The Esquivel Epidemic

Events off the pitch show how our country's crisis has been expressed in football.


Venezuela’s most prominent addition to the Spanish language and psychological lexicon in these past few years has been the word cara de tabla. Literally, it means plank-face, and we use it when referring to the ultimate degree of shamelessness that some national characters have taken to displaying as of lately.

Caradetablismo seems almost like a new psychological disturbance. A bit like Chikungunya or Zika; a new brand of tropical psychopathy that we are yet to fully understand.

Venezuela is suffering from CaraDeTablismo of epidemic proportions. The FVF is but one of its many victims.

It’s no secret that things haven’t been going too well for our beloved Vinotinto. But I suggest that we should look past the last-minute heartbreaking goal that Peru scored last week, and even past this week’s ugly 4-1 defeat against Chile. Rather, we should be focusing on what’s going on outside the pitch for clues of what goes on  inside. Because, as clichéd as it sounds, football is a metaphor for life: it reveals the way countries live, affirms its passions in ninety minutes.

Last year’s most important piece of football news didn’t transpire during a game. It happened in Switzerland, when law enforcement cuffed former president of the Venezuela Football League, Rafael Esquivel along with seven other FIFA officials on charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. Recently he was released on bail after forking over two million dollars in cash and 12 properties.

Esquivel probably does need some psychological help. I think he and all of the Federation that he left behind do.

Esquivel’s lawyer claims that his client has been suffering from psychological troubles since his incarceration. This statement caught my attention. I was surprised by this sudden interest in Esquivel’s psyche. I got to know him rather well during the twenty years I worked as psychologist for the under-17, under-20 and national teamsWe exchanged handshakes many times, and we also had a number of terrible disagreements, since it was my task to confront him when he didn’t keep his word (which happened a lot) with the players and the coaching staff on something promises he made. My job was to facilitate team cohesion. Players all knew about his tendency to try to weasel his way out of any monetary agreement, a reputation that always conspired against this goal.

Every time the players and the coaches needed to sit down and discuss our contracts, our salaries and bonuses, he became an escape artist. Disappearing for months at a time to Margarita, to a FIFA conference, to an unexpected hospitalization…the list goes on. He was always alleging that the Federación was broke – “Maybe next year,” he would say. Looking back on his recent stint in jail, its now evident that his heart was set on something other than qualifying for the World Cup.

In February, Huracán, an Argentinian club team, flew to Venezuela to play a Copa Libertadores match. While driving back from the game on the Caracas-La Guaira highway, the team’s bus had a mechanical accident which resulted in at least four injured players. In March, the Ecuadorean, Brazilian and Peruvian national teams were robbed of money, sporting goods and computers during their stay in Barquisimeto for the South American woman’s under-17 championship. Before traveling to Venezuela for the World Cup Qualifier played in Barinas this past Tuesday, Chile declared that they were bringing everything they needed with them, including food, water and toilet paper. If these pathetic football snapshots aren’t indicative of the gravity of this country’s crisis, then you tell me what is.

Yet Laureano González, Esquivel’s successor at the Federación Venezolana de Fútbol (FVF), believes the case against Esquivel to be an evil plot by the United States. He has publicly stated that Esquivel’s punishment is as disproportionate as sending someone to the gas chamber for running a red light.

While González hasn’t shown himself to be the least bit worried about the millions of dollars Esquivel has allegedly robbed, he accuses the players of thinking of dollars and not of their love for their national squad. The problem, according to González, is greedy selfish players arguing over their contracts with the FVF and not, contrary to what the rest of the football world acknowledges, the huge corruption scandal.

Instead of worrying for his chum, I think González would be better off fixing the dramatic lack of communication he has with the country, with the coaches and with the players of the National Team.

Pictures of Esquivel walking free after posting bail show a somber and very physically weakened man. He probably does need some psychological help. I think he and all of the Federation that he left behind do. It’s just that they are only willing to ask for a quick fix, symptomatic relief. A lasting solution would take too much time and work. A lasting solution means curing the country of CaradeTablismo epidemic.

One happy note to all this: We must tip our hat to the wonderful work of the under-17 and under-20 National Women’s teams. Despite the FVF’s short-sightedness, they have surmounted incredible limitations and proven themselves true crown jewels. Maybe gender is relevant in finding a way out of this epidemic.