World Cup - One-time whipping boys Venezuela dream of first finals

Seen for years as the soft touch in South American football, Venezuela's fast-maturing team are inching closer to a first World Cup appearance in a potential triumph for their young homegrown coach.

Reuters
World Cup - One-time whipping boys Venezuela dream of first finals
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Venezuela's Salomon Rondon celebrates after scoring against Colombia (Reuters)

After a traumatic few weeks for Venezuelans over the death of President Hugo Chavez and start of an acrimonious election campaign to replace him, Tuesday's 1-0 win over Colombia was a rare moment of national unity and celebration.

"This team shows its character in adversity," said striker Jose Salomon Rondon whose 14th-minute winner buried the disappointment of a 3-0 loss to Argentina in Buenos Aires and put Venezuela fifth in the South American qualifying standings.

"This win is a joy for everyone, for the whole country."

Fans celebrated wildly at the stadium in the steamy southern city of Puerto Ordaz, and in bars and homes across the nation.

Despite a sometimes fractious relationship with fans and the media, coach Cesar Farias, who only turned 40 this month, was feted for his tactics against a strong Colombia team who had been on a run of four wins and are third in the table.

At the end of the long South American campaign in October, the top four qualify for next year's World Cup, with the fifth-placed team going into a play-off against Asian opponents.

Venezuela, who play a fast and often slick passing game when at their best and are finally overcoming traditional defensive naivety, have not been a pushover for several years now.

Farias took them to the semi-finals of the continental Copa America tournament in 2011 in the greatest achievement of Venezuelan football. They also famously beat Argentina at the start of the latest World Cup qualifying round.

"We used to be a joke, now we can hold our heads high with the rest of them," said Venezuela fan Marco Bandres, 26, celebrating the win over Colombia with friends in Caracas.

"There's still plenty to improve on, but I really believe we can make it to Brazil. I'm saving my money to go!"

Farias was more animated than usual on the touchline on Tuesday as he watched Venezuela waste several great chances to extend their lead, then survive a scare when Colombia striker Radamel Falcao's hit the bar in the 79th minute.

"My analysis is quite short," Farias said.

"We had more goal opportunities than our rivals, we created more and we could have won by a big scoreline. The whole country is celebrating and knows that there is a real possibility of qualifying for the World Cup."

Fourth-placed Chile and Venezuela have 15 points from 11 matches, two ahead of Uruguay. The South American group is led by Argentina on 24 points with Ecuador on 20 and Colombia 19.

The burgundy-coloured 'Vinotinto' ('Red Wine') squad, as Venezuela are known to their fans, temporarily eclipsed local politics with their win over neighbours and rivals Colombia.

Both candidates for the April 14 vote took time out from campaigning and insulting each other to congratulate the team, no doubt hoping to benefit from the national feel-good factor.

"They're the golden generation!" Acting President Nicolas Maduro said on Twitter.

"A nation united and heading towards the Brazil 2014 World Cup!" echoed opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Venezuela next face Bolivia and Uruguay in June.

Though it is traditionally a baseball nation, the Vinotinto's recent progress has galvanized football fans, and children's football leagues are flourishing in a sign of the game's new-found popularity in the country of 29 million people.

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