in the markets. The government has basically stolen all the money.”
Perozo left Venezuela to play junior college golf in Texas, but has since returned to Venezuela until school starts back in the fall. Back in Venezuela, Perozo and his fellow Venezuelans have gathered every matchday to come together and watch their country compete in Copa America.
While the team may only offer a temporary distraction, their improbable run has been a pleasant surprise to the residents of Venezuela who have taken pride in seeing the team being so successful at this summer’s tournament.
“It takes us away from the problems around here when Venezuela is playing,” Perozo said. “It feels different. Really, really different around here. We’ve never seen Venezuela play that good.”
The Venezuelans were dropped into a difficult group. The 77th ranked squad in the world had to face two top 20 teams in Mexico (16) and Uruguay (9). Throw in a scrappy Jamaica squad who surprised in their last big tournament and you have no easy path to the quarterfinals.
The national team’s successes have not come without adversity. The squad was not immune to the plague of the troubles its country has been facing. All of the country’s athletes have been forced to work with limited resources due to the funding being squeezed by the brutal economic crisis.
Venezuelan national team legend, Rafael Dudamel, a goalkeeper who famously took and scored free kicks for the national side, is no stranger to defying expectations, and has brought a new sense of pride to La Vinotinto since taking over as manager.
While everyone else was surprised Venezuela were even getting out of the group, Dudamel told the press he was bitter that his squad drew with a heavily favored Mexico in the final group game.
Venezuela came to Copa America bullish, undaunted, and hungry. They put all of the problems in their country behind them, and earned points in all three of their group stage matches sporting a 2-1-0 record through a difficult group.
The squad faces their ultimate test on Saturday when it faces Lionel Messi and Argentina at Gillette Stadium – over 2,000 miles from the capital city of Caracas, Venezuela. While the people of Venezuela continue to clash with its government, they will find a moment of solace and distraction when their 11 take the field with a chance at history.
“Every single person watches the tournament,” Perozo said. “Venezuela is normally not doing that well playing soccer, because the most important sport is baseball. But now, with Venezuela doing this in the past 10 years in Copa America this tournament has given us hope to qualify for the next World Cup. Every person here supports the soccer team. All the pressure is on Argentina.”
Argentina might not share those sentiments, and the soccer world at large probably has no expectations for this Venezuelan team when they run headlong into the tournament favorites who have almost effortlessly brushed aside all challengers so far without even leaving first gear. But coping with low expectations isn’t new for Dudamel’s team or the Venezuelans they represent. Yes Argentina might feature Lioniel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and a bench full of players that would be amongst most countries’ all time best eleven, but when compared to the challenges they face every day back home, these odds don’t actually seem all that overwhelming.