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Venezuela - August 19, 2021 21:00Venezuela: The Golden DecadeSpecial report by Steve HarrisText by Steve Harris - Futsal Japan

Against All Odds
Out of the very familiar CONMEBOL group of 10, there were two younger and less familiar futsal national teams present at the World Cup qualifiers in Feb. 2020: Chile had the newest program, followed by La Vinotinto. The situation was far from ideal, as Venezuela had been roiled by social unrest and the top-flight Liga Superior de Futsal had been abandoned by most teams in 2019 because television channels began to demand payment for broadcasts of the matches. Ten of the 14 players called up for the World Cup qualifiers had already transferred to club teams abroad.
Head coach Freddy Gonzalez and his charges arrived in Carlos Barbosa, Brazil, after only two weeks of training in Caracas. Despite a 1-2 loss to world champion Argentina in the opening match, goalkeeper and captain Jose Villalobos was upbeat. “The beginning was difficult but the loss enabled us to focus on the three games that we had left – all must-win matches in order for us to qualify.” Fate sided with La Vinotinto as they rolled over Bolivia (3-0), Uruguay (5-1) and Chile (3-2). A 0-3 loss to Brazil in the semifinal and 2-6 defeat to Paraguay in the bronze match left the team without a medal – but with the fourth CONMEBOL ticket to Lithuania securely in hand.

Venezuela make history by qualifying for their first ever FIFA World Cup finals. (Photo courtesy: CONMEBOL)




The New Contender
The emergence of Venezuela proved to be more than just a flash in the pan, as in May of this year Venezuelan club team Delta Te Quiero handily defeated Corinthians 3-1 in the Copa Libertadores bronze match. Venezuela thus officially served notice that it had arrived as a contender in South American futsal. Delta manager Eudo Villalobos, the coach known as “The Lord of the Rings” for his many titles, has presided over the decade-long rise of the sport in Venezuela.
2011 marks the start of the process, according to Villalobos, as this was the year in which La Liga Superior was established and the National Sports Games, a multisport competition, was held in a record 10 states in Venezuela. The sport had taken on so much momentum since that time that many in Venezuela had expected La Vinotinto to qualify for the 2016 World Cup, a goal they failed to achieve. “Our national team that defeated Colombia (2016 World Cup host) in the qualification round included the core players of our current squad: Jose Villalobos, Chavela Vidal, Rafael Morillo, Jorge Preciado, Greydelvid Teran and Carlos Polo. And the team is now rounded out by the generation that took third place in the inaugural South American U-17 Championship in 2016.”

Eudo “Lord of the Rings” Villalobos (Photo courtesy: Tane Tanaè)




The Feat of the Century

Actually, the story goes back even further. Though a latecomer to the FIFA game, Venezuela had been the world champion of the FIFUSA version of futsal. “The Feat of the Century” occurred at the 1997 FIFUSA World Championship in Guadalajara, Mexico. La Vinotinto started their imperious march to the podium with a 25-0 demolition of the USA. On the way to the victorious 4-0 final against Uruguay, Venezuela would beat and Brazil once and Argentina twice. This was the first time a team of professionals in any sport had won a world championship for Venezuela.
The Feat of the Century was the product of a golden age of futsal in Venezuela. Liga Especial de Futbol 5 (Lesfutsal) had been launched in 1993 and became the developing ground for the “heroes of ’97.” Tragically, internal squabbling led to the disbanding of Lesfutsal in 1998, and, though a national league was launched anew in 2003, it was not until 2011 that La Liga Superior de Futsal was born. The league turned pro in 2013.


The “Feat of the Century” (Photo courtesy: Pantalla Deportiva)



The Gimnasio de Futbol Sala Campeones Mundiales '97 (Photo courtesy: Gennaro Pascale)




The Son of the Golden Generation
When national team head coach Freddy Gonzalez is asked if the current team is inspired by the “spirit of ’97,” he is unambiguous: “Very much so. I owe a lot to that generation. I’m the son of that generation. I would say that I was raised by the salonistas from Tachira and their coach Alvaro Guevara (the Colombian who was also in charge of the heroes of ’97).” Club team Deportivo Tachira made history by winning the inaugural season of La Liga Superior (2011) and plays its home games at Gimnasio de Futbol Sala Campeones Mundiales '97 (Gymnasium of the ’97 Futsal World Champions), a 7,000-seat arena that was built in honor of the Feat of the Century.
Though a lawyer by profession, Gonzalez seems to have been predestined to lead his country’s national team to the world stage. He admits to not having the “right stuff” to play professionally, but as a fledging coach was taken on as a protégé by the aforementioned Guevara. Having experienced the 2011 conquest of Tachira as a coach in the lower categories of the club, Gonzalez’s next major post was head coach of Venezuela’s U-20 national side in 2014. “It was a long-term project with a macro idea: to give many 17- and 18-year-old boys a pathway to participation in various South American competitions. This enabled us to give them a lot of playing time in international matches and to consolidate the group of players into a team.” When he took over as head coach of the top national team in 2018, Gonzalez had one objective in mind: qualification for the World Cup.

La Vinotinto head coach Freddy Gonzalez (Photo courtesy: Idioma Futve)




The Class of ’14 Take to the World
One pupil from Gonzalez’s U-20 “class of ‘14” is Alfredo de Jesus Vidal – or “Chavela,” as he is better known. The prodigious ala scored 37 goals for Caracas FS in the 2017 season, an all-time record in the top flight of Venezuelan futsal. A key figure in Venezuela’s 4th-place finish in the CONMEBOL qualifiers until tearing his ACL toward the end of the competition, Chavela shares Gonzalez’s geographic connection to this sport: ”My father was a professional in 11-a-side, but there was a very good futsal court near my house (in Guanare). From the age of five, I’d spend most of the day there. My neighborhood was really steeped in futsal.”

Just as Chavela took his game to other countries (Costa Rica and Peru), fellow class of ’14 alumnus Carlos Sanz has followed a circuitous path that has seen him play in the semifinals of the ’19 Copa Libertadores with Club Panta Walon of Peru and then Serie A side Meta Catania. Currently just 25 years old, Sanz is poised to be one of the stars of La Vinotinto at Lithuania, where they share Group A with the host, Kazakhstan and Costa Rica. According to Sanz, “We have a very clear goal, which is to be among the four best teams in the world.” Could Venezuela be on the verge of accomplishing the feat of this century?


Chavela and Sanz when they both played for Panta Walon Futsal in Peru (Photo courtesy: Panta Walon Futsal)




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