How Venezuela became surprise Copa América quarterfinalists

“Mano, tengo fe” … Bro, I have faith.

Nobody knows for sure who coined the phrase — there are various theories, none proven — that has become the unofficial slogan of Venezuela’s national team. But it stuck. Watch Venezuela’s games at the Copa América, or follow them on social media, and it’s everywhere.

“It’s a part of our identity as a team now,” captain Salomón Rondón told Marca. “It’s a part of our football.”

“You can never lose faith,” coach Fernando Batista said last week. “In life, not just in football. Behind that saying, there’s a whole country. But it’s a saying, that’s all.”

Venezuela’s performance at the Copa América so far, with wins over Ecuador, Mexico and Jamaica in Group B, has given fans reason to believe. La Vinotinto — so called because of the red-wine color of their home shirts — matched favourites Argentina and Uruguay as the only countries to take maximum points in the tournament’s group phase, and now face Canada in the quarterfinals in Arlington, Texas on Friday.

A team which has only reached the Copa América semifinals once in the competition’s history, in 2011, is now a win away — against a Canada team taking part in the tournament for the first time — from matching that achievement.

In the ultracompetitive environment of South American international football, Venezuela have tended to struggle, upstaged by more successful neighbours such as Brazil and Colombia. The status of baseball as Venezuela’s traditional No. 1 sport, and the country’s fraught politics leading to often chaotic sports administration, haven’t helped.

“Venezuela has suffered from a lot of non-footballing issues in recent years,” broadcaster Jairo Robles, of Venezuelan radio station Sports 96.7fm, told ESPN. “There was conflict between the federation and the players, logistical issues, a lot of negative things.

“Today, all that has improved. They’re on the right track, with the right preparation, perfect logistics. There are no complaints from the players, so they can focus on football.

“Then, you have the form of the players with their clubs. A lot of them are key players: Salomón Rondón in Mexico [at Pachuca], Yeferson Soteldo in Brazil [at Santos and Gremio], the great form of Yangel Herrera at Girona [in LaLiga].

“All that has come together in the national team. Venezuelan players have always had talent. But it’s never been well organized. It’s been like that for decades. There was never professional preparation. Now, there is.”

Venezuela are the only CONMEBOL country to have never qualified for the World Cup. In attempting to qualify for Qatar 2022, they finished 10th, rock bottom of the table with just 10 points, losing 14 of their 18 games.

In the Copa América, aside from that 2011 semifinal — when they were beaten by Paraguay on penalties — they can point to respectable quarterfinal appearances in 2016 and 2019, losing on both occasions to Argentina. But in the 2021 edition, they were eliminated at the group stage, without winning a single match.

In the last year, the mood has changed under Argentine coach Fernando Batista. He was appointed in March 2023, having previously worked as an assistant to predecessor Jose Pekerman. Despite sitting below eight of the ten CONMEBOL nations in the FIFA World Ranking — only Bolívia are lower — Venezuela are fourth in qualifying for the 2026 World Cup, with six games played.

They are behind Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia, but ahead of the rest, including giants Brazil. The top six finishers will go to the World Cup, with the seventh-placed team going into the intercontinental playoffs.

Results and performances have been encouraging. Venezuela drew 1-1 in Brazil on Oct. 13, and beat Chile 3-0 four days later. They have lost only once, to Colombia. But the marathon nature of South American qualifying — with all 10 teams in the same group — means there are still 12 more games to be played, between September 2024 and September 2025.

“Venezuela are confirming now what they’ve shown in World Cup qualifying,” Robles says. “They’re fourth, and it isn’t a coincidence that those are the four teams that have topped the groups at the Copa América.

“Everything has fallen into place. The players have understood the tactics, and they’ve won important matches. What was difficult for Venezuela before was finishing off games, the small details, and now they’ve been able to do it. In the past, they didn’t take advantage of their opportunities.

“Independent of the system — and we’ve used every formation you can think of, adapting to what the game needs — our style of play is non-negotiable,” assistant coach Leandro Cufre said this week. “We try to be proactive, to make sure the opponent touches the ball as little as possible in our half of the pitch. That’s always the intention.”

Going into this Copa América, the players and coach Batista framed the tournament as a continuation of a learning curve, rather than an end in itself.

“This is a process, a project,” Batista said. “Beyond the results, there’s a project. This [tournament] will help these youngsters gain experience, knowing they can be the future of the Vinotinto.”

Venezuela’s preparations for the Copa América were questioned. They were the only team to choose not to play any pre-tournament friendlies in June, preferring to focus on training at their base in Tampa, Florida. “We had 15 or 16 days of training,” Batista said. “It’s what we wanted. Getting the group together, working physically, and working on details.”

So far, that work has paid off. Venezuela beat Ecuador 2-1 in their opening game on June 23 — helped by an early red card for Ecuador forward Enner Valencia — and then beat Mexico 1-0, goalkeeper Rafael Romo the hero after brilliantly saving an 87th-minute penalty.

Captain Rondón scored in that game, also from the spot, and then found the net in the 3-0 win over Jamaica that confirmed top spot in Group B, setting up the quarterfinal with Canada.

If Venezuela have a star, it’s centre-forward Rondón, 34, formerly of Málaga, West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United and Everton, and now of Liga MX’s Pachuca. He is his country’s all-time leading scorer, with 43 goals, and their joint-top scorer at the Copa América, with six. He will break the country’s tournament appearance record if he features against Canada.

Rondón has experienced firsthand Venezuela’s disappointments — and Copa América near-misses — over the past 15 years.

“What the men’s national team is lacking is the World Cup,” he told Marca last month. “In qualifiers, we always compete. We’re fourth 1720204078, but that doesn’t mean anything yet. We have to keep working and improving.

“We’ll use this Copa América to keep strengthening what we’ve done as a team. Getting to the World Cup [in 2026] would be fantastic, not just for the team and the federation, but for the country.”

Rather than their usual underdog status, Venezuela might just be favourites in the game with debutants Canada, who have already eliminated Chile and Peru in the group stage.

“Venezuela have been here before,” Robles tells ESPN. “They know what it is to be in semifinals. They did it in 2011, when they were one penalty kick away from going through to the final.

“It’s hard to predict if they could be champions, or get to the final. But they’ve shown it in World Cup qualifying, drawing with Brazil. They have something important, beyond being organized tactically. They have players who can open up a game, who can decide it on their own, like Yeferson Soteldo and [winger] Darwin Machis.

“After that, you can win or lose, but they can be among the best four teams in America. I think they can do it. Anything beyond that would be a plus. Now, the focus is on Canada.”

Making the Copa América semifinals would not just be an achievement in itself. It would be proof that the fans’ faith in the team is justified, and evidence of Venezuela’s forward momentum. It might take them all the way to the 2026 World Cup.

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