Mexico opponent Venezuela the surprise package at Copa America
HOUSTON, Texas -- There was an image doing the internet rounds after Venezuela defeated Uruguay 1-0 last Thursday to produce the shock of the Copa America Centenario thus far, which also qualified the Vinotinto for the knockout rounds. In it, Venezuela striker Salomon Rondon is reeling off in celebration after scoring the winning goal, surrounded by a bubble of light in the middle of a dark blue backdrop.
"In such dark times, a little bit of light for Venezuela," reads the caption.
Type "Venezuela" into a news search engine and it becomes clear where the "dark times" come from. The country is going through some significant economic and political troubles, and there aren't many positive images or stories that pop up in searches for the South American country.
"My family is in Venezuela," said forward Josef Martinez at Venezuela training on Saturday, stating that the image of Rondon's sums up a lot for him personally. "It's unavoidable to not think about it, to not think about going out onto the pitch thinking about bringing (the people) joy," added the Torino man.
Even if the headlines following Venezuela's victory over Uruguay centered around Luis Suarez's tantrum about not getting on the pitch and one of the tournament favorites crashing out, Venezuela's success is becoming one of the top stories of a busy summer of football. If the South American side can defeat Mexico in Houston on Monday, Venezuela will top Group C and the path to a deep run in the Copa America will open up. Considering the game against Uruguay pitted the worst side in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying -- with Venezuela on one point -- against the best -- Uruguay has 13 -- it appeared almost inconceivable that Venezuela would be anything but the Group C whipping boys.
"For the whole world we are always going to be the surprise and even more so because of qualifying," said defender Jose Manuel Velazquez. "For others, (getting out the group) was almost impossible, but we believed."
The recent uptick for Venezuela has come just over six months since 15 Venezuelan players -- including key figures like Rondon (West Bromwich Albion), Tomas Rincon (Genoa), Martinez, Oswaldo Vizcarrdondo (Nantes) and Velazquez (FC Arouca) -- signed a letter resigning from the national team, due to differences with the Venezuelan federation. And that followed Juan Arango -- the standard bearer of Venezuelan soccer for so many years -- announcing his international retirement in a tearful farewell news conference.
The situation with the federation was eventually resolved, but coach Noel Sanvicente resigned at the end of March this year, leaving the national team in limbo with the Copa America approaching quickly.
Former national team goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel stepped in as coach in April and wasted no time in stating that Venezuela's Copa America objective was to equal or improve upon the 2011 Copa America, when Venezuela reached the semifinals.
"We are going to construct a winning national team and we are going to dedicate everything to doing well in the Copa America," said Dudamel in his introductory news conference.
They were bold statements of intent and appeared to be hot air after the team drew two and lost two of its first four matches under the charismatic Dudamel. That made it one win in 15 games overall for Venezuela on the eve of the tournament. But then the Copa America started and a Martinez goal earned Venezuela a 1-0 win and three valuable points against a tricky Jamaica in the first match, followed by the heroics against Uruguay to make it six points from a possible six.
"We're coming off a qualifying [round] in which results haven't come, there were non-sporting themes that affected us," explained Velazquez. "But this is a new cycle and we've worked the psychological and group side and this national team is very united."
Talk to people around the Venezuela camp and the psychological aspect that Velazquez hinted at becomes more prominent. The federation has hired a professional motivator, who gave a speech on the morning of the Uruguay victory on the "Rocky steps" in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Arango was also present, highlighting the unity of the squad. There have been certain quirky superstitions as well, such as not training at the stadium the day ahead of games, as is the norm.
"The Rocky inside of us came out," was Dudamel's take after the match against Uruguay. "That Rocky capable of fighting, of not giving in, of standing up and getting up."
Those looking in from the outside may have changed their discourse on Venezuela, but the message from a side defying pretty much every pre-tournament expectation is as positive and consistent as before the tournament.
"(I ask Venezuelans) to believe," said the eloquent Martinez: "I ask only that: believe."
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.