While Venezuela's Under-20 team were preparing for Monday's daunting South American Championship clash against Brazil, back in Caracas a rather more serious battle was unfolding.
Just 12 hours before the young Vinotinto hopefuls kicked off in Chile a group of dissident soldiers took up arms in what appeared to be the beginnings of an abortive coup d'etat, the latest chaotic episode to afflict the crisis-ridden South American state.
After stealing military equipment, those involved recorded a video denouncing President Nicolas Maduro's “regime, which we absolutely do not recognise”, before calling on the citizens of Venezuela to join their uprising. They were quickly apprehended by forces loyal to Maduro, but the underlying issues that have seen Venezuela descend into economic ruin and violent political upheaval continue to fester.
Against that backdrop, however, the nation's youth teams continue to thrive, as the stars of tomorrow, dispersed across the world or fighting to survive back home, battle on an equal footing with football's traditional giants in South America and across the world.
The origin of Venezuela's crisis is disputed. For followers of Maduro's government the fault lies with an economic boycott imposed by dominant business groups across the country, which has led to a shortage of foodstuffs and other consumer goods and has been compounded by an openly seditious opposition backed by hostile foreign powers.
Opponents, meanwhile, point the finger at alleged economic incompetence and the squandering of billions of dollars in oil revenue by the president and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, and accuse Maduro of trying to install a communist dictatorship. Such vehement hatred between the two sides has led to widespread political violence: in 2017 clashes between the president and the opposition-dominated National Assembly spilled out on the streets of Venezuela, leaving an estimated 165 dead and over 15,000 injured.
At its heart, though, the issue is predominately economic. Venezuela is mired in hyperinflation, with private estimates placing the annual rate at an almost unfathomable 830,000 per cent. This has had a catastrophic effect on poverty rates, which after falling sharply under Chavez are now said to be close to 90%. The crisis has also provoked its own humanitarian disaster, prompting an estimated 1.6 million Venezuelans to emigrate in the last three years alone and, according to some observers, as many as four million over the last 10 years.
Violent crime is also epidemic. Statistics show that in the world only Central American states El Salvador and Honduras suffer more homicides per 100,000 people than the country, while robberies and kidnappings are also a daily hazard for citizens.Getty
Football, of course, has also suffered during this economic and social meltdown. And while the biggest clubs can stave off disaster thanks to the injection of US dollars provided by television and participation in competitions such as the Copa Libertadores, those closer to the grass-roots teeter on the brink.
“The worst affected are the youth divisions, there are serious deficiencies in training equipment, with the lack of food and because of emigration,” Alfredo Coronis, a journalist in Venezuela with Deportivo 1300AM , explained to Goal . “There are talents who look promising at 14, 15 and then they leave the country to work in a store. The crisis has also affected transport, the airlines have closed down and there are no spare parts for buses or other vehicles. That affects clubs' development.”
Wilson Gutierrez, a Colombian coach who took the reins at Carabobo FC in 2018, also laid bare the brutal realities even for a player at the top of the game in the country. “We didn't have many things. There were times that some players did not receive their salaries,” he explained to El Espectador.
“Let's say that a Venezuelan footballer who's been playing for three or four years and is quite well-known can earn between US$300 (£230) and US$400 (£310) a month, while others earn $80 (£60) to $100 (£80), it is really not enough. There are even some who get paid in [local currency] bolivares and there are also delays in payment.”
Gutierrez was accompanied to Venezuela by fitness coach Gustavo Bustos, who suffered two carjacking attempts in less than a year while travelling with the team. Such attacks are common: in the most notorious case, in September 2016, the team bus of Trujillanos was stopped by armed assailants, who relieved the players of cellphones, money, sporting equipment and even their shirts and shoes as well as the bus' DVD player.
Carlos Bustamante, a Venezuelan who works in London as a reporter for talkSPORT , believes that the fear of such attacks can affect players as much as material shortages.
“Personally players might face moments where their family or friends are affected which results in a loss of concentration and this type of psychological issue is very difficult to overcome,” he explained.
Paradoxically, almost miraculously, the top level of Venezuelan youth football has never been better. Coached by Rafael Dudamel, who also directs the senior team (a sign itself of how importantly the category is seen in the country), the Under-20s finished as runners-up in 2017's World Cup, losing out only to England in the final after beating the likes of Mexico, Germany, the United States and Uruguay in a memorable tournament.
The 2019 team is similarly making waves. After beating Colombia and hosts Chile to start the South American Championship in perfect fashion the Vinotinto were unlucky to go down 2-1 to powerhouses Brazil, with Santos' future Real Madrid star Rodrygo scoring twice against the run of play. Despite that setback, Dudamel's men are almost assured a place in the six-team final stage, with a win against Bolivia in their final group A fixture on Wednesday guaranteeing qualification.
