I’ve been incredibly fortunate in recent months to learn a great deal about the unconventional footballing world. As a result of writing about CONIFA, I learnt of and attended the Island Games, met people who obsess over the minutiae of football on tiny island states, and became mildly fixated with a tiny London football club called Clapham CFC.
I also met, virtually at least, Jordan Florit, who was kind enough to bring me on the These Football Times podcast. I learn he has his own strange football leanings, in that he’s obsessed with one of South America’s weakest footballing nations, Venezuela, and their sporting output. Much like CONIFA, this fascinates me: you’d have done well to miss the countries economic problems in recent years, yet the team are thriving, with increasingly impressive showings at international level. They’re currently ranked 26 in the world, they’re highest ever position. Yet I know almost nothing about them. I suspect I’m not alone.
Jordan’s book isn’t out until some time in 2020, though he will be putting out his Kickstarter in the coming week, in order to fund a trip over to South America, printing, and the other aspects of such a book. He has a host of big-name interviews lined up. You can get a discount on the Kickstarter by signing up for updates on his mailing list, here.
He kindly agreed to talk about it all, so here’s an informed little glance at football in a South American company you might not have had much of experience of to date. I know I hadn’t…
Obviously, South America is a real footballing powerhouse. It’s fair to say Venezuela are very much the poor relations. What attracts you to the place from a footballing perspective?
From purely a footballing perspective, it was a mixture of the appeal of the unknown, the U20s reaching the World Cup final in 2017, and the Juvenile Rule introduced in 2007. Its something I’ve already talked a lot about with many people, privately and publicly. I’m a massive fan of it. It stipulates that teams must field at least one U20 in their starting line-up and this is in place in both the men’s and the women’s game.
Within six years, it was having a noticeable impact. They finished runners-up in the U17 South American Championships in 2013 and reached the U17 World Cup finals for the first time in the same year. Four years on from their first World Cup finals, they reached the final, finishing runners-up to England. Successes have also been reaped in the women’s game. The U17s reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2016, won the U17 South American Championship in the same year, and then finished fourth in 2018 edition.
Sixteen of the 23-man 2019 Copa América squad made their debuts as “juveniles de la norma,” including all three of the goalkeepers, four of the defenders, six of the midfielders, and the three strikers, including Salomón Rondón. Additionally, 91% of them play their football outside of Venezuela, compared to just 41% in 2007, when the rule was introduced.
The nicheness and obscurity of Venezuelan football appealed to me too: you and I have spoken about CONIFA before, I once created from scratch the entire Cuban football pyramid on Championship Manager, and when I play FIFA, PES, or Football Manger, I always like to sign players other people aren’t. I don’t like having the same squads as everyone else and that translates into my writing as well – I don’t like writing about the same thing as 20 other people are on the same day. I read a lot and write a lot because I love learning new things and then sharing that knowledge; Venezuelan football lends itself to that.
What kind of trends have you noticed in terms of the emerging of Venezuelan football in recent years?
Well, I spoke a lot about that in the previous question, but to expand on it, there are more Venezuelan players than ever playing in or making moves to the top five leagues in Europe – England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. In the mid-2000s, the only player at a team of any real calibre in Europe was Juan Arango, who was first at Mallorca and then at Borussia Monchengladbach. Now you’ve got Salomón Rondón, who’s been at Zenit, Malaga, West Brom and Newcastle, Yangel Herrera who is on the books at Manchester City, Adalberto Peñaranda at Watford, Tómas Rincón at Torino, and Roberto Rosales at Espanyol, to name just a few. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a few of the current internationals make moves to Europe or the big South American clubs this summer. The goalkeeper Wuilker Faríñez was linked to Barcelona before they signed Neto from Valencia as the replacement for Jasper Cillessen, for example, and Jan Hurtado, who missed out on the Copa squad has moved to Boca Juniors, having also been linked with Sampdoria. His story is fascinating. Little over a year ago, he was essentially on gardening leave from his club in Venezuela and facing the end of his career before it had even begun – he was just 18-years old – but after signing for Gimnasia and having an impressive debut season in Argentina, he’s become the first player from his country to play for Boca.
The political climate in Venezuela is widely talked about these days, most often in mocking tones by the far right. Do the current problems have an impact on football?
Yes, and I think it is inescapable. When a country is suffering the sanctions they are and many are left with shortages of the basics, it is going to affect the game. Blackouts have been one of the occurrences disturbing football and in March it came to a head.
