VENEZUELA is one of South America’s least successful football nations, but most importantly and of greater concern, it is currently one of the world’s most troubled places. Once an oil-rich country with one quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, a period of reckless financial and political policy-making has left Venezuela in absolute chaos, an example of social breakdown and a reminder of what can happen if an economy gets out of control.
The capital city, Caracas, is ranked among the most dangerous cities in the world, a high crime rate with a worrying murder rate of 112 for every 100,000 people. Many of the barrios are no-go areas at night. Around 90% of the country’s population lives in poverty and inflation has hit the one million percent mark.
Over four million people have fled the country, many to nearby Colombia. Money has little value, so much so that people often pay for essentials like petrol with cigarettes, food or cooking oil. Food is scarce in some places, medical care is limited and there are electricity shortages. “It’s the world gone wrong, a tragedy for my country that makes it impossible for me to return home,” Maria, a former resident of Caracas, told Game of the People.
Some economists, such as Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, believe the prospects for the South American region are dire, although they invariably point to the mismanagement of Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, along with sanctions placed upon the country, as the main contributors in turning a country that was once the richest in LatAm into a proverbial “basket case”.
Caracas was once a very vibrant city as well as the cultural and economic capital. In the 1970s, Venezuela enjoyed the highest growth rate and the lowest inequality among its population. By 2017, the country had defaulted on US$ 65 billion of debt, the latest in a long line of sovereign debt crises.
Football quickly gets put into perspective when there is crime, civil and class unrest, poverty, debt and political turmoil going on around the people. Furthermore, unemployment is around 35% at the moment and rising.
Venezuelan football has often struggled to make ends meet and has rarely made its mark on the regional map. The major clubs have been unable to make a dent in CONMEBOL competitions like the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericano, even though the money is always welcome. Only very rarely does a team from Venezuela, such as Caracas FC in 2007 and 2009, make it out of the group stage – the teams are simply too weak to compete with clubs from Argentina and Brazil. Caracas reached the quarter-finals of the competition in 2009, losing to Brazil’s Grêmio.
To quote David Goldblatt in his seminal work, The Ball is Round, Venezuela was always South America’s most backward football nation. This has been partly due to the popularity of baseball, a symptom of historical American influence.
La Vinotinto, the national team, has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup and has never won the Copa America. There are great hopes that the country’s current batch of youngsters may take Venezuela to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Venezuela not only reached the final of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup, they also performed well in this year’s Copa America, losing to Argentina in the quarter-finals. Some observers are predicting that the 2020s could be the country’s time.
On the domestic front, football – which does provide a distraction to the struggles of everyday life – is almost teetering on the brink of collapse, hampered by the economic backdrop. Some players have not received their wages on time. Caracas has a number of clubs, but they are not always among the best supported in the country. The average crowd in the Clausura stage of the Primera División in 2019 is 1,683 which represents a 22% drop on 2018, and is actually lower than the Apertura stage’s average of 1,733.
Last season, the Championship final attracted 28,000 over the two legs, much lower than the combined 50,000-plus that usually attends these games. Caracas FC have averaged under 1,000 in the Clausura, while Atlético de Venezuela (329), Estudiantes de Caracas (146) and Metropolitanos (591) have even lower average gates. Deportivo La Guaira, who play in Caracas, attract around 1,200 to their home games. Quite simply, in the current climate, which shows little sign of improving, many people cannot afford to buy tickets.
Politics and football have overlapped, notably when Caracas travelled to Zulia, one of the poorest parts of the country. The team from the capital, Los Rojos del Ávila, had problems getting to the stadium and also found their hotel lacking air conditioning. The stadium had no lights, no TV coverage and the teams were reluctant to play. They were forced to take the field but when the whistle blew to start the game, both teams refused to move for 90 minutes, despite physical threats from the football federation. The game, needless to say, ended 0-0.
Caracas are the most successful club in Venezualan football history with 11 league titles, the last being won in 2010. They were the last Caracas team to win the championship. Since 2010, Zamora, from the city of Barinas, have won it five times, Deportivo Táchira of San Christóbal have won twice and Monagas (Maturín) and ACD Lara (Cadubare) have been champions once apiece. Caracas are the only capital city club currently in the Primeira División to have been crowned league champions.
Venezuela’s current situation and its impact on young people puts football firmly in its place, but the game does offer a way out for a select few, not least in the form of charities that encourage children to get off the street and into a healthier life that involves participation in sports. To some it offers genuine hope and inspires a dream or two. A 14 year-old caraqueño, Jose Angel, told a reporter from England: “When I grow up I want to play soccer like Neymar. That guy plays super good.”
Main photo: Ederik Palencia, CC BY-NC-2.0