Fifteen members of Venezuela’s national team threatened to stop playing for their country unless top Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF) officials resign, according to a letter team captain Tomás Rincón published on Twitter yesterday.
When you think the trouble began depends upon exactly who you ask. In September Juan Arango—the best-ever Venezuelan player who spent a decade playing in top European leagues—retired from the national team, on the eve of World Cup qualifiers. La Vinotinto have lost four straight since Arango’s retirement, with November’s losses to Bolivia and Ecuador all but knocking them out of contention for a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
Last week another top player quit, with Middlesbrough’s Fernando Amorebieta declaring he wouldn’t play for the team as long as manager Noel Sanvicente was still in charge. (South American soccer expert Tim Vickery writes that Sanvicente wants to play an aggressive high line, which exposes aging defenders like Amorebieta.) The next day FVF president Laureano González gave an interview to a Venezuelan newspaper, in which he alleged that players on the team were conspiring to get Sanvicente fired.
Sanvicente was quiet about González’s accusations, which “forced [the players’] hand,” according to Vickery. “We accept criticism regarding our performance, and as a team assume responsibility of the results,” the players wrote, before going on to deny the accusation. “We state our great disappointment with the lack of support from the national team coaching staff in the face of the allegations.
It is a strange position to be in, denying allegations of a conspiracy to unseat the coach in the same letter that contains many veiled criticisms of him.
More of the players’ ire, however, was directed towards González and the rest of the FVF, who they believe have treated them poorly and bungled World Cup qualification:
We the players do not agree that the current FVF directors should remain, as it is not negotiable how they treated us and handled the project of getting to the World Cup to date. As a team, we think change is needed at the top so that the work done for more than eight years is not lost. At this stage of the South American qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, immediate change is vital.
While Venezuela never really had a chance of qualifying for Russia and certainly don’t now, the players’ complaints aren’t necessarily unfounded. Before Sanvicente was hired in July 2014, there were reports that they were pursuing Argentinian genius/madman Marcelo Bielsa, with the main hangup being money. A year later then-FVF president Rafael Esquivel was scooped up in the Justice Department’s crackdown against corruption and bribery. González was Esquivel’s vice-president.
The federation has yet to comment on the players’ demands, but today they did publish a long letter from Sanvicente. Most of the letter is a defense of his efforts to modernize Venezuelan football, from reorganizing how coaches and referees are trained to obtaining a charter jet for the players to fly on. But he also wrote “... if my departure contributes to overcome these differences, I’ll step aside thinking always about benefitting our soccer.”
Venezuela is in turmoil right now, with a very unpopular government, vicious opposition, plunging oil prices, widespread shortages, and an economy that is contracting. This weekend they’ll hold national elections that nobody thinks will be free of corruption. Sometimes sports can be a necessary distraction, something for a frustrated and unhappy populace to cheer for and bond over. In this case, however, it seems the Venezuelan national team’s problems simply mirrors its country’s.
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