Despite a nationwide power blackout, the FVF pushed on with the fixture schedule and clubs thus did their best to get their games played in daylight hours. Caracas FC and Zulia were due to play each other and in protest, they played out a 0-0, simply going through the motions. As a result, the FVF cancelled the result and did not reschedule it, meaning both clubs lost the point they had earned and the points they may have gained in a rescheduled fixture. The two clubs were fined 360,000 bolivars, which given current hyperinflation in the country is the equivalent of about £40, and both club captains received a suspension and were fined.
A month later, Caracas F.C. captain Rubert Quijada, who I will be meeting with in October, issued a statement in response, which I will condense:
“I publicly express my outrage at the disrespectful manner in which the FVF has addressed us footballers. Venezuela had suffered a national blackout. The lack of electric affected Zulia state. Our preparation was hindered and the conditions to play the game were not there. The lack of electric, water, ice, and the risk of injury and difficulty in being treated (if injured) raised the risks.
“For this reason, it is unacceptable and disrespectful for the FVF to suspend and fine us. To say we ridiculed the sport through our actions is wrong. We are professionals and our intention has never been to mock our profession, especially the one that feeds us and our families. I demand respect and for Venezuelan footballers to be granted dignity. Do not forget that before being footballers, we are human beings.
It turns out neither club were affected in the long run because they are now the country’s two representatives in the Copa Sudamericana.
Aside from the game itself, what other sides of Venezuela will appear in your book?
I want the book to be an anthropological narrative where football is the anchor from which societal issues, trends, and behaviours of contemporary Venezuela can be explored and examined. I think football is reflective of the communities it represents, if not society in its entirety, and I think if you can gain an insight into a people’s relationship with football, you can better understand them as a whole.
Whilst I do not wish to write an overtly political book, especially in the conventional manner, it is fair to say I imagine politics will also feature throughout, and that isn’t surprising or unique to Venezuela: I am of the opinion that football is inherently political.
What are the plans for the writing and production of ”Red Wine and Arepas’?
Perhaps I am approaching this in an unorthodox manner, but I am really excited about the opportunities it is going to provide for those who choose to back the project and get involved in supporting the book. Despite being offered a publishing deal, I think it is unlikely I will take it, at least for the first run. It worked out that I would receive about 65p per copy sold, whilst making the publisher just under £6. Writing this book is absolutely not about money, but that put me off. I know publishers offer a valuable service and most definitely help the book sell, however, I would much rather produce and sell the book myself and plough every penny raised right into the book to make it as good and as comprehensive as possible. That’s why I am going about the project somewhat in reverse and funding the process through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter by selling pre-orders of the book before going on to write it. To be absolutely clear, all proceeds raised through the Kickstarter will be going straight into the writing and production of the book
I have already arranged numerous interviews and meetings with Venezuelan players, managers, officials, journalists and fans, domestic and international, men and women, and I will continue to work hard to arrange more. This includes members of the 2019 Copa América squad and teams from previous Copas, domestic league legends, young players at the beginning of their careers, and stars of the women’s game. The whole project comes with the blessing and support of the executive president of the Venezuelan Premier League Rúben Villavicencio, who will be co-ordinating much of my time in Caracas. If you’d like to know more about who I will be meeting with and interviewing for the book, I encourage you to contact me on Twitter.
As we both know, getting information on relatively obscure aspects of football can be difficult. How are you breaking down the barriers and getting into the Venezuelan story?
I was very lucky to start with. Carlos Tarache, the CEO of Solovenex (a website dedicated in large to Venezuelan players who play outside of the country), collaborated with me for an article I wrote for These Football Times and also put me in contact with Cristian Cásseres Jr, a midfielder for New York Red Bulls and Venezuela’s U20 team. It all started from there, and inspired by Carlos and Cristian’s openness and willingness to help, I started to pursue other avenues. I have really put in a lot of hard work to even get to where I am with the project now, however, none of it would be possible without the welcome and warmth it has received by the vast majority of Venezuelans involved in the game that I have approached, who, once I had convinced of the project, were helpful in connecting me with others. In short, a mixture of hard work, dedication, braveness, and some luck.
The plus side of this, of course, is Venezuelan football isn’t covered in any notable way in English, which will make you an authority. Are you quite conscious of the message you deliver?
Yes, though what I am more conscious of is my methodology and approach to writing the book. I very much want to provide an immersive narrative from a detached viewpoint. I doubt I will provide much personal opinion in the book at all. My desire is to tell a story of Venezuela through the medium of football. In terms of the message I deliver, what I aim to do is provide uncensored accounts, emotions, and viewpoints. Whilst I will fact-check statements of facts, I will not censor opinions whether I agree with them or not, and wherever they may come from on the political spectrum.
We’ve talked in the past about the stories around football that bring out its joyous side. Do you have any idea what you might find that would be unusual to your typical European football fan?
