Venezuela's draw with Brazil was no fluke - it's proof of their U20 plan
On the eve of his team's match against the Copa America hosts, Venezuela coach Rafael Dudamel confessed that he had grown up supporting Brazil. It is a story common to his generation: Brazil were the glamorous multi-world champions, Venezuela the perennial whipping boys. Cheering for Brazil was a way for Venezuelans to feel involved with the World Cup. The idea that their own team could compete with the Selecao was ludicrous.
As the national team goalkeeper in the 1990s, Dudamel was on the end of some heavy (not humiliating because it was what everyone expected) defeats, but even while he was playing, things began to change.
The key date is 1996. Up until that point, World Cup qualification in South America was a quick process -- the few groups completed in a matter of months. Then, 23 years ago, the marathon format was introduced: 10 nations were put into one big group, playing each other home and away over the course of 18 months. There were regular games and guaranteed income -- the type of calendar that Europe's national teams take for granted -- which meant the lesser nations could keep a side together and invest in better coaches.
The result has been a minor revolution. Ecuador had never made it to a World Cup before, now they have been to three and reached the second round in 2006. Paraguay enjoyed their best ever World Cup in 2010, as did Colombia in 2014 -- and those two tournaments saw the best ever performances by Chile, with the exception of the 1962 event they hosted. Last year, Peru, after a 36 year absence from the competition, gave eventual champions France a tough game on their World Cup return and only just missed out on group stage qualification.
Venezuela have yet to make it to the World Cup, but they are on their way. Tuesday's 0-0 draw against Brazil in the Copa America was no fluke. They have done it to Brazil before in World Cup qualifying and in Copa Americas; they have beaten everyone else in the continent and recently saw off Argentina, Lionel Messi and all, in a 3-1 win in Spain.
The key to their recent progress is in their youth development. They studied how Argentina (masters of Under-20 football between 1995 and 2007) and Uruguay, who returned to the game's top table with a similar project, produced a conveyor belt of talent for the senior side.
In a globalised football context, where domestic football in South America cannot hope to hold on to its best players, the U20s take on extra importance. It is where the national team secures its long term future, making it worthy of time and investment.
Earlier this month, Ecuador came third in the 2019 U20 World Cup. Two years ago, Venezuela went one better, finishing second after losing 1-0 to England in the final. The coach of that team was Rafael Dudamel -- preparing that generation was seen as so important that the senior national team coach took charge. Now, six of that squad are in Brazil playing in the Copa America. Along with the likes of Salomon Rondon, this is the generation that Venezuela believe will take them to Qatar in 2022.
Dudamel has a team that pose an attacking threat through the power of Rondon and the pace of the wingers, while the biggest change since he took over three years ago is in the improved defence. Wuilker Farinez is one of the best young keepers around, switching Mikel Villanueva from left-back to centre-back was an inspired move that gave the team more defensive pace, while his centre-back partner Yordan Osorio produced a man-of-the-match performance against Brazil.
Dudamel knows, as only an ex-keeper can, that a side that does not concede is always in with a chance. And against Brazil, with some help from VAR, they proved it.
The big hope -- and it seems a realistic one -- is that his descendents in Venezuela will not have to support the Selecao at a World Cup. They will have their own team to cheer on.