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Venezuela Is Making Some Noise

Salomon Rondon of Venezuela celebrates with teammates after scoring the team's first goal during the CONMEBOL Copa America 2024 Group B match between Venezuela and Mexico at SoFi Stadium on June 26, 2024 in Inglewood, California.
Omar Vega/Getty Images

Ahead of the 2024 Copa América, I was bullish on Venezuela. I said as much in the Defector preview of the tournament, where I even got my dad to back me up. Seeing La Vinotinto in the knockout round is always a thrill, but I, perhaps in a fit of hubris, expected it this time around. The group looked manageable, after all; Ecuador is very good, but Mexico is not in the best shape, and Jamaica is decidedly a tier below even a middling South American team like Venezuela. There were enough points on paper to send Venezuela through, and I was sure that it would happen. But even I could not have predicted, with a sane mind, that Venezuela would beat both Ecuador and Mexico in its opening two matches to go top of the group, with a clear path to the semifinals in its grasp. Welcome to the Copa América, where a little country that never has actually, finally, could.

The result of the Ecuador game on Saturday was a bit of an outlier for Venezuela. La Tri were rolling early on before Enner Valencia got sent off in the 22nd minute for a high kick in the box, and 10-man Ecuador even scored the game's first goal. As it unfolded, which I followed via social media and my dad's texts (I was attending a wedding at the time), it felt like the type of disappointing game where Venezuela squanders a golden opportunity. But then, over the span of 10 minutes in the second half, the goals came as Ecuador tired out from playing a man down. First, in the 64th minute, Jhonder Cádiz sent a rugburner of a shot into the bottom corner, and then 10 minutes later, Eduard Bello latched onto a rebound to give his side the lead. Venezuela held out for 16 minutes and stoppage time and picked up the hardest three points in the group. So far, so good. Mexico awaited next.

Even a weaker Mexico side than in recent history is still dangerous, so I went into Wednesday night's match hoping for a draw. Four points from these two games would have set Venezuela up to beat Jamaica in the final round and advance, though maybe in second, with a likely date against Argentina in the quarterfinals. Looking at the statistics after Wednesday's game, even a draw might've qualified as a miracle; Mexico had better ... everything. More shots, more possession, more chances, more corners, more more more. The only thing that El Tri didn't have? More goals, and that meant Venezuela came away from the match with its second win of the tournament.

In all honesty, the stats flatter Mexico. Before Venezuela's opener, which I will get to shortly, the two teams were pretty even across the field. In fact, Venezuela had the best chance of the first half (Salomón Rondón hit a crossbody scorcher that just dinged off the post) and the best chance in the first part of the second half (Yeferson Soteldo forced a good save from Julio González). On the other end, Mexico threatened, but it wasn't getting the clear-cut opportunities that should turn into goals. That's where it stood when Mexico winger Julián Quiñones clumsily knocked over Jon Aramburu in the box, earning Venezuela a penalty. Up stepped Rondón, Venezuela's all-time leading scorer and still one of the more physically imposing strikers in South American soccer. He made no mistake in notching his 42nd international goal:

After the goal, things went more like the script said they might have. Even with a pretty solid core of Rondón, Soteldo, Jefferson Savarino, and Eduardo Bello up front, Venezuela doesn't have the attacking talent to get into a shootout, so manager Fernando Batista seemingly told his team to deploy that tried-and-true underdog strategy of defending for their lives for half an hour. Honestly, it didn't work, and the Mexicans took control of the match: their possession ratcheted up to 71 percent, they outshot Venezuela 10-3, and they missed several chances that on a different day would have been goals. The klaxon was blaring, and the equalizing opportunity felt like it could come at any time.

It took a bit of luck for Mexico to get there, though. In the 83rd minute, an in-the-box shot by Jorge Sánchez blasted into what looked like Venezuelan left back Miguel Navarro's face, knocking him down and out for some time. Unfortunately, on replay, the ball did hit Navarro's face, but only after it ricocheted off his hand, which won Mexico a penalty of its own. As Orbelín Pineda stepped up to take it, I thought to myself, Hey, a draw really isn't bad here, it's all I wanted after all. Right as I was trying to rationalize away my disappointment over the impending late equalizer, Venezuela goalie Rafael Romo's fully outstretched right hand blocked Pineda's admittedly poor penalty.

Mexico had more chances after the missed penalty, leading to some tense stoppage time minutes, but Venezuela held on. Venezuela never holds on! This was thrilling and exhilarating for me, even as I started screaming at the TV in Spanish for the ref to blow the final whistle. As he finally did just that, ensuring Venezuela now sat at the top of Group B with six points out of six, my thoughts, perhaps unwisely, turned not just to the next round, but to the prospect of Venezuela's second semifinals run in Copa history.

The situation is pretty clear now: A draw (or better) against Jamaica secures first place and, crucially, a postponement of a possible Argentina match until the semis. Even a loss against Jamaica could do the trick, if Ecuador and Mexico tie in their group finale. Instead of facing Argentina as the group runner-up, Venezuela would play one of Canada, Chile, or Peru. None of those teams have shown much at the tournament so far, and I would feel good about Venezuela's chances against any one of them. A win there would then bring Argentina into play—assuming the Albiceleste don't choke away a quarterfinal match-up against Ecuador or Mexico, whoever finishes second in Group B—and if that's where the run ends, so be it. Venezuela is playing at a different level, and I would celebrate a semis run about as strongly as Argentina would celebrate winning the whole thing.

This is all a long way of saying that I have hope. Hope in this team that has been so bad for so long, but which finally seems to be on an upswing. Combining this Copa start—which may have been a bit flukey, but that's just what the Copa América is; Peru has made the semis in four of the last five tournaments, so it's not like that stage is reserved for the traditional powerhouses—with a strong set of results in CONMEBOL qualifying, where Venezuela sits in fourth place through six matches with a draw in Brazil and wins over Chile and Paraguay, gives me reason to believe that Venezuela will qualify for its first ever World Cup. (Yes, I understand it's much easier than ever because of the expanded field at the 2026 edition. No, I do not care.)

That's getting a bit ahead of myself, though, and I will enjoy this Copa run for what it is right now. In a group alongside two nations with talent and history, Venezuela is the one leading the pack, which is something beyond even my wildest hopes for a tournament where I already expected the team to do well. Whatever happens from here on out is a bonus, but I sure hope a lot of good happens before the inevitable exit comes to pass.

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