For one, the openness of journalists, players, agents, and fans. I’ve literally had journalists send me phone numbers of international players in bulk; imagine that happening here – it wouldn’t.
One incredibly heart-warming phenomena I’ve already discovered and have been talking about is the number of related players there are in the league. Aided by the Juvenile Rule, some players becoming fathers at a young age, and then having long careers, there are at least three father and son duos in Venezuelan football, playing for the same team. There’s John and Ronald McIntosh, David and Arian Moreno (both at Deportivo Anzoategui) and Franklin and Angelo Lucena (Portuguesa FC).
Another aspect that will be unusual to the typical European football fan is the possible danger I’ll face in going to Venezuela. Although the majority of the Venezuelans I have spoken to have simply urged me to take precautions and avoid doing things you wouldn’t do in the rougher areas of London, for example, others have expressed strong opinions. One journalist who was based in Caracas for seven years literally told me that, “for context, I’ve worked in Mosu, Kabul, and similarly war-torn places. Caracas is far worse in that sense.” Another guy, an author and football historian based there told me it wasn’t worth coming because of the risk to my safety and that if I really wanted to write the book, I should do it all from England. I’m never going to do that. If I am going to do this, I will be going to Venezuela. I can’t write a book on Venezuelan football without spending time out there – that’s alien and nonsensical to me.
Do you have a connection to Venezuela?
Not familial, no. My grandad was Spanish, so I’ve always had a strong natural bond with Spain and by extension Latin America. That was intensified when I met my now wife, as she loves Latin America and many cultural aspects that weave through the continent. Her best friend growing up is from Caracas, however, the capital of Venezuela. Other than Spanish, my only ‘connection’ is a 7-year long interest, a lot of books read, and a lot of interest taken.
How have you been watching games and staying connected with things up until now?
Well for the international team, I bought the tv channel Premier Sports, so I could watch the 2019 Copa. I didn’t miss a game up until the semi-finals and then I missed both those as well as the final, as I was on holiday in Spain. The semi-finals started at 0230 local time, and the final was at 10pm on my final night in Almería.
In terms of the domestic league games, thanks to Esteban Trapiello, the president of La Tele Tuya (TLT), the official tv channel of the Venezuelan Premier League, a number of games are shown free online. I have watched a few by these means and will continue to do so. Otherwise, there are two great accounts to follow that I wholeheartedly recommend – @Hispanospherical and @TheRedWine. Both are dedicated to Venezuelan football, including the national team, and heavily focus on scores, transfers, and news; not aspects of football the book will be concerned with, but excellent sources of information on Venezuelan football.
Let’s get down to the brass tacks. If someone wanted to support your venture or grab the book, how can they stay in touch ahead of launch day?
Ahead of launch day, you can follow me on Twitter, like the Facebook Page, but most importantly, you can subscribe to the mailing list, which will keep you up-to-date as the book progresses and will notify you when the Kickstarter launches.
If you want to support the project or buy the book, you will be able to pre-order a copy through the Kickstarter page, as well as there being a number of other ways you can get behind Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion. I am really excited for the launch and there are some great opportunities for those who want to support it. One thing I am really excited about is the book’s signed shirt. From start to finish, I will be taking a Venezuela shirt with me and Venezuelan I interview will sign it. By the end, around 100 or so people will have signed it and there will be photos of every single signee. One Kickstarter backer will receive that at the end of the project.
I will need to sell between 300-400 copies of the book on pre-order throughout August, so it will be a massive month for the project. I hope there are enough people who want to come along for the ride!
What, in your view, does the future hold for Venezuelan football?
They are yet to qualify for the World Cup and are one of just two of the South American nations to have never won the Copa América. I firmly believe they’ll qualify for Qatar 2022 and I feel that this generation that’ll dominate the national side for the next ten years are the best yet and most equipped to win the Copa. Obviously, Brazil and Argentina are the continent’s dominant forces, and Uruguay are the competition’s most successful participant, but I believe a final is within reach and then anything can happen in 90 minutes. They have a lot of competitive football in the next 12-18 months: the Copa América again next year, the Olympics, and the World Cup qualifiers. With the head coach Rafael Dudamel also in charge of the U20s, the pathway remains open, and he will be a busy individual with competitions at that level also. By 2021, we will have a good idea of where the national team are heading. They had the youngest average age of teams that made the Copa América quarter-finals. They are in a good place.
Domestically, they continue to export an increasing amount of players to Europe, the MLS, Brazil, and Argentina. That will only continue. They have aims and wishes to properly professionalise the youth development and academy structure at domestic level and that will be vital in securing the future health of the league.