Baseball is Venezuela's national sport – but the 2024 Copa America shows why that might be changing

Quiz question. What makes Venezuela the odd country out when it comes to football in South America?

There are two valid answers.

The first is that Venezuela are the only national team in the CONMEBOL region never to have qualified for a men’s World Cup.

Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay? Been in 54 editions of that tournament between them. Chile have appeared at nine, Paraguay eight, Colombia six. Peru have participated in five and Ecuador four. Even Bolivia, no one’s idea of a footballing powerhouse, have been three times.

Venezuela? That’ll be a sorry zero.

The second answer goes some way to explaining the first: Venezuela is the only CONMEBOL nation where football is not — or at least has not always been — the number one sport.

Baseball, historically, has been king there, capturing Venezuelan hearts to a degree that might surprise those unfamiliar with the country. In a 2011 survey, 95 per cent of respondents said they considered it to be the national sport. That number would certainly have been higher if polls had been conducted 50, 30 or even 10 years prior.

Now, though, the feeling is that things might be changing.

Venezuela have made a strong start to 2026 World Cup qualifying, igniting hope that their first appearance at the tournament is just around the corner. They have also been one of the stories of this summer’s Copa America, winning all three of their group games to set up a quarter-final against Canada on Friday (early Saturday UK time). Win that and they would reach just their second semi-final ever.

As the euphoria grows, it is worth pausing to look at how far Venezuelan football has begun to emerge from baseball’s shadow — and where it might go next.

Common wisdom has it that baseball first gripped Venezuela due to the presence of U.S. oil companies in the country at the start of the 1900s. The sport was a diversion for employees, both Venezuelan and American.

The love affair really took hold in 1941, when Venezuela won the Amateur Baseball World Series in Cuba, surprising the much-fancied hosts. It was a catalytic achievement — the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League was founded shortly thereafter — and one that wrote the sport into the national myth. Even today, people talk about the “Heroes of ’41” in reverential tones.

A baseball fixture in Venezuela in 1966 (Lynn Pelham/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

In the decades that followed, baseball cemented its status as Venezuela’s pre-eminent pastime.

Baseball fields appeared all over the country. Players such as Luis Aparicio went to Major League Baseball and shone. For youngsters, the sport was synonymous with opportunity; it was a fun time, sure, but it could also be a ladder out of poverty.

Pretty much every major Venezuelan sporting success story is a baseball story.

Miguel Cabrera was named MLB’s most valuable player in both 2012 and 2013; Jose Altuve followed in his footsteps in 2017. Johan Santana and Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award, given to an MLB season’s best pitcher. Oswaldo Guillen became the first Latin American manager to win the World Series in 2005.

Miguel Cabrera was twice named MLB’s most valuable player (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

From the outset, football was always playing catch-up. The Liga Venezolana dates back to 1921 and went professional in the early 1950s, but the game did not put down roots in the same way baseball did.

“Football culture in Venezuela took a long time to establish itself,” explains Jordan Florit, author of Red Wine And Arepas, a book about the history of Venezuelan football. “A lot of the football clubs were based around — and run by — expatriate communities or foreign companies. They had names like Deportivo Italia, Deportivo Galicia, Deportivo Portugues. It was foreign money, foreign investment, and very few Venezuelans played in those teams.”

These were also, by their very nature, temporary organisations. When a business went bust or moved, its community often went with it. With no real connection to their local area, a football club could disappear almost overnight. “If you look at a Venezuelan league table from even the 1980s and check how many clubs are still in existence, it’s almost none,” says Florit. “That lack of continuity severely hampered the growth of football.”

The knock-on effects were obvious. For one thing, there were no structures in place to harness and develop Venezuelan talent. While baseball players flocked to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s — there have, to date, been 440 Venezuelans in MLB — it was not until 1991 that a Venezuelan footballer moved to a club in Europe.

That was Stalin Rivas, considered by many to be the country’s most talented player ever. He lasted two seasons in Belgium before returning home. Not until Juan Arango’s spell at Spanish side Mallorca in the mid-2000s could Venezuela legitimately claim to have a footballer playing in one of the top leagues in the world.

Juan Arango played for Mallorca and Borussia Monchengladbach in Europe (Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Then there were the travails of the national side, known colloquially as La Vinotinto — The Red Wine, after their burgundy kit.

Venezuela won their fourth-ever Copa America match, beating Bolivia in January 1967, but they did not register a victory in the following 12 editions of that tournament — a run spanning 40 years and 42 games. They lost 10-0 to Yugoslavia in 1972 and 11-0 to Argentina three years later.

The lowest ebb, though, was the CONMEBOL qualifying tournament for the 1994 World Cup. It wasn’t rare for Venezuela to finish bottom of the table containing all the South American nations, but they conceded 34 goals in eight matches, including — yes — 14 to Bolivia. They did, in fairness, grind out a win against Ecuador, but that would prove to be their last competitive victory for seven years.

