Protesting on the Field

The government's gone all out to keep any sign of the crisis off of Venezuela's broadcast media. They weren't counting on Venezuela's brave fútbolistas.

After quitting her job as a TV commentator, Darcy Lucena told me she feels bad for her colleagues. “It’s my decision to put them on the spot and many people are now expecting them to do what I did. We’re all struggling, I needed my job. I need the money.”

Darcy resigned from La Tele Tuya. The TV station, better known as “TLT,” is owned by Vice President-cum-Drug Kingpin Tareck El Aissami. “My heart says I have to be consistent with how I think and feel,” she said.

She told me her crew was told to have a backup plan in case the players at the game she was to comment on repeated the acts of those on April 30’s Lara-Anzoategui.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” she says. “When the minute of silence began, I was supposed to comment on the substitute players, instead of what was going on in the field. It was terrible.” TLT finished the transmission, Darcy went home feeling she had failed her profession and, after talking to her family, she resigned. She served her conscience instead of her quince y último.

Of all the things that are unimportant in life

Pope John Paul II once quipped, in a wink to his love for football, that “of all the things that are unimportant in life, football is the most important.” Sports are a play, a dramatization of success and failure, but every now and then reality spills into the field. Death puts football in perspective and a minute of silence is the ritual to recognize this fact. Before the game begins, before the joy and the pain, there’s quiet and stillness. An instant to reflect beyond our immediacy. Players and crowd unite in acknowledgement of more important events beyond the score.

Venezuelan football players considered the recent deaths of political protesters an event demanding a sign of respect, but their bosses thought otherwise. The petition for a minute of silence was rejected by the Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF) and when they insisted to the referees, they also declined. The propaganda machine is determined to show business as usual: Maduro dances on television, plays baseball, jogs in the mountains. Apparently, the powers that be preferred to embrace the official narrative.

But the players organized themselves in a way no one could stop. Ricardo Andreutti, of Deportivo Lara, explained to me how the player’s association spread the word to organize the protest. There is no game if the players don’t move. The ref blew the whistle, but players stood in silence for a minute.

This revealed the capacity of sports commentators to do a play by play, not of the match, but of the historic events experienced. The commentators of the first game where this happened were dumbfounded. They mentioned the minute of silence and interrupted themselves, probably afraid to upset their bosses, known censors. As it was said on twitter, commentators, so quick to judge a player who misses an easy shot, choke in front of the easiest goal of all.

For the next match of the day, Carabobo vs Caracas, TLT was prepared. They held up on the first minute of action, turning the camera to the side while reporters went out of their way to avoid mentioning the protest. This omission was obvious censorship. I contacted several of these commentators, and got no answers. Some inexcusable apologies insisting that it was a mistake and not the product of pressure did appear on social media, but only Alfredo Coroniz broadcast his.

Sports are a play, a dramatization of success and failure, but every now and then reality spills into the field.

In any event, the minute of silence hit the spot. It revealed the underlying truth of the powers ruling Venezuelan football, and went viral over the globe. Andreutti received calls from Spain, Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Argentina, asking for an interview. Many Venezuelan athletes followed suit, with Major League players denouncing the heinous despotism. Members of the National Football team playing abroad joined; Tomás Rincón carried an upside down flag in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Fernando Aristeguieta and Juan Pablo Añor, friends of the late Juan Pernalete, made strong statements against repression, Salomón Rondón, Juan Arango and Miku Fedor, to mention a few, shared images in protest, as did Gregory Vargas, playing professional basketball in Israel. The Caracas Football Club (CFC) carried an upside down flag during the presentation of its Copa Conmebol Sudamericana match and convinced their Paraguayan counterparts to join in a player-initiated, Confederation-rejected, minute of silence.

Player-institution conflict isn’t new. In 2014, players of various teams asked that a few matches be postponed because safety conditions were pretty bad, but the League insisted in going on as usual. Atlético Venezuela fired all its players for refusing to play and mediators had to be called to ratchet down tensions. Players like Leo Bautista, of Atletico Venezuela, were refused contract renewals as punishment. Now, against its own wishes, the Federation publicly gave permission to hold a minute of silence. Players won the first round —Andreutti even mentions that his team’s directors offered their support.

This sets an interesting precedent. You may question the relevance of these “silly squabbles” given the current events. I don’t. Sports have been important to render visible political issues, like civil rights in the 1968 Olympics, or the fight for democracy through brave positions by players such as Socrates in Brazil. They’re strong expressions of rejection from athletes who reach very different corners of society. Players, as far as I’ve known them through years of work in Venezuelan football, very rarely take a public position and the fact that they are doing so now is a sign of the rejection Maduro has on his hands. It’s evident, massive, and it has spilled onto the playing field for the whole world to see, into the most-watched football competitions there are.

I’ve always thought that players work harder, are more ethical and deserve more merit than others who surround professional football in Venezuela. This thoughtful reflection proves it. They’ve taken the lead away from the Federation and the media, going politically active and, perhaps for the first time, organized. Carlos Rivero, of Carabobo Football Club, told me he has been warned of repercussions for his comments on twitter but, he says, this is the least he can do when guys his age are out in the streets fighting for freedom.

Darcy tells me she doesn’t know if her gesture will make any difference. Political resistance, as summarized by Vaclav Havel, is the daily struggle to “live in truth”. Small acts of defiance and dignity bloom all over the country and this generation in sports, hopefully, is a reflection of those who will one day take the posts of those now in power.