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LAST spring, I decided to write a book about Venezuela and its football, but I knew that to do such a complex country and society justice would require me to immerse myself fully in its ways of life and to learn its unique idiosyncrasies.
Most importantly, I knew I would have to travel to Venezuela and visit as much of its football heartlands as possible. In October 2019, I did so.
During my time in Venezuela, I met Dr Richard Paez, the manager responsible for the national team’s dramatic turnaround between 2001 and 2007, which resulted in the side casting off its label of La Cenicienta (The Cinderella), as they were called in South America because they always finished last, and becoming La Vinotinto (The Red Wine) because of the colour of their shirt; Noel Sanvicente, the most successful manager the Venezuelan league has ever seen; Adelis Chavez, brother of the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the current president of Zamora Futbol Club; Stalin Rivas, the first Venezuelan to play in Europe; and many more.
Unsurprisingly, there were people who advised me not to go, but there were also Venezuelans equal in number who encouraged me to persevere with the project and — across the political spectrum — assured me that not “all of what you read in the papers about [Venezuela] is true.”
I already had my heart set on going, so it was just confirmation that I was not crazy to think it was possible.
Across the 33 chapters of the book, I use football as the anthropological lens with which I examine and explore what it is like to be Venezuelan and live in Venezuela in the 21st century; from youth football to retired pros, the men’s and the women’s game, and the boardroom to the pitch, I aim to use football as a window into the society and culture of the country.
In the second chapter, for example, I investigate the motivations of non-Venezuelans for living and playing their football in Venezuela, and the realities of their decision:
I was curious, given the perception of the country, how many foreigners — extranjeros — were willing to play their football in Venezuela and how easy it was to sign them. By the end of the [2019/20] transfer window, during which 29 players left Venezuela (5.6 per cent), the number of non-Venezuelans in the league stood at 43 (8.3 per cent), with just four coming from outside of the Americas, and only one born in Europe — Metropolitanos’ Portuguese midfielder Francisco Palma.
The bulk of the imports came from Argentina, which supplied Liga FUTVE with 13 players ahead of the 2020 season, five of which were new to the league.
Aside from Liga FUTVE’s many Latin Americans, in the capital are the only two African representatives: Ghanaian midfielders Adjin Livingstone (Atletico Venezuela) and Kwaku Osei Bonsu (Caracas).
Kwaku is just 19 years old and joined Caracas ahead of the 2020 Apertura from Slovakian team FK Senica, thanks to the shared ownership of the two clubs. Only leaving his native Ghana for the first time in February 2019, the right-winger is already well-travelled, having trialled for German third tier-side Eintracht Braunschweig, and, more impressively, Serie A’s Bologna.
“I’m a professional and I need to adjust myself to every situation,” he told me over WhatsApp. “Slovakia was great, lovely, but the culture and the traditions of the two countries are different to one another and from Ghana.”
For Kwaku, it is just as fortunate that the only other Ghanaian footballer in Venezuela happens to play in the same city. “He is my big brother,” Kwaku said of Adjin Livingstone. “He’s been advising me on what Venezuela is like, the way of the people — he has been very helpful.”
Moving to Venezuela for the first time in 2013, Adjin is now on his second stint in the country with spells at two Cypriot clubs in between. His first experience came in Puerto Ayacucho, on the border with Colombia. There, he played one season for the now defunct Tucanes de Amazonas, signed after a Colombian agent spotted him in South Africa where he was playing for FK Azziz Kara, in Johannesburg.
“There are some great players out there in Africa,” Adjin insists. “The FutVe scouts mostly concentrate on Latin America though.”
His return to Venezuela in 2017 was prompted by a call from Horacio Matuszyck, his manager at Tucanes who was by then managing Trujillanos. “The respect I have for him, well, he is like a father to me. I could not turn him down, so I decided to come back to Venezuela.”
As an outsider not just to the country but the continent, his insight was all the more intriguing. “A lot changed by the time I came back, but I was able to adjust quickly, thanks to God. The situation in the county is somewhat complicated, but for me, I had an ambition and I was concentrating on achieving that. I still am, no matter what the circumstances.”
To have moved in the first place was perhaps a risk plenty of others would not take, yet Adjin is sure many more players worldwide would play in Venezuela given the chance. If the scouts cast their nets further, Adjin says, it “will boost the sponsorship and level of the league.”
A preference for Latin Americans — deemed more suited to the style of play by coaches — is the main reason for the lack of diversity across the competition, he says, not the situation in the country nor financial restraints on scouting. Kwaku is a supporting case, although Caracas are benefiting from a pre-established link with Senica.
“I always visit him,” he says of his countryman over 10 years his junior. “He is quickly adapting to the system here and I am amazed by him. He is very quick and skilful, which are good traits to have in this league, so I always tell him to keep working hard, to keep his body in good shape and to seize the opportunities he is given. He is a very good player and I am very happy for him.”
It was an opinion shared by Kwaku’s coaches and the Caracas club hierarchy too, but it seems his stay will only be fleeting, unlike that of his Ghanaian predecessor, Ibrahim Salisu. Joining in 1991 and spending nine years at the club, Salisu scored eight goals in 16 Copa Libertadores appearances and totalled 42 goals over 144 games.
While he wasn’t the first Ghanaian at the club, he is still the greatest. Caracas’ Director of Football, Miguel Mea Vitali, is confident in Kwaku’s talent, and his manager, Noel Sanvicente, is clear-cut about his future.
“He has interesting qualities for me, he is going to succeed. The idea is to have him for a year and then sell him.”
While Kwaku’s Venezuelan experience may turn out to be short, Adjin is looking to extend his beyond his playing days. Married and a father, I was expecting his view to be in line with Cabezon’s, who said that if he were to return, his family would stay in Argentina, or Brignani’s who did not bring them in the first place.
As I would learn on my travels, there are Venezuelans in professional football who are there in spite of the fact their partners and children live abroad and are biding their time to leave. However, Adjin has plans to bring his family 5,000 miles across the Atlantic to be with him permanently.
“They will come at the appropriate time. At the moment, my wife works in Ghana and that is one reason why she cannot be here with me now. I am hoping to gain nationality here, so when that is achieved, I will decide. This is my second home.
“I have been here almost four years and I am used to the country. Here in Venezuela is beautiful, you cannot know it exactly without being here. Every country has its own economic problems, but time always changes.”
Adjin wasn’t saying these words with the rashness of youth or the inexpediency of a short stay. He isn’t just two months into a short-term contract. He is now playing for his fourth Venezuelan club between 2013 and 2020; a seven-year span during which he has played in Puerto Ayacucho (a city bordering Colombia along the Orinoco River), Valera (a city at the foot of the Andes), Ciudad Guayana (a city uniquely different to many in South America due to strong US influences prior to the nationalisation of Venezuela’s steel industry), and only now, since 2020, has he lived and played in the capital.
Yes, he is a footballer, but one with wide-ranging and varied experiences of the country. To hear him speak so fondly of it was in juxtaposition to the narrative.
Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion, by Jordan Florit is the first English language book on Venezuelan football. It is out on August 31. You can pre-order it through Florit’s Twitter page — @TheFalseLibero.
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