Bad, right? Everything is relative. The previous one had come fully 18 years earlier.

Things began to improve for La Vinotinto when Argentine coach Jose Pastoriza took the reins in 1998. He had managed a host of big clubs — Brazil’s Fluminense, Boca Juniors in his homeland, Atletico Madrid — and brought new levels of professionalism to the setup.

It would be his successor, though, who truly kickstarted a revolution.

Richard Paez, winner of 11 Venezuela caps as a player, had been coaching their under-20 national team. When Pastoriza was fired in December 2000, with Venezuela occupying their customary last place in World Cup qualifying, he stepped up and took the top job.

Paez had big ambitions. He did not just want Venezuela to play without fear, as Pastoriza had, he wanted them to attack, to seduce, to be the protagonists in their own story.

Richard Paez in 2001 (Mauricio Lima/AFP via Getty Images)

“I always had an inner rebelliousness,” Paez, now 70, tells The Athletic. “Venezuela had always played like a small team — conservatively, defensively, trying to not concede, trying to avoid defeat. I was one of the few people who claimed the national team did not represent who we were.

“I took over with a countercultural message. I had a lifelong conviction: that people had not yet seen the greatness of Venezuelan footballers. We began to present a team that dared to believe in its talent. We played with an attacking outlook, believing we could build something.”

The belief was justified. La Vinotinto won four consecutive qualifiers between August and November 2001, scoring 10 goals and conceding just one. The second of those victories, against Chile, was their first ever in a competitive match beyond Venezuela’s borders. The sequence dragged them off the bottom of the group and into folklore. Previous generations would have struggled to even dream it up, let alone imagine it possible.

“It was an awakening,” says Paez. “It showed our players had natural talent; they just needed a coach who challenged them to play in that way. They passed the test with flying colours, surpassing even my expectations. It transformed Venezuelan football.”

Paez is a compelling orator. He describes the period that followed as both “a metamorphosis” and a “transcendental leap” for his team. Talking to him, it is not hard to comprehend why Venezuela’s players felt inspired, but his stewardship was not just based on lofty ideas.

Previously, it had been vanishingly rare for Venezuela to play outside South America. They were, frankly, not much of a draw. Paez, though, insisted that the players had to be exposed to different types of football. He told the federation that it was non-negotiable.

In March 2002, Venezuela played Iran in Casablanca, Morocco. A year later, it was the United States in Seattle. Those games kickstarted a magical mystery tour, with Paez at the wheel.

“We had to go out into the world,” he recalls. “We went to Europe to play against Austria, Switzerland, Nigeria (a friendly staged in England), Spain — big international teams. We went to Tokyo to play Japan. We played against Inter Milan at San Siro and we faced many European teams here in Venezuela.

“We showed we were capable of competing at international level and winning matches, both home and away. Those friendly matches were a big step in our evolution.”

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez meeting the national team at San Siro in 2005 (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

There is nothing like a deadline to focus the mind, and Paez soon had one. In 2004, it was announced the 2017 Copa America would take place in Venezuela. It would be the first time the country would host a major football tournament.

President Hugo Chavez’s government poured huge resources into the project. Four stadiums were built from scratch and five others renovated. Public interest levels in football soared. Buoyed by fervent home support, Venezuela played the competition on the front foot, qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time. Even a heavy defeat to Uruguay in the quarter-finals did little to take the shine off the achievement.

It was the culmination of what came to be known, lovingly, as La Vinotinto Boom.

“For me, that was the greatest period of growth for football in Venezuela,” says Paez. “It created a legacy of irreverence in the character of our players. They set a new standard for those who put on the national shirt after that.”

Paez believes those years even put football on a level footing with baseball in Venezuela. While he may not be the most objective source on that score, there is a reason that side are now held up alongside the Heroes of ’41 in the Venezuelan consciousness.

“Today, I don’t believe there is a more popular sport in Venezuela,” he says. “It has been football since 2007.”

After the Boom, the bust? Not quite.

Some Venezuelans will tell you the national team reached even greater heights under Cesar Farias, who replaced Paez at the end of 2007. He led La Vinotinto to the semi-finals of the 2011 Copa America in Argentina, only missing out on the final when Paraguay beat them on penalties.

Venezuela lost on penalties in the 2011 Copa America semi-finals (Max Montecinos/LatinContent via Getty Images)

By November 2013, Venezuela were up to 35th in the FIFA world rankings; they went as high as 25th under Rafael Dudamel, who was in charge between 2016 and 2020. There has been a drop-off since then — they are currently 54th — but there has been plenty of solid work done post-Paez.

Domestically, the picture isn’t quite as positive.

