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WITH a population of just under 33 million, Venezuela ranks as the fifth most populous country in South America. Only Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Peru are above them.
However, unlike eight of their nine fellow CONMEBOL members, they have never won the Copa America. In fact, between their competition debut in 1967 to when they hosted it for the first time 40 years later, La Vinotinto went 42 consecutive games in the tournament without a win.
Now, higher than they have ever been before in the Fifa World Rankings (26th), head coach Rafael Dudamel is faced with the opportunity of making history. Not only have they failed to secure continental success in their past, but Venezuela have never made it onto the global stage; La Vinotinto are yet to play at a World Cup.
Uruguay, two-time winners of football’s biggest tournament, has a population of under four million, yet regularly reach the final stages of the competition. They’re also the most successful team in Copa America history with 15 titles. Is there any way Venezuela, a neighbour 10 times as populous, can become international football’s next big thing?
Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion will explore this topic, among many others, as I head to the country to talk with international players, past and present, including veteran of four Copa Americas Stalin Rivas, 23-year career journeyman David McIntosh Parra, and 2011 semi-finalist Franklin Lucena.
Since hosting the Copa in 2007, the domestic game and national side have gone from strength to strength, with progress being made despite the economic crisis and sanctions the country face.
With international success at youth levels for both the men and women, the future of Venezuelan football looks promising. Red Wine and Arepas will analyse how it was achieved and how they were able to do so in face of the circumstances.
At the moment, the conversation on Venezuela is one-dimensional and the narrative is political. I don’t want to change the conversation, but I do want to add to it, allowing readers another way to learn about the country.
As Venezuelan Football League executive president Ruben Villavicencio told me ahead of this project: “Football is a very important phenomenon; it is the only thing that can unite us despite the profound political differences that today separate us.
“For those who are outside the country, it is their shield that still keeps them united to their homeland. For those of us who live here, it is a symbol of neutrality, hope and unity; it is much more than football.”
As a firm believer that football is a treasure trove for anthropological insight, I will be examining contemporary Venezuelan society through the sport, looking at, for example, how clubs serve their communities, the role Ultras play on and off the terraces, and how the game is affecting culture.
Some areas of focus in the book include: how Venezuelans have taken the MLS by storm; the fledgling career of U17 star Veronica Herrera; how Marie Ferro is breaking down the media machismo of South America; on the road with Caracas FC’s Red Devils fan group; Deportivo Tachira — the club in the heartland of Venezuelan football; Zamora FC and their conveyor belt of talent; Venezuela’s footballing diaspora; Adelis Chavez, Hugo’s brother and football club president and the sport as a unifying force.
“Why Venezuela?” is a natural question to ask and the answer is the people. It really was that simple. There was a long subconscious run-up to it, but what made the idea come to the fore was speaking to Venezuelans — football fans or not.
I love Latin America and as I was reading about the continent and slowly working my way through its countries, reading books on history and football, I came to Venezuela.
I love books like James Montague’s When Friday Comes and Jonathan Wilson’s Angels With Dirty Faces — anthropological masterclasses on their countries of choice.
When I got to Venezuela, the only books on offer, written in English, were on Hugo Chavez, the revolution and Simon Bolivar. I read and enjoyed them all, but I was eager for more.
Where I’d normally turn to football books to learn about a country, there were none. So I turned to the few Venezuelans I already knew and then reached out to the millions I don’t.
Through research and numerous conversations with those involved in the game in a multiple of ways, I know there are hundreds of intriguing and incredible stories to be told but just not down on paper to be read. I hope to change that, and I hope you do too.
To support this project or to pre-order a copy of Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion, visit the Kickstarter page here. You can also follow Jordan on Twitter: @TheFalseLibero
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