I was born in Caracas, Venezuela 32 years ago, almost to the day. In my experience, conversations about my homeland tend to be fraught, in large part because they tend to boil down to one of three topics: oil, Hugo Chávez, or how bad we are at soccer. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about the first two, as they always bring out the over-opinionated and under-informed armchair experts in South American politics. The last topic, though, is one I do willingly engage in, for better and for worse. I both love and hate the Venezuela national soccer team, often in equal parts, though fundamentally from a place of deep affection. It’s a team that in my lifetime has experienced a noticeable but not exactly transformational growth from being a complete joke to merely being a disappointment, all while maintaining its quintessentially Venezuelan strangeness, tendency toward heartbreak, and lovability.
The national team’s present is a great example of Venezuela’s and also South America’s dysfunction. Venezuela is currently competing in a Copa América that was thrown into chaos and controversy before it even began. The tournament was supposed to be jointly hosted by Colombia and Argentina, but because of “civil unrest” in the former country and COVID-19 ravaging the latter, the tournament organizers decided to move it. Where to? Well to Brazil, naturally, perhaps the only country on the continent struggling more with COVID than Argentina.
Coming into the tournament, there were strong rumors that Brazil’s players were going to boycott the Copa out of health concerns and frustrations with the local soccer authorities. The majority of the teams in the field have wound up suffering internal COVID outbreaks amongst their players, coaches, and support staff. No national team has had it worse than Venezuela, who had to call up 15 new players at the last minute after eight members of the roster tested positive for coronavirus. Nevertheless, the show has gone on, and the Copa is about halfway through its group stage.
Venezuela’s opening match against Brazil ended in an easy 3–0 win for the hosts. Venezuela’s loss to Brazil was predictable even before COVID ruled out close to half the squad, but what was less expected was the following game. Despite getting run ragged by Colombia on Thursday, Venezuela was able to ride its best player to a crucial draw. Wuilker Faríñez, the Vinotinto‘s 23-year-old star goalie, came up significantly bigger than his 5-foot-10 height to record eight saves and hold Colombia to a 0–0 scoreline. Grabbing a point off Colombia put Venezuela in a decent position to qualify out of a five-team group where four teams advance to the knockouts.
And Venezuela kept the (relatively) good times rolling against Ecuador on Sunday by snatching another point, this time in a completely different way. Having gone 231 minutes in the Copa without scoring a goal, and already trailing 1–0 after a 39th minute Ayrton Preciado strike for Ecuador, the Vinotinto finally got on the scoresheet just on the other side of halftime:
Because nothing ever comes easy for Venezuela in South American play, Ecuador took back its advantage 20 minutes later, when Gonzalo Plata scored. That’s how it stayed until injury time, when this happened and I lost my mind:
Being a Venezuela fan is all about over-reacting to marginal successes, about trying to convince yourself that something amazing might happen when you know it actually won’t. Grabbing an extremely late equalizer against a team with zero points in the group is something to celebrate as if the team had just qualified for the World Cup. (Venezuela never has, the only South American team to never do so. And that is the root of the Venezuelan fan’s anguish.) Even at full strength, Venezuela is not the kind of team that comes back from two one-goal leads in the same game; for it to win, it has to score first and hang on for dear life. That’s always how it’s been for the only nation in South America that cares more about baseball than soccer.
This is where it gets interesting, and where my emotional investment reaches its peak before its eventual and probably horrifying crash down to earth. Venezuela should get some, and possibly all, of its COVID-stricken players back before its final group stage game against Peru. A draw there is probably enough to sneak the Vinotinto into the quarterfinals, where it will likely meet either Argentina or Chile. Everyone will expect a swift exit from the tournament in that stage … but what if that’s not how it goes? What if the belief that currently exists, that this scrappy team can go further and further by sheer force of luck and will, actually pays off for once? Yes, sure, it’s extremely unlikely. But what if?
I have felt this creeping, probably unrealistic optimism about Venezuela’s chances twice before. In 2010 World Cup Qualifying, Venezuela entered the final two matches with its best chance to make the tournament. All it really needed to was beat Paraguay, and then draw Brazil after the Seleção had already clinched. Somehow Venezuela actually did manage the second part, drawing Brazil 0–0 in the final game of qualifying, but a 2–1 loss on home ground to Paraguay had already all but assured that the team would not make its World Cup debut in South Africa.
The second time I got my hopes up, in 2014, probably hurts more. Though Venezuela finished five points behind Uruguay for the final qualification spot, it sure felt like that team was the one that was good enough to make the World Cup. Heading into the last four qualification matches, Venezuela controlled its own destiny, needing a few decent results but most importantly a home win against Uruguay. Instead, the team blew it in the most Venezuelan way possible, losing to Uruguay, drawing with Bolivia, getting crushed by Chile, barely beating Peru, and then drawing with Paraguay. Just like that, the nation’s hopes were dashed, robbing fans of the one thing—World Cup qualification—we prize more than anything.
Because making the World Cup is my holy grail, and because the Copa América generally is important but not all that important, the stakes of the current tournament pale in comparison to those qualification cycles. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t bought into the mild success of this summer’s tournament, though. Venezuela absolutely will not win the Copa. But maybe they catch Chile on a day where the famously scandal-prone La Roja implodes. And maybe someone knocks out Brazil on the other side of the bracket. Is a deep run, maybe even to the final, really impossible? I am starting to believe, which means Venezuela will likely finish fifth in its group after a demoralizing loss to Peru. That’s just how things tend go for Venezuela.
I haven’t been back to Venezuela since 2011, and though I am proud to be a Venezuelan, I don’t like to talk about my homeland too much. In the American discourse, Venezuela usually serves as little more than a data point, an anecdote, a faceless soldier thrown into an ideological battle led by warring factions who have little actual knowledge about and even less genuine concern for Venezuela and its people. It’s all so exhausting. It also makes it difficult to know how to communicate the pride I feel in the place I come from in words that Americans can actually hear.
The only times I feel a pure sense of national pride are during the 90 minutes when I don my Salomón Rondón jersey with the horrid neon yellow accents and root for a team I can be confident is about to lose but maybe one day won’t. Maybe this summer will bring something that qualifies as success, or maybe not. Maybe La Vinotinto can overcome a terrible start—four points in six games—to the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle, or maybe not. Regardless, I will be there enjoying the painful ride every step of the way. It is what we do.