Uruguay currently lead the South American World Cup Qualifying table. Venezuela is in last place. In Philadelphia on Thursday night, that didn’t matter. La Vinotinto with a 1-0 win are through to the Copa America quarter-finals, and Los Charrúas are going home after they play one last game.
Much of the talk will surround Luis Suarez, as expected, even though Oscar Tabarez indicated that the Barcelona striker wouldn’t play despite his active presence in training the day before and being seen warming up during the second half.
“There is no situation. The player is not ready to play,” he said. “Even if the player is upset, I’m not going to play a player that is not 100%. And if he got upset, that’s something I wasn’t aware of.” Suarez was pictured in anger on the Uruguay bench after Mathias Corujo was the third and final sub, throwing a water bottle and his bib down in disgust.
Without their talisman, Uruguay looked lost going forward. They didn’t look capable of generating many chances despite their formation switch from a 4-1-4-1 to a diamond 4-4-2, and when they had chances, more often than not Edinson Cavani wasted them, including a glorious chance in the 89th minute that would have leveled the match. Venezuela’s opener, with shades of south Jersey’s own Carli Lloyd etched in memory, came off a wonderstrike from midfielder Alejandro Guerra who spotted Fernando Muslera off his line just inside the attacking half, and if it wasn’t for a lucky paw, Guerra would have scored. Salomon Rondon scored on the rebound anyway.
“We didn’t play like a team should play if they want to win” said Tabarez. “This is my 5th Copa America, and I’ve never been eliminated in the group stage.”
While one of the tournaments heavyweights lamented the loss of their leader and inability to generate chances, their opponents, classic underdogs, showed the organization and determination needed to pull off upsets in a major tournament. Coach Rafael Dudamel had not won a game as Venezuelan manager since he took over in March, and now not only has he guided his side to the knockout stages, he’s also made history. Venezuela, until now, had never won consecutive games at a Copa America, the only South American nation to never do that, until Thursday night.
“We realized that our guys know a lot about math,” he quipped. “We didn’t have anything to lose. We were always convinced in what we were doing. This is not just by chance, we earned this.”
His midfield of Rincon, Guerra, Figuera and the young Penaranda showed quality on the break when needed, but also didn’t break when Uruguay threw numbers forward. And while the quality of Salomon Rondon was well known before this match, getting into the right position to follow up a rebound off the crossbar past Muslera took instincts that few strikers in the world have. Though they missed multiple golden opportunities to put Uruguay out of reach, and after losing their starting left back and striker to injuries, Venezuela never wavered or lost focus. With that focus and tactical organization, they’re likely off to the knockout stage for only the third time in their history.
Mindful of the situation back home, Dudamel, ever the wordsmith, hoped that this triumph would send a message of hope and unity to the people back in Venezuela.
“To give a gift to the country is great, now let’s make it grow. Why are we divided? Venezuela is one.”
After impressive wins against Jamaica and Uruguay, Venezuela now face a difficult test against tournament favorites Mexico in Houston, in what will in essence be a road game. But few thought this team had much of any chance to advance out of a group with Mexico and Uruguay in it in the first place. Though the atmosphere will be with them, Mexico will not have an easy time breaking down this tough side that’s patching up major divisions back at home.
And also mindful of the venue and city, Dudamel ended by evoking one of Philadelphia’s favorite underdogs:
“Today, we had Rocky inside.”
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