Fans bringing home-made signs to a match is nothing new. But despite Venezuela’s implausible run to the quarter-finals of the Copa America Centenario, the placard branished by Carlos Grau at Monday’s group game against Mexico was not lauding the coach, or the star players.
It depicted a woman in chains, a tank, the country’s flag as a bloody scythe and its leader as a donkey. There was no reference to football.
Nicolas Maduro was elected president in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez. Dependent on oil revenue that has collapsed since prices slumped in 2014, the country is enduring a deep crisis and Maduro has been accused of mismanagement, and more.
In March, the Associated Press reported, only Chinese people submitted more asylum requests to the US than citizens of Venezuela, which has a population of about 30 million.
Last Sunday, a day before Venezuela and Mexico drew 1-1 in Houston, Reuters reported that “food riots and violent looting have become a daily occurrence across scarcity-struck Venezuela”, with 200 people demanding “we want food” and pushing against a line of police outside a Caracas supermarket. The capital is now one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
In such a dire context, the sporting minor miracle that is Venezuela’s Copa quarter-final against Argentina at Gillette Stadium near Boston on Saturday appears trivial. “Everything is really bad,” Grau said outside NRG Stadium. The 32-year-old lives in Houston. “I think that all the people in my country feel so bad in this moment. If my team wins, maybe I feel good, but it’s temporary,” he said.
Another fan, Cindy Valera, took a more hopeful view of football’s potential to help unite a fractured and desperate nation. “Honestly this is part of the union that we need as Venezuelans, we need to get something to get the country together. Right now, with everything that’s happening, it’s really hard to get Venezuelan people together,” the 33-year-old said.
Alejandro Moreno was part of the most successful Venezuelan side in recent times, which reached the semi-finals of the 2011 Copa, losing on penalties to Paraguay. Later that year, Venezuela beat Argentina in a World Cup qualifier – the Vinotinto’s first and so far only victory over the nation they meet on Saturday.
Moreno recalled the joy sparked by that win, even in a country where baseball traditionally dominates. “People on the street surrounding our team bus from the stadium to our team hotel,” he said. “The crowds and the emotion. Sometimes you get so caught up in what you’re doing yourself and trying to get results that you forget how many people and how many lives you’re affecting. For that moment, even if it was a limited moment, we were on top of the world.”
The former forward retired in 2013 after a decade in MLS and is now an ESPN analyst. “For a country that is struggling politically, and divided politically, economically and socially, the national team continues to be perhaps the one source in Venezuelan society that can bring together a community that is otherwise divided.
“It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs, affiliations or what your economic circumstances are, what your circumstances are, when the national team is playing, and playing well and getting results, people get behind the national team because it’s a source of joy and happiness that perhaps you don’t get in your everyday life in Venezuela,” he said.
“The effect that we had on the country [at the 2011 Copa], perhaps we didn’t appreciate it as much because we were so focused on the tournament and what we were doing, but it was clear that our achievement became the achievement of every single person in Venezuela. That is something, as a players you always value once you see the emotion and the support that you get from a country that’s struggling otherwise, divided otherwise.”
The country’s challenges have created practical problems that work against the team’s prospects, Moreno believes. “There are more Venezuelans playing outside of Venezuela than there ever were before, the current circumstances in Venezuela economically and politically also make it very difficult for the national team to play at a high level. It’s just not possible to somehow disentangle yourself from the situation that’s going on in the country. That is a reality for the players and their families,” he said.
Yet, somehow, a team that is bottom of its World Cup qualifying group, with a paltry point from six games, is in the last eight of this tournament. Moreno gives credit to the bustling performances of the captain, Tomas Rincon, the solidity of the defence and the all-around commitment of the team.
As can happen in short competitions, Venezuela are a little-heralded team that suddenly found a winning blend of intensity, chemistry and confidence as more favoured sides shrivelled in the spotlight.
“It is normal that no one would have bet on us before our arrival here, no one would dare to dream we could do this. Now we have proven what we can do, my message to Venezuelans is: ‘enjoy the Vinotinto, they are proud to represent the country’,” the coach, Rafael Dudamel, a former national team goalkeeper who was appointed in April, told reporters after the clash with Mexico.
Both teams went into the night knowing they were already through to the knockout stages. Venezuela had defeated Jamaica 1-0 in Chicago then shocked Uruguay – who top the standings in South America’s World Cup qualifiers – with another 1-0 victory in Philadelphia. Venezuela impressed with their energy and enterprise in Houston, going ahead in the 10th minute with a thumping volley from defender Jose Manuel Velazquez before Jesus Corona’s sharp solo goal with 10 minutes left extended an under-strength Mexico’s unbeaten streak to 22 games.
The result saw Mexico top the group on goal difference and avoid a daunting quarter-final with Lionel Messi and friends. If the late equaliser made for a disappointing conclusion for Venezuela, it was still an encouraging performance. And, enclosed in the stadium, with the roof shut and the match captivating, perhaps it was possible to put on hold, just for 90 minutes, the troubles and traumas of the world beyond the pitch.
This article was written by Tom Dart, for theguardian.com on Saturday 18th June 2016 10.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010