Having never qualified for a World Cup, Qatar 2022 is the aim of every Venezuelan involved in the sport; from the fan on the street to those in the offices of the Venezuelan Football Federation. Come FIFA’s inaugural winter headline act, many of the senior squad will have travelled with their Head Coach, Rafael Dudamel, from the U20 World Cup in 2017, to the real deal five years later – should they make it, of course.
Ten of his charges from that summer in South Korea have already debuted for the senior squad, while some have been called up but yet to earn minutes. One such player is Inter Miami’s new signing Christian Makoun, but come the next World Cup he will be a vital cog in Dudamel’s machine, whether they’re there or acting as warm-ups for more fortunate continental neighbours. With Dudamel currently in charge of both the U20s and the senior side, the border between the two remains porous and full of potential. It is this long-term aspect to the project that has given the nation a license to dream.
Such is the improvement in the fortunes of the national team in recent years, their stock has risen from 74th in the FIFA world rankings, in May 2016, to 26th in June 2019 – their highest ever placing, eclipsing their previous best of 29th. Such a remarkable and rapid ascendance has brought attention to the country’s brightest stars, and thus, naturally, more than ever before are making their way to Europe’s biggest and best leagues. But who is next? Let’s take a look at the next Venezuelans destined for Europe in each segment of the field.
Goalkeeper – Wuilker Faríñez (Millonarios)
If you follow South American football domestically or internationally, you’ll be aware of Wuilker Faríñez. Linked with none other than Spanish giants FC Barcelona before his fine performances at the Copa América, where he went 278 minutes before conceding, the 5’11 goalkeeper then had his name mentioned in the same breath as Portugal’s Benfica. The closest a move came to happening, however, was an undisclosed bid from a French side thought to be RC Lens.
His records at international level from the youth sides up are littered with records that pay homage to his talents: in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Venezuela went 213 minutes without conceding – the longest they had gone so in World Cup qualifiers; in the 2017 South American Youth Football Championship, Faríñez conceded just six goals in nine games, which was the fewest in the tournament; and in the 2017 U20 World Cup, Venezuela reached the quarterfinals – 506 minutes of football – without letting in a goal, which is the second-longest streak in the tournament’s history. As for his club form, just look at this. After many expected him to move this summer (there is still time, albeit not much), it is almost certainly a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’.
Defender: Christian Makoun (Inter Miami)
After the Copa América, two Venezuelan defenders, one of which was in their tournament’s 23-man squad, made a European-bound move: the colossal Jhon Chancellor joined newly-promoted Brescia in Serie A, and Nahuel Ferraresi moved to Porto’s B side after spending a week training with Manchester City’s U23s. A defender from Venezuela’s heartland of football, San Cristobal, Ferraresi is contracted to the City Football Group, a holding group with majority ownership of Manchester City, NYCFC, Melbourne City, and Club Atlético Torque, among others.
Another Venezuelan defender also moved clubs: Christian Makoun. Despite having access to a European passport, in the form of Belgian citizenship, and spending last season on loan with Juventus’ youth team, Makoun made the move to the MLS from Venezuelan club Zamora FC. Joining David Beckham’s new franchise Inter Miami, he became the club’s third signing and will start competitive football with them in January.
However, Makoun, who captained the Venezuela U20s from centre-back in all four of their South American Championship games in January, is destined for bigger things. A product of Zamora, the Barinas based club with the best record of exporting players overseas, he was described back in March by SOLOVENEX’s CEO Carlos Tarache as “a sensational player.”
“He is another of our great bastions: strong in the tackle, great in the air, and hardworking. His dual-nationality could open the doors to any other large European country soon.”
His move to Inter Miami may have delayed what appears to be an inevitable move to Europe, but one good season could see that remedied. He will become the 25th Venezuelan to play in the MLS, yet I doubt he plans on spending too long there.
Midfielder: Yeferson Soteldo (Santos)
Soteldo could so easily have been classified as a forward or a midfielder here. Handed the #10 for Santos and thus following in the footsteps of Pelé and Gabigol, but clearly not a striker, left him in limbo, like all wearers of the shirt should be; skirting on the periphery of the midfield and attack. Pelé himself said he fell upon it like a loose ball on the edge of the box.
