The positives of player power are on display for Venezuela

venezuela mens national team

Yesterday’s report on agent fees was as much a glimpse of that cottage industry as it was an update on player power. The $195 million siphoned off by lawyers, fathers, best friends and former night club doormen was the headline, but remember the silver lining: Players are moving all the time, to bigger places with better salaries, enjoying a hard-fought mobility that wasn’t available for most of soccer’s history. It’s a good thing, even if terrace whispers laced with anachronistic envy dog the Raheem Sterlings of the world.

In other ways, player power is taking a more traditional form, one of unity against deaf authorities. The Venezuelan men’s national team is just the latest example. According to reports, 15 Vinotinto players are threatening to quit unless federation coaches and officials are replaced. Should the players start their boycott, the ongoing 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign will be compromised.

Venezuela currently sit bottom of CONMEBOL’s 10-team, round-robin qualifying campaign, having failed to register a point through four rounds. Head coach Noel Sanvicente’s team is seven points back of the confederation’s final automatic Russia 2018 qualifying spot.

That gap could get much worse if the players don’t get a response. In a statement, as translated below by The Guardian, Venezuelan players insist the environment around the team must change immediately:

“We the players are no longer in agreement that this group of leaders of the FVF should continue as it’s not acceptable the way we’ve been treated and the way they’ve managed the project to take the national team to the World Cup,” read the statement.

“We strongly believe the team needs a complete managerial change lest we lose the work done over the last eight years.

“Our integrity is non-negotiable and the damage done can only be repaired by a total overhaul of the leaders of the FVF. We can’t continue playing in an environment so damaged by these leaders.”

Those eight years of progress have created expectations in a baseball-first country. In 2011, Venezuela reached the semifinals of Copa America, fostering to hopes the team would qualify for Brazil 2014. But the ensuing campaign proved a disappointment, transferring those expectations onto this cycle. Now, thanks to legacies like those of like former Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder Juan Arango, Venezuela allows itself hope. Each qualifying campaign could be the first that ends with a World Cup.

Midfielder Tomas Rincon posted an image of the team’s letter on Twitter:

Venezuela’s next qualifier is scheduled for Peru in March.

In previous years, this protest may have been met by talk of privilege. Perhaps it still will. Playing a sport for a living is something so many would love to do, we’d be told. And playing for your country? Even more so. Sure, it is a bit of a fallacy to imply most of the world still thinks like this, but if there’s any sport that needs no reminder of the power of corrupt and negligent administrators, it’s FIFA’s.

CONMEBOL 2018 World Cup qualifying, through four rounds. Table from FIFA.com.

CONMEBOL 2018 World Cup qualifying, through four rounds. Table from FIFA.com.

Let’s also remember, this is CONMEBOL, not exactly the front lines of reform. This is the continent of Grondona, Havelange, Teixeira, and Leoz, and while it’d be unfair to assume Venezuela’s federation inherited their playbook from Argentina or Brazil, their executives and players exist in a part of the soccer world where authority has been abused. The same disconnect between the game and administrators that makes daily headlines is as alive in South America as anywhere in the world.

That’s why it’s difficult to fault players for wanting their slice of the pie, and while it’s often difficult to empathize with agents, it’s through their work that the scales have started to sway away from the boardrooms. Things get complicated when agents start having seats at that table (did you hear Valencia had to change coaches?), but by and large, voices that were previously ignored now have a say. Players shouldn’t merely be overlooked.

It’s what made the coverage of France’s debacle at the 2010 World Cup so disappointing. That’s when Les Bleus famously flamed out, finishing at the bottom of a winnable group as players revolted against head coach Raymond Domenech. But Domenech had been a problem for long before South Africa, yet the FFF allowed him to continue. It was hypocritical for France’s decision makers to take such a hard line with Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra, Franck Ribery and Jeremy Toulalan when they’d allowed a fractured setup to enter the world’s biggest stage. The FFF, with an arrogance and detachment that’s become stereotypical of most soccer associations, was complicit in the debacle.

If the Venezuelan players are to be believed, there is a similar situation building in South America: a team that doesn’t respect its coach; a federation failing to act; a team that’s under-performing. Only this time, instead of revolting on training grounds and team buses, the players are going public. They’re using social media and the press to weave their own narrative. Would Ribery and Evra’s fate had been different if players were as Twitter-savvy in 2010?

It’s just one part of the player power that’s on display. There’s also the scarcity – the inability to outright replace 15 national team members without appearing apathetic about the qualifying cycle. There’s the growing support importance of soccer in Venezuela, something that makes accepting poor results less palatable, but it’s also the timing. Players are going public during one of the biggest gaps in the qualifying cycle. They’re being smart, giving the federation three months to work through this. They’re not holding feet to the fire, waiting until days before the next qualifier kicks off. There’s a level of empathy to them bringing this up now.

The players obviously care, so much so that they’re going to extremes. To save their qualifying campaign as well as their “personal and professional values,” they’re enacting an extreme version of player power. They’re threatening to walk out, risking much in the process. If the world’s unsympathetic, they’ll be lumped in with France’s 2010 squad – players the world saw as abusing their privilege. If, however, the world’s prepared to be more reasonable this time around, Venezuela’s players might be depicted as fighting a negligent, even privileged power. And this time, a protest might not be seen as a crime against sport.

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