Please Wait . . .
At international level, Venezuela have managed to at least partially shed their reputation as the poor relations of South American football, but the nation's clubs still remain a step behind most of their rivals in the Copas Libertadores and Sudamericana, habitually bowing out in the preliminary and group stages without making too many waves.
Indeed, Caracas FC are just a few steps away from the last 16, an achievement that would be impressive enough in any edition but that in 2020 appears nothing short of a miracle.
It is no disservice to Venezuelan football to assert that, for all the strides made by the Vinotinto, especially at youth level over the last decade and a half, their impoverished clubs have failed to keep up.
Since Caracas last made the Copa knockout stages in 2009, battling through to the quarter-finals to match a national-best finish, just one Venezuelan side, Deportivo Tachira in 2016, has managed to escape the group phase.
There were signs from the start that the current campaign might prove memorable for Caracas.
At the beginning of March, the defending Venezuelan champions held mighty Boca Juniors to a 1-1 draw and were unlucky to fall to Libertad in Asuncion prior to the coronavirus-enforced suspension of the Libertadores.
Few, though, would have expected to see the Demonios Rojos in a position to qualify for the knockout stages from the tough Group H, particularly as Venezuela is one of only three South American leagues,along with Argentina and Bolivia, still waiting to recommence because of the pandemic.
However, Caracas have proved their doubters wrong with two heroic wins, sealing the first victory ever for a Venezuelan team in Colombia by downing Independiente 3-2 in Medellin before securing a 2-1 upset over Paraguay's Libertad– a result that led to the sacking of veteran Argentine coach Ramon Diaz.
Now, given Libertad's goalless draw away to Boca, Caracas can all but secure their last-16 spot with a win over point-less DIM on Wednesday, which would leave them needing just a draw at the Bombonera against the already-qualified Xeneize no matter what Libertad do in their final game.
Even if they fall at the last hurdle, third place in Group H and a Copa Sudamericana spot would still be a fine achievement for Caracas, who went into these rescheduled Copa having not played a single competitive match for over six months and fieldinga side peppered with teenage talents with precious few games under their belts.
Saul Guarirapa is one of the symbols of this young, exciting Caracas side.
At 17, and on his senior footballing debut, he emulated the exploits of Josef Martinez by netting the winner against DIM in Medellin, earning his team a priceless victory.
Thankfully for Caracas – who coached by the venerable ex-Vinotinto star and trainer Noel Sanvicente– he chose to ignore his father's advice as a kid.
“My dad wanted me to play baseball when I was young and even took me to a training school, but it wasn't my thing,” the teenager revealed to Cronica Uno after his Colombia heroics.
“When he bought me a football, he realised that was what I liked and I thank God because my parents have always been there to support me in everything to try to achieve.”
The battle for the hearts and minds of young sporting starlets with baseball has long been a handicap for the game in Venezuela, the only CONMEBOL nation where football does not command unquestioned supremacy.
Their more recent woes, however, can be tracked back to the beginning of the political, economic and social crisis that gripped the country following the death of President Hugo Chavez in 2013, which has created a spiral of hyperinflation, poverty, violence and emigration.
As many as five million Venezuelans, almost one-fifth of the country's population, are estimated to have emigrated in the last two decades to escape the chaos of their homeland.
The nation's top footballers are no exception to that trend, choosing neighbouring Colombia, Chile, Argentina, other South American nations or the United States – 15 are currently active in MLS and another half-dozen in the second-tier USL – over the instability of their home leagues.
Those who do stay face serious institutional failings. In July, Federation chief Jesus Bernardelli was apprehended by police on alleged corruption charges and two days later had to be hospitalised, passing away within a fortnight.
A FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee subsequently took over, and claimed that the FVF has been left indebted and penniless – still owing, to take just one example, the prize money due to the team that finished second in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup.
Sub-standard infrastructure and security is also a constant concern for even the nation's biggest teams in the Primera Division.
Rolling black-outs in Caracas and other major cities cause huge disruption to match schedules, reaching the point where Libertadores games were rescheduled to sweltering afternoon kick-offs in order to avoid floodlight failure and postponements.
In March 2019, after four consecutive days of power cuts, Caracas and Zulia refused to play their scheduled Primera game in protest at the atrocious conditions, with the dressing rooms shrouded in darkness and the stands empty of fans.
The pandemic has only heightened the financial plight of even Venezuela's top-flight clubs, two of which, Zulia and Lala FC, have dropped out of the league altogether ahead of the planned October restart.
The latter's players have not been paid for up to 12 months in some cases, and are taking desperate measures to survive.
"I am selling one of the few personal items I have left, my car," Lala's Yuxer Requena toldDeporte Totalin a September interview. "The situation at Lala is the same, nothing is happening, all we hear is, 'keep waiting', we still haven't got a solid answer.
"In my case, I have my car and can sell it but there are others who have nothing. Some players are owed 11 monthsof unpaid wages, others 12, some nine, so it is tough, really tough."
“There are teams that prepare to be champions of the Copa Libertadores; we prepare ourselves to just compete,” Sanvicente told reporters back in March, referring to the gulf in finances and quality between his side and Boca. “One or two of their players could pay for the entire payroll of two or three teams here.
“Among our players there are a lot of youngsters who might not have the experience, but they do want to do well and this is a showcase for their future.”
Sanvicente has done sterling work with a squad made up of promising youngsters like Guararipa and fellow goalscorer against DIM, 19-year-old Anderson Contreras, local journeymen and the odd foreign star, such as Argentine ex-Independiente striker Alexis Blanco, whose winding path to Caracas led him through Chile, Bolivia and even a spell in Vietnam before landing in the Demonios Rojos.
Caracas will not win the Libertadores, or most likely advance much further than the last 16, but their exploits cannot fail to catch the eye in a nation where football remains in a critical and still deteriorating state.