x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Knockout phase is whole new ball game for the South Americans

Just to have qualified for the Under 20 World Cup was remarkable given Venezuela's stature in South American football.

Just to have qualified for the Under 20 World Cup was remarkable given Venezuela's stature in South American football. The beautiful game takes a back seat in Venezuela. It is the world's 11th-biggest producer of oil, relying on it for 93 per cent of its exports, and its subsequent close economic relationship with the USA has influenced Venezuelan culture. Baseball and basketball are the major sports while the country's senior national football team have, until recently, been a laughing stock.

They are the only country from the South American qualifying group to have never reached the senior World Cup finals. They registered just one qualifying victory, against Bolivia, in 28 years of competition, from 1966 to 1994, and went 30 years between wins in the Copa America, losing 11-0 to Argentina in 1975 along the way. All that has begun to change. The country hosted its first Copa America in 2007, leading to a surge in the game's popularity and the national team have gone from strength to strength.

Led by the enigmatic midfielder Juan Arango - who spent five years with Spain's Real Mallorca before moving to Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany - they have become a team to be wary of. They recorded their first victory over Brazil, a 2-0 friendly win in 2008. Under coach Cesar Farias, who also takes charge of the U20 side, they can still qualify for the World Cup in South Africa next year. They are seventh in the group, two points behind Ecuador in fourth with two games to play, home to Paraguay and away to Brazil.

It is a tough task, but one that would have been deemed impossible in the past. If the national team's future can be gauged by the success of its youngsters, then Venezuela can bank on a bright one. The U20 team are their first of any age group to reach a World Cup. So while the UAE have a precedent to follow, the side that reached the quarter-finals in 2003, Farias's boys are making history with every step they take.

twoods@thenational.ae