Venezuela’s economy, once so prosperous
and stable, is now in ruins. There has been no collapse more dramatic, more significant,
in the last 50 years, and it has brought with it political chaos, crippling inflation, crime
and poverty. “It’s really hard to think of a human
tragedy of this scale outside civil war,” Kenneth Rogoff, an economics professor at
Harvard University, told the New York Times in May. “This will be a touchstone of disastrous
policies for decades to come.” Venezuela, buoyed by large oil reserves and
a functioning democratic government, was once the richest country in Latin America. Now,
though, things are very different. The hyperinflation rate, in early August, reached an astonishing
10 million percent, and the country now owes $100 billion to foreign creditors. The crisis, according to most economists,
was set in motion by the reckless policies of Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo
Chávez. Opponents of Maduro, who assumed office in 2013 following the death of Chávez,
accuse him of squandering billions of dollars in oil revenue and allowing inflation to rise
and rise inexorably. Those who back Maduro blame strict sanctions
imposed by Donald Trump’s government, and economic boycotts by the country’s biggest
businesses. The collapse of the economy has led to increased political violence and an
alarming rise in homicides. And millions have fled the country to neighbouring Colombia. No industry nor aspect of daily life has gone
unscathed. And that includes football, which as been brought to its knees at lower levels
and even impacted at the very top, in the Primera División. Regular blackouts have
interrupted several high-profile games, and there is often a lack of electricity and basic
equipment. Players have often gone unpaid, too, which has meant an exodus of some of
the country’s best footballers to Europe and elsewhere. “It has affected football massively,”
Carlos Tarache, a sports journalist based in Venezuela,
told Tifo. “The simple fact that the development of our rising talents has been impeded has
had an impact on football’s growth in the country. But dreams are not held back by adversities,
and today Venezuela is enjoying its most prodigious generation of players in years, coincidentally
in one of the worst moments in its history.” Remarkably, Venezuela’s youth teams are
thriving. A talented generation of young footballers are coming through, battling against hardship
just to make a living. And supporters are responding, turning out in their thousands,
even with money made worthless, with food and drink increasingly hard to come by and
crime rampant. The outlook, for football in Venezuela, despite the turmoil, is surprisingly
positive. The problems, though, are unavoidable. In
March, a top flight game between Caracas FC and Zulia was a disrupted by a nationwide
power blackout. The game was scheduled to be played at night, so both clubs attempted
to rearrange the fixture for daylight hours. But the Venezuelan Football Federation refused
to move the kick off time, and Caracas and Zulia played out a 0-0 draw in protest. For that, both clubs were docked a point and
fined 360,000 bolivars, at the time the equivalent of around £40 due to the hyperinflation.
“I publicly express my outrage at the disrespectful manner in which the FVF has addressed us footballers,”
Caracas captain Rubert Quijad said in response to the punishment. “Venezuela had suffered a national blackout.
The lack of electric affected Zulia state. Our preparation was hindered and the conditions
to play the game were not there. The lack of electric, water, ice, and the risk of injury
and difficulty in being treated (`if injured) raised the risks. I demand respect and for
Venezuelan footballers to be granted dignity. Do not forget that before being footballers,
we are human beings.” Other clubs have been hit even harder, most
notably Primera División side Deportivo Anzoátegui, who in July were forced to fold their first
team because of insurmountable debt.. Those players unable to negotiate a move have been
left without a club and without a salary, at a time when money is scarce. “Let’s say that a Venezuelan footballer
who’s been playing for three or four years and is quite well-known can earn between US$300
and US$400 a month, while others earn $80 to $100,” said former Carabobo coach Wilson
Gutiérrez in a recent interview with El Espectador. “It is really not enough. There are even
some who get paid in bolivares and there are also delays in payment.” The situation is hardly ideal for young players
attempting to make their way in the game. But that does not appear to have held back
Venezuela’s Under-20s, who continue to impress on the international stage. Coached by Rafael
Dudamel, the team made it to the final of the 2017 Under-20s World Cup, losing to England,
and this year performed well at the South American Championship, beating the likes of
Chile, Brazil and Colombia. Football, over the last few years, has proved
a unifying force in Venezuela. Amid the political chaos, the debilitating inflation and poverty,
it has brought people together, if only for 90 minutes, and allowed them, briefly, to
forget. Distractions from the bleak reality are welcome. And, perhaps most importantly,
football has brought optimism. “It’s on an upward ascendancy and one
that I believe is unlikely to stop,” Jordan Florit, the author of an upcoming book on
Venezuelan football – Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion
– told Tifo. “England is a football nation – it plays cricket and rugby, too, obviously
– but it’s the people’s sport; New Zealand is a rugby nation, India is a cricketing nation,
and so on so forth. I think the general perception is still currently that Venezuela is a baseball
nation, but a national football team offers representation on an international stage like
no other sport and in recent years, as La Vinotinto has become a
source of pride for Venezuelans, it is slowly but surely usurping baseball.” There is much still to do to improve the infrastructure
of football in Venezuela, but that has been made increasingly difficult by the economic
situation. And there are few signs of an imminent solution. “The Federation and the League certainly
have to take some actions to secure the continuing development of Venezuelan football,” Carlos
Bustamante, a Venezuelan journalist based in London, told Tifo. “There are a lot of
clubs who have 50% of their shares owned by government institutions, making them dependent
on public funds that are increasingly in a deficit nowadays. “Despite all the problems, there still are
clubs committed and doing the right thing. Caracas FC and more recently Zulia FC have
done it, and both are representing the country in the Copa Sudamericana. The future of the
country is still unknown but with the necessary reforms, and following those examples, the
future of Venezuelan football can be better. But the changes must be focused entirely on
the structure of the organisations that rule football in Venezuela.” There is much to ponder domestically, and
there will likely be more clubs, more individuals adversely affected by the economic collapse
in the months to come. Internationally, though, the future looks refreshingly bright. The
target, for Venezuela is to reach the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, by which time the country
may be on the road to recovery. “The 2020s should be the best decade in
La Vinotinto’s history,” says Florit. “Their supporters should be very excited.”