La Vinotinto's Color de Hormiga Road to Russia

La Vinotinto has played four qualifiers for Russia 2018 and lost all of them. Nul points! As they take on Peru today, can they turn it around?

It’s do or die time for our men in burgundy. Risking a potential fifth defeat in a row, Venezuela has to win tonight at the Estadio Nacional in Lima if it’s to keep the already improbable dream of 2018 qualification from vanishing entirely.

It’s not all bleak, granted. Some vinotinto players are getting good press following good performances at club level: youngsters Otero, Peñaranda and Añor, along with “untouchables” Salomon Rondon, Seijas, and even Miku Fedor (chosen as the Spanish league’s player of the month for last February), have been doing well for their teams.

On the ladies’ front, our Under-17 national team made it to the World Cup for a second time in a row, and claimed the South American championship, putting a memorable performance that included thrashing Peru 8-nil, Colombia 4-nil, Paraguay 6-2, and Argentina 3-nil. The team was led by budding women’s superstar Deyna Castellanos who kept doing things like, well, like this:

The women’s Under-20 also qualified to its World Cup to be held in Papua-New Guinea later this year.

And even as this seemingly good news comes in, the mood seems dim and the pressure too high on both La Vinotinto and the Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF). The institution is in meltdown: the end of the Esquivel Era at football’s highest authority has left our federation penniless and in shambles.

The FVF has been about as stable as the Venezuelan government, and for the same reason: they were loaded with oil money that since 2015 has stopped flowing in. Now that things are tight, things are grim. Coffers once overflowing with PDVSA-sponsorship cash are dead dry, to the point of flirting with taking the show on the road. That’s right, our Vinotinto could become the latest member of Venezuelan diaspora, since they can’t afford the 90,000 dollar bill to fly in players from abroad.

PDVSA, our state-run oil company has been in breach of its sponsorship contract with the FVF since last year, and in return FVF is trying to make its case to CONMEBOL and FIFA to allow them to play their home games on international soil, so that the ticket sales can be earned in dollars rather than bolivars.

It wouldn’t be a FIFA first, there are 19 national sides that play home matches away from home, but it’s definitely a list full of football nobodies and legitimate reasons for them to not play as locals -mainly domestic turmoil and the lack of a proper stadium. So, Venezuela might become the 20th nation on this list, alongside the likes of Palestine, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria. What a happy bunch.

And as if the money crunch wasn’t enough, the political shakedown that was FIFAGate shook the FVF, taking its president, Rafael Esquivel, to jail in the process, and giving the Vinotinto lockerroom its own mutiny.

After spending the better part of 2015 behind bars in a Swiss jail for 11 charges of electronic fraud, money laundering and racketeering, Rafael Esquivel was extradited to the United States, plead not guilty of the crimes he’s being accused of, and even managed to pay off a $7 million bail-bond – his son forked out two million in cash, and assets under his name underwrite the bond for the remaining five million. Esquivel has now handed over his passport to U.S. authorities, and gets to sport a fashionable electronic tracking ankle bracelet until his trial.

The question of where that bail money came from is one everyone’s asking, and given the gravity of the FVF situation, people are beginning to get impatient for answers. For its part, the Federation was swift in denying they had anything to do with paying Esquivel’s bail.

That he was going to plead not guilty and make bail was expected, yes, and the turbulence of his vacuum at the Federation’s headquarters in Sabana Grande has since his incarceration in Zurich been overcome. Now Laureano González holds together one of the most conflictive institutions in the country, which is saying a lot.

But apparently the Esquivel case can bring even more attention to this already controversial and high-profile trial. The former president’s lawyer, Luis García San Juan, left the audience on a rather blunt saying-things-without-saying-a-thing cliffhanger during a radio interview when asked why the US and not Venezuela for the extradition.

His argument: it’s easier to cut a deal with the FBI over corruption allegations that involve the Venezuelan state in regards to the organization committee of the 2007 Copa América, than with a notoriously partisan judiciary system back home.

In the meantime, Chita Sanvicente has been dealing with the fallout of the worst start to a World Cup Qualifying cycle in over two decades, which has gone to lengths that nobody expected to. Thanks partly to an overreaction from local media and an unfounded belief Venezuela is actually good enough to assume they’re worth a spot on Russia 2018, four straight defeats made the alarm go off without anybody knowing how to make it stop.

The November Locker-Room Crisis saw centerback Amorebieta quit the national side as the prelude to a sort of passive-aggressive intentona on behalf of status quo players: a letter published on the Vinotinto captain’s Twitter account kind of demanding the resignation of the board of directors of the FVF, or else they would boycott the team.

The public uproar gave Chita a bit of breathing space to begin the process of reversing this institutional crisis.

He even flew over to Europe to patch things up with the co-signees of the letter, not without stopping by Barcelona and Bayern Munich’s headquarters to do a little tourism.

For the upcoming matches against Peru and Chile a blend of new and old names made the cut, showing an interesting compromise between solving the locker room drama and bringing in fresh, unpolluted blood that will serve as internal competition to those who were untouchable until recently.

Expectation, pressure and the need for decent performances against Peru and Chile are as high as can be, and only winning could defuse the sense of dread. For the problems within FVF, we’ll have to wait until new authorities are elected at some point during the next year, as well as for a new source of income capable of replacing PDVSA; something even the incumbent president deems improbable.

Of course South America as a whole is wrapped up in the FIFAGate scandal, and no country in the region is at its footballing zenith, though of course mal de muchos…

But, really, is Russia now impossible? Not really. A couple of hypothetical wins would give us six points, enough to land us in the dead middle of the round-robin qualifying tournament. Nobody would call a comeback from a hole this deep likely, but crazier things have happened. Not much crazier, granted, but crazier. 

Let’s just hope the FVF and the Vinotinto manage to be as professional and committed as their under-17 female counterparts have been.