For a few hours Saturday night, Venezuelans in South Florida got their minds off of the economic and political turmoil in their home country and waved their flags in celebration. The Venezuelan national soccer team was at Hard Rock Stadium, where it tied Ecuador 1-1 in a tune-up match for the upcoming Copa America in Brazil.
Venezuela’s burgundy “Vinotinto” shirts outnumbered the bright yellow shirts of the Ecuadorean fans, and the Venezuelan players, arm in arm, and their fans belted out their national anthem, “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo”. Following the emotional anthem, the crowd of 12,021 roared when it was announced that the coin toss was being done by Parkland shooting survivor Anthony Borges, the teenager credited with saving 20 of his classmates’ lives during the mass shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
Before the match, tables were set up around the stadium to collect donations of food, medicine and baby supplies to send to Venezuela.
Once the match began, the crowd’s mind turned to soccer – except for the few times a fan yelled “Maduro!” and the Venezuelan fans shouted back their disapproval of beleaguered president Nicolas Maduro.
The Venezuelans celebrated in the 38th minute, when Roberto Rosales converted a penalty kick to give La Vinotinto a 1-0 lead. Rosales plays in Spain for Espanyol on loan from Malaga. He shot the ball to the left, and it sailed past Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez, who plays club for Velez Sarsfield in Argentina.
“Roberto Rosales is living a second youth, and we respect him so much,” said Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel. “When we were awarded the penalty kick, I did a quick scan over the team and my heart told me he was the man.”
Dudamel said he would be finalizing his 23-man Copa America roster after the Ecuador match, as there were a few players he was still evaluating. La Vinotinto heads to Atlanta next week for a June 5 game against Mexico and then on to Cincinnati for a June 9 game against the United States.
Both teams were missing players from their Copa America rosters, as Saturday was not an official FIFA play date, so some players had to remain with their clubs. Among the eight Venezuelans missing were four from Major League Soccer -- Josef Martinez (Atlanta United), Rolf Feltscher (LA Galaxy), Junior Moreno (DC United), and Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake).
Martinez scored both goals for Atlanta Saturday night in a 2-0 home victory over the Chicago Fire in front of 67,502 fans at Mercedez-Benz Stadium. Another large crowd is expected Wednesday for the Venezuela vs. Mexico friendly.
Venezuela is the only South American team never to qualify for a World Cup, and Dudamel is determined to change that. His squad, a good balance of youth and experience, beat Argentina 3-1 in Madrid in March – the first time in their past 23 matchups.
“The intensity with which we practiced in Miami gives me confidence that we are on the right track,” Dudamel said. “Our young players have the desire to compete, and when the other players ... they feel the young players’ presence. Off the field, you see boys’ faces and you say, `Are these guys for real?’ but on the field, they are men.”
Ecuadorean fans were delighted to see their captain Antonio Valencia, the 33-year-old fullback who spent the past 10 years with Manchester United and captained that team, as well. One of Ecuador’s most successful players in history, he won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, and a UEFA Europa League title. Valencia had the best Ecuador scoring chance in the first half, but it was deflected by Venezuelan keeper Rafa Romo.
It was the other Valencia, former West Ham and Everton forward Enner Valencia, who scored the equalizer for Ecuador in first minute of extra time. Just when it seemed Venezuela would walk away with the win, Valencia got loose on the left side and knocked the ball in as the Ecuadorean fans went nuts.
Both teams face stiff competition in Copa America, which begins June 14 in Brazil. Venezuela’s group includes Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. Ecuador faces Chile, Uruguay and Japan, which is one of two guest teams along with 2022 World Cup host Qatar.