For so long a football backwater, the sport being a poor relation to the dominant baseball, the Vinotinto are now considered worthy rivals by their South American cousins.
“Sport has for a long time been the main way to achieve social mobility,” Bustamante points out. “First it was baseball and since the tenure of Richard Paez as Vinotinto coach football has also become a way out. The amount of talented youngsters who at first were from poorer backgrounds, but who now also come from the middle classes and hope to be discovered is incredible.”
Coronis, meanwhile, points to tentative efforts by the Venezuelan Football Federation to develop young talents, with clubs in Primera obliged to pick at least one U-20 player in each game and also to field teams in the U-17 Copa Venezuela. He also highlights the influence of Dudamel: “Since Venezuela did not qualify for the  World Cup he has placed a lot of importance on the U-20s, without neglecting the seniors. But it is a process that goes back through Cesar Farias and Richard Paez, although Dudamel is now having success.”
The presence of overseas players in the Vinotinto squad is both a symptom of the country's ills and a boon for its footballing future. With eight players based outside Venezuela the U-20 squad trails only Uruguay in counting on foreign-based talent; while the previous World Cup served as a shop window for stars like brilliant goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez – now in Colombia with Millonarios – Argentina-based attacking pair Jan Hurtado and Samuel Sosa and current captain, Juventus youth defender Christian Makoun, to move away from their home countries in search of stardom.
The case of Sosa, one of the stars of the South American Championship so far, is emblematic. Having made his debut with local heavyweights Deportivo Tachira at just 16, the playmaker swapped Venezuela for Argentina at the start of 2018 days after his 18 th birthday. He is yet to break into the Talleres squad in the Superliga, but two brilliant free-kick goals in Chile against Colombia and Brazil have only raised his stock.
“I would never speak ill of my country,” the youngster stated in a 2018 interview with La Nueva Manana , while recognising the problems Venezuela faces. “Venezuela will move forward. I was lucky enough to get out of my country and I thank God for that but I have people close to me who are suffering.
“I have my parents there, they live in the Tucuyito neighbourhood in Valencia and they are humble. Right now they will live off the money I can send from Argentina. I came alone, soon my girlfriend will arrive and I hope to bring my family to live with me over the next few months.”
“There is no doubt that the mere fact that you are improving your quality of life means that you have a better chance of developing your talent,” Bustamante argues. The exodus of Venezuelans, however, has not come without its risks for young players. With emigration centred in neighbouring Colombia as well as other South American nations, xenophobia towards nationals has become a focus for concern.
During the Vinotinto's win over Chile the hosts' Nicolas Diaz, reacting to a strong tackle from Pablo Bonilla, called the right-back a “muerto de hambre”, literally a starving man, in reference to his country's crisis. Diaz later apologised for his remarks, and the flip side of that unsavoury incident has been an explosion of support for Sosa, Bonilla and Co. in the stands at every Venezuela game as Vinotinto fans resident in Chile have flocked to every U-20 game.
Another controversy stemmed from the case of Alejandro Marques, Barcelona's 18-year-old hotshot who is conspicuous by his absence from the Vinotinto U-20. Venezuela's efforts to field the striker have been frustrated by his father, who refuses to allow Marques to return to his nation of birth ostensibly due to the ongoing crisis and safety concerns. Coach Dudamel, however, has affirmed that Marques Sr. made a call-up impossible due to his unspecified “demands”: “Agreeing to them, and because of the youngest player, I would lose as a coach all moral authorities in front of my players,” he explained to reporters back in 2018.
Such issues aside, the future undoubtedly looks bright for the Vinotinto. Dudamel's last senior squad featured just seven players over the age of 25, and the team which takes on Argentina in March will most likely be bolstered by some of the stars of this U-20 generation, with perhaps Sosa and the commanding Makoun best positioned to break into the set-up in the immediate future.
Dudamel's prime goal, however, looking past this year's Copa America, must be Qatar 2022. Venezuela remain the only CONMEBOL member never to have qualified for a World Cup, but hopes are higher than ever thanks to the glut of young talent coming through the ranks. “To get to the World Cup we need to keep improving our structures, we have to keep sending players to more competitive leagues,” Coronis explains.
“When the World Cup expands we will obviously have more chance, but we have to maintain a constant line of development, if we keep working well we'll have a great team to send to Qatar.” Bustamante similarly believes that the Vinotinto is still a work in progress: “We have an enormous talent that if channelled correctly will take us to our first World Cup very soon.
“What is still missing is a cohesive element that allows the team to achieve consistency and identity in its playing style. The talent and will is there, but there are a lot more factors needed to achieve success.”
Sooner or later, it is clear, Venezuela will be lining up alongside the world's most powerful nations at a World Cup. And when the Vinotinto do make the top table we may well look back at their battling youngsters of 2017 and 2019 as the teams that took the first steps towards success, defying crisis and crippling economic hardships to establish themselves amongst the sport's elite.