Venezuelan national soccer coach Rafael Dudamel is determined to keep his team from becoming a political pawn as the country faces economic uncertainty and chaos amid a power struggle between embattled president Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido.
He refuses to discuss politics, and even threatened to resign after Venezuela beat Argentina 3-1 in Madrid in March because he felt a pregame visit by Guaido’s pick for ambassador to Spain — made public on social media — was politicized and out of line.
But with more than 200,000 Venezuelan nationals living in Florida — most of them concentrated in South Florida — Dudamel knows that the June 1 friendly against Ecuador at Hard Rock Stadium will be particularly meaningful and emotional. Not only will it provide valuable preparation for the upcoming Copa America from June 14 to July 7 in Brazil, but it will offer a respite from the crisis for the largest Venezuelan expat community in the United States.
As “La Vinotinto” (as the team is affectionately known) began training in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, Dudamel spoke with the Herald about the team’s mind-set and goals this summer.
“We are expecting to have huge support at the match,” Dudamel said. “We know there is a huge Venezuelan community here in Miami that will make us feel at home. Venezuelans who for different reasons have emigrated from our country. We want them to enjoy their Vinotinto against Ecuador, and we will work with great intensity to make them happy.
“We never can distract ourselves entirely from what’s going on with our country and our people, and that is what helps strengthen our bond. We want to bring joy to Venezuelans everywhere. We are proud to represent our country, and we are focused on the preparation for Copa America and World Cup qualifiers. We feel we are getting closer and closer to reaching our goal of making the World Cup.”
Venezuela is the only South American nation that has never qualified for a World Cup. But “La Vinotinto” has gotten stronger in recent years after hosting Copa America in 2007. The investments paid off, as Venezuela reached the final of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup.
Several players from that team are now with the senior national team, including Yangel Herrera, Samuel Sosa, Jan Hurtado, Sergio Cordova and goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez, a 21-year-old rising star who plays for Millonarios in Colombia. Farinez will miss the Ecuador game because he is playing for his club, but will join the national team next week for a June 5 game against Mexico in Atlanta and a June 9 game against the United States in Cincinnati.
“The youth World Cup helped young Venezuelan talent mature and get great international experience, and they can now compete on the national team with the older, more experienced players,” Dudamel said. “That is excellent for us because we have a good team for the short-term and long-term.”
The win over Argentina — Venezuela’s first in their past 23 meetings – injected the team with confidence.
“It was a great triumph for Venezuela that was acquired with a lot of authority and motivates us to keep working hard because it proved that we are going in the right direction,” Dudamel said. “Those are the kinds of wins that historically have been very difficult for us to achieve. The way in which we won made every player on our team more confident.”
Dudamel will use the Ecuador game to finalize his 23-man roster for Copa America.
“I have a good idea of the roster in my mind, but there are a few spots I am still debating, so the Ecuador game will help me make those decisions,” he said. “It should be a great game. There is a lot on the line.”
Venezuela’s match against Ecuador match kicks off at 8 p.m. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.