By Denis Duettmann (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES – Sports are not exempt from the crisis engulfing Venezuela with the first soccer players beginning to position themselves in the ongoing political power struggle.
The whistle for kick-off at the Jose Encarnacion Romero stadium in Maracaibo pierced the air and heralded – nothing. Rather than footballers charging into action, they knocked the ball around casually, chatted and then trotted to the bench.
The top-flight game between Caracas and Zulia on Sunday was subject to protest, from the players themselves, against the massive power cut which has paralyzed Venezuela.
In the changing rooms there was neither light nor water yet the country’s soccer federation refused to officially cancel the match. So the players took things into their own hands.
The current political and economic crisis in Venezuela is not leaving soccer unscathed. The stands stay empty, stadiums crumble and the players’ wages scarcely cover the costs of survival.
On Friday, the eyes of the soccer world will be on the Venezuelan national team when they meet mighty Argentina, complete with Barcelona star Lionel Messi, for a friendly match in Madrid. Three days later the ‘Vinotinto’ (Red Wine) team plays the Catalan XI in Girona.
The Spanish tour should give the players a break from the crisis at home. For weeks President Nicolas Maduro and self-declared president Juan Guaido have been involved in a bitter power struggle which could escalate at any moment.
Venezuela has recently been suffering from a deep economic crisis and the country, due to a lack of foreign currency, is struggling to bring in sufficient food, medicine and goods required for daily life.
The International Monetary Fund expects an inflation rate of 10 million percent for the current year and a 5 per cent shrinking of the economy. More than three million Venezuelans have already left their homeland.
“Many footballers in Venezuela earn so little it’s not enough to live on,” striker Anthony Uribe, who plays for Argentinian club CA Belgrano, told the El Intransigente paper. “As a sportsman you’re not directly involved in politics, but the situation influences sports, society, the economy.”
Players with two to three years professional experience earn 300-400 dollars a year, the Colombian coach of the Carabobo club, Wilson Gutiérrez, told the El Espectador paper. Others make only 80-100 dollars or are paid in practically worthless bolivars. They are still doing much better than average Venezuelans who earn the under $10 a month minimum wage.
Soccer, in the baseball-mad country of Venezuela, remains a fringe sport. The Vinotinto is the only significant South American team never to have played in the World Cup.
Despite the crisis, the side have improved to 32nd in the world rankings and the youths were runners-up in the 2017 under-20 World Cup.
However, the worsening political conflict between Maduro and his adversary Guaido could also polarize Venezuelan soccer, although the federation has given warnings to stay out of politics.
National coach Rafael Dudamel and several players, including former Serie A champion Tomas Rincon and Premier League star Salomon Rondon, have been critical of Maduro’s socialist government.
“The crisis in Venezuela has an impact on soccer because the power cuts out, we have no water to shower or ice to cool down,” Erickson Gallardo of the Zamora club recently told Chilean radio station Bio Bio.
“It’s hard to live with what’s happening in the country. As a player you don’t want to take that onto the pitch. But it has an effect on you. You think about if your family has food and power. It’s distracting.”