The Venezuelan top flight can be exciting and unpredictable, but those with first-hand experience of it say it is not on a particularly stable footing as far as finances and long-term planning go.

Salvatore Simeone is a former scout for Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United in England. Today, he is the sporting director at Carabobo Futbol Club, who sealed their first league title last month.

“The league has improved, definitely, but football is still a direct reflection of the socioeconomics of the country,” Simeone tells The Athletic. “Private capital has been low for decades. It is now coming back, but for the past 20, 25 years football has only been able to survive because of public funding.”

Many clubs in Venezuela have ties to local government officials. Many are months behind on payments to players and other staff. “We at Carabobo have professional facilities, a scouting structure, an administration department, a legal department… a structure like an actual football club,” says Simeone. “Unfortunately, other clubs are not run the same way.”

State funding might be necessary in some instances. “Plenty of Venezuelan clubs die or go into dormancy every year, and it would be even more if these local governments weren’t bankrolling the clubs,” says Florit. But this practice creates its own issues.

“The difficult thing is that governments change all the time, at least at the state level,” explains Simeone. “New people come in with a new project, invest a lot of money, but then the government changes. Often, that means the club disappears, or their football reality just completely changes from one season to the next. Some people come in with good intentions, but they don’t know how to set up a successful structure because you can only get that if you stay with a project for longer.”

There are green shoots. Between 2007 and 2021, Venezuelan clubs were obliged to have at least one teenager on the pitch at all times — and more than that in certain competitions. If the national team showcased Venezuelan talent by touring the world, the Liga Venezolana took the baton and ran with it. Even though the rule is no longer in place — there are several theories about its cancellation, with most implicating former national-team coach Jose Pekerman — Venezuela remains a great place to be a teenage footballer.

“If there is common ground among most clubs, it’s that we understand our role within the world of football,” says Simeone. “We are a selling league. If you want to be a selling league, you need to put young talent in the shop window. When you see the starting XIs, you usually have at least a couple of 18- or 19-year-old players who are quite established for each club.”



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That is not just good news for the clubs’ accountants. It has helped Venezuela become a force in youth football and filled the senior Vinotinto side with talent.

Venezuela memorably reached the final of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup, losing to an England side containing Phil Foden, Marc Guehi and Conor Gallagher; four of the players in that 2017 squad are at this summer’s Copa America, three as first-choice starters. “The commitment to youth has had a measurable effect,” says Florit, who cites Kervin Andrade and Kevin Kelsy as two players to keep an eye on in the years ahead.

Venezuela lost the 2017 Under-17 World Cup final to England (Lars Baron – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

For Simeone, two things would help the Venezuelan league to move forward.

One is displaying more openness to ideas from outside. The other is the national team qualifying for the World Cup.

“I know that it would bring drastic change and so much growth,” he says. “It would change the perception of Venezuelan players outside the country. There is this saying we have in football here: the passport weighs a lot. I think that’s changing, but people don’t look at Venezuelan players in the same way they do Argentines, Colombians or Brazilians, even though they might be at the same level.

“I think the success of the national team can change that. It can give us momentum. I’m hopeful for the future.”

This Copa America always felt a bit like a free hit for Venezuela. Do well, and it will boost confidence levels. Fail, and they could just return to what everyone views as the main task at hand: reaching the 2026 World Cup.

The qualifying campaign has started brilliantly.

After six rounds, Venezuela sit fourth in the 10-team table, with nine points. That puts them ahead of Brazil, who they drew with away from home last October. With a rudderless Bolivia side next up and six CONMEBOL nations now qualifying automatically for an expanded 48-team tournament, Fernando Batista’s men know they are in with a real shot at glory.

Little wonder, then, that Venezuela’s Copa America performances thus far have felt like an affirmation rather than a revelation.

When Batista took the job, he spoke often about changing mentalities, encouraging players to believe that glory is within reach. The echoes from the Paez era were obvious. And again, much like during the Vinotinto Boom, there has been a shift in the public mindset. People believe. There is a reason Venezuela’s unofficial motto reads: “Mano, Tengo Fe” — ‘Man, I Have Faith.’

“It’s difficult to explain, but there’s something special about the national team that unites people,” says Simeone. “Politically, the country has struggled a lot in recent years. In those dark moments, when people were divided, the national team would bring people together around the same table.

“Qualifying for the World Cup would mean everything. As a Venezuelan, it would be one of the proudest moments of my life. It’s something that goes beyond the game, at least in our country. When La Vinotinto are doing well, there’s no other sport like it. Not even close.”

Paez, too, is allowing himself to dream.

“There are big hopes for this generation,” he says. “They can be the World Cup generation. It would make them unforgettable.”



Ranking all 16 teams at the Copa America

(Top photo: Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images)