In a modern, globalised football context, building a league from the bottom up is a very difficult task. Those who like the sport can follow the best in the world from their own armchair. If there is no strong local competition, then how can a domestic competition compete with the likes of Barcelona?
Major League Soccer has taken things step by step for more than two decades now — then again, they can count on the mighty economic power of the United States, where even a niche market can reach a significant size. Elsewhere, things can be more difficult.
Take Venezuela, for example. Unlike the countries to the south, football did not catch on as an important part of national identity. Closer to the cultural orb of the U.S., baseball was the national sport. Football was always there, but it tended to be associated with immigrants from Spain, Portugal or Italy. For decades in South American competitions, the Venezuelans were merely making up the numbers, taking the field in the hope of keeping the score respectable.
Slowly, though, the game was starting to take firmer roots. The local public just needed some victories to get excited about. And at the start of the current century, under Richard Paez, a Venezuelan coach who understood the local mentality, the national team started to put some wins together, and the public began to get behind them.
In 2007, Venezuela staged the Copa America for the first time, and took the opportunity to transform its domestic game. Huge investments were made in a series of impressive new stadiums. The first division was expanded from 10 clubs to 18.
But it was at this point that the problem of globalisation became apparent. The process had been driven by the success of the national team. This success, though, had put the best players in the shop window. They were being sold abroad as never before. Just a few years ago, for example, the idea of a Venezuelan starring as a centre-forward in the English Premier League was unthinkable. Now, though, there are few more dangerous old style strikers than West Brom’s Salomon Rondon.
This dynamic may have been positive for the national team — the likes of Rondon are picking up invaluable experience and self-esteem. But it has been bad news for the domestic league, which has been losing its potential stars at the very moment it has sought to expand.
The quality of the club game has clearly suffered. For an entire decade hardly a Venezuelan side made it out of the group phase of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. Caracas made the second round in 2007, and the quarterfinals two years later. Aside from that, though, it was an annual tale of first round elimination.
Last year, though, Deportivo Tachira came close to making the quarterfinals — and it now looks as if that might have been a portend of better times ahead. It might tentatively be argued that the development work which has taken place over the last 15 years is starting to pay off.
Last month Venezuela’s Under-20 side qualified — in some style — for this year’s World Cup at the level. And in goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez, centre-back Williams Velasquez and central midfielder Yangel Herrera they would seem to have unearthed players set for long careers at senior level. The Under-17s are currently performing well in the South American championships in Chile, safely making it through to the decisive second round.
And at club level, Venezuelan football has enjoyed one of its best ever weeks. Its three clubs secured fine results in the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent. Deportivo Anzoategui hammered Huracan of Argentina 3-0. Atletico Venezuela went to Chile to face Palestino — who knocked out Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo last year — and came back with a 1-0 win. And Caracas achieved a laudable 1-1 draw away to Cerro Porteno of Paraguay.
True, it may well be a mistake to place too much importance on results in the Sudamericana — the real deal is the Libertadores. And true again, both Venezuelan clubs were knocked out in the Libertadores qualifying round. Deportivo Tachira fell disappointingly and narrowly to Capiata of Paraguay, while Carabobo were swept aside by Junior of Colombia.
But the interesting tests are just about to start. In next week’s opening fixtures in the Libertadores group phase, both Venezuelan sides are at home to Brazilian opposition. On Thursday, Zamora from the city of Barinas host Gremio. And getting the opening night off to a high profile start, Zulia of Maracaibo, currently Venezuela’s most attractive side, are at home to Chapecoense, making their first long flight north since that tragic plane crash in Colombia at the end of November.
Zulia can count on three different generations of attacking midfield talent. The 20-year-old Jefferson Savarino has genuine promise. Yohandry Orozco, 25, is a quick, incisive dribbler, and Juan Arango, now 36 and returning to Venezuelan football after more than a decade and a half away, has done more than anyone else to put his country’s football on the map. There is magic in Arango’s left foot. Zulia — and fans of Venezuelan football — will be hoping he can show it in the Libertadores over the next few months.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.