Copa America Spotlight:Venezuela

The Venezuelan national soccer team has never qualified for the World Cup, and until 2007, they'd never made it out of the group stage of Copa America. But a decade ago, their first quarterfinal appearance in a tournament they hosted appeared to spark Venezuelan soccer to life. They've been competitive since then, just barely missing out on World Cup qualification twice and finishing fourth in the 2011 Copa.

Unfortunately, progress has stalled. Venezuela didn't make it out of the group stage of the last Copa America and currently sits dead last in South American World Cup qualifying. They've lost four times at home since September, with three of those defeats coming in World Cup qualifying. Those poor results got manager Noel Sanvicente fired in March, with former star goalkeeper and Venezuela Under-20 manager Rafael Dudamel brought in to replace him. And all this is happening at the same time that the country of Venezuela is sinking into a serious economic crisis.

Venezuela's president has declared a state of emergency. The economy is contracting while inflation soars. Despite being oil-rich, the country is experiencing a massive electricity crisis. Large protests have broken out over food shortages. Millions of people have gone without basic goods for years and the situation looks like it will get worse before it gets better.

It's impossible to tell whether the crisis has directly affected the national soccer team. Professional coaches and athletes don't usually admit when outside forces have affected their psyche, and they certainly don't like excuses. But it's impossible to ignore the correlation between the two — as quality of life for people in Venezuela has decreased, their soccer team has gotten worse as well.

A quick look at Venezuela's squad doesn't offer any easy explanation for why they're playing so poorly. Long-time star Juan Arango has retired, while a small handful of veteran players have been left off the Copa America squad due to age or a lack of form, but nothing dramatic has happened. No top players have dropped off unexpectedly, and a golden generation hasn't retired all at once.

The current Venezuelan side has a good mix of youth and experience, with lots of players in their mid-to-late 20s. Veteran defender Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, playmaker Tomás Rincón and striker Salomón Rondón lead the way along with a slew of other players plying their trade in Europe and at top South American clubs. In short: there's nothing clearly wrong here. This is a good squad, with good players.

And perhaps they'll become a good team again in a training camp away from home. Venezuela isn't playing any of their pre-tournament friendlies at home, instead opting to play warm-up games in Spain, Panama, Costa Rica and Florida. However, early results aren't promising — they drew 1-1 against a team made up of players from just the Galicia region of Spain, then drew 0-0 against Panama.

There is ultimately little reason to predict that Venezuela will compete for a knockout stage place at Copa America, but it also wouldn't be terribly surprising if they managed it. With Dudamel not having led his team into a competitive match yet, opposing managers won't know what to expect. La Vinotinto's top players are coming off of good club seasons.

When Rincón, Rondón and Josef Martinez are clicking they're a joy to watch, and 22-year-old playmaker Juan Pablo Añor's emergence gives them another exciting attacking talent to work with as well. This team can get results, and they can do it in entertaining fashion. The talent is there.

But first, they have to find a way to put the horrible things that are happening in their country out of their minds for two hours at a time. And if they can't figure out how to do that, they could hardly be blamed. Footballers are human, and it's understandable if the game is secondary to Venezuela's players right now.

Schedule & Results

Sunday, Jun. 5
Thursday, Jun. 9
Monday, Jun. 13
Saturday, Jun. 18