“The #10 jersey was given to me at a World Cup match in 1958,” he said. “Nobody was that important to wear the No.10 and even though I was not the oldest player in the squad, it coincidentally dropped to me to wear at the World Cup,” he told SporTV News.
Soteldo was handed his #10 in January. Eight months later, the tiny trickster is fast becoming a fan favourite at Estádio Vila Belmiro. Wizarding his way down the left flank, he evokes memories of Neymar doing the same for the club six years ago and plays with the same joy that another Brazilian #10 did: Ronaldinho. The sheer verve he seems to move with arouses likeness with not just those two, but Lionel Messi and Mo Salah, with their low centre of gravity, and shuffling feet. On July 28, he danced down the flank against Avaí. Firstly, though, he practically came to a stop, bar one foot, hanging inches off the ground, insinuating to go left and go right. His shoulders went right, so did the defender, and then all his weight drove left, dragging the ball away from the second man who was closing him down halfheartedly. Shimmying into the box, he nearly lost control of it, before turning the whole twist against itself, finding a split second of composure, and deftly placing a weighted pass onto Carlos Sánchez’s head. If Soteldo could be distilled into one move, that was it.
Eighteen months on from Tottenham and Real Madrid allegedly showing interest, the former even being touted as £16m suitors, Soteldo cost Santos just under £3 million. Another eight months down the line and the club turned an offer of six times that from MLS club Atlanta United.
“He is a valued player because he plays the show and dribbles,” Santos president Jose Carlos Peres told Santa Cecília TV. “He’s our little thumb. He was much criticized for being short, but here is the result. Everyone wants Soteldo, but he does not leave, I can assure you. We had an offer of 17 million euros, but he can only leave for fifty.”
In today’s game and in his form, I don’t imagine it will be long before someone takes up that offer, and I doubt it would take the full amount for Santos to sell, despite Peres’ bravado.
Forward: Josef Martínez (Atlanta United)
It has been a good few weeks for Venezuelan strikers: Benfica signed Jhonder Cádiz from Vitoria Setúbal for €3 million; Sergio Córdova was handed the #9 shirt at FC Augsburg, having worn #21 until that point; and Caracas-born Alejandro Marqués won the U19 European Championships with Spain, scoring in their opener against Armenia and in the penalty shootout win over France in the semi-final. There is another one; one setting records for fun in the MLS: Josef Martínez.
On August 12, the 26-year-old Venezuelan, who has previously played in Europe for Young Boys and FC Thun of Switzerland, and Serie A side Torino, scored in his 10th consecutive MLS match, going one better than Portland’s Diego Valeri. The record joins his other two: that of the most goals in one season – 31 – and that of the most goals over a three-season span – 70 in 76 appearances. In his 89 games for Atlanta, he has scored 79 goals.
In February 2017, Martínez joined Atlanta on loan from Torino and in March they signed him permanently. The move came following a fairly fruitless spell in Europe in which he only scored 27 goals in 145 games. However, it wasn’t until he moved to Italy that he began to play more centrally, and even still he often operated behind a frontman in a supporting striker role. It took a move to the US and the responsibility of playing as an out-and-out #9 to draw the goals out of Martínez, and since then, he hasn’t looked back.
At international level, his path to leading the line in a one-man attack is blocked by national hero Salomón Rondón, but could a transfer to Europe in the wake of his countryman moving to China aid his cause? Many Venezuelan fans and journalists can’t see Rondón losing his spot but concede a change in tactics by head coach Rafael Dudamel could see the two partnered upfront. Given a dour Copa experience failing to excite many followers of the national team – despite a quarterfinal finish – Dudamel may reconsider his formation, especially considering he is more blessed than ever before in both creativity and ability.
Many of those same fans want more from Martínez. They take great pride in seeing their best talent making it to – and then thriving in – Europe and feel almost betrayed by a player with such quality making do with a career in the MLS. Approaching peak age for a striker and in scarily prolific form, a move back to Europe seems to be a very natural progression. Yet with Martínez, the situation is characteristically hard to predict. It was only in January that he signed a five-year contract extension and has publicly said on numerous times that he will be at the club for as long as they want him, specifically telling Spanish newspaper Marca last year that he doesn’t think about returning to Europe. The question is, will Europe think about him?