BUENOS AIRES – Late Wednesday night, as the dust settled in a 12-goal climax to the first round of an otherwise slightly dull 2011 Copa America, the most unlikely of duos emerged sitting comfortably atop Group B.
One has eight Copa America titles to its name; the other had the worst points-per-game average in the competition's history. One houses a glittering trophy cabinet containing five World Cups; the other has never even been to one. One's entire national identity is defined by soccer; the other has always been more interested in baseball and beauty pageants. While British railway workers helped spread soccer throughout the rest of South America, American oil workers brought baseball to the continent's 'other'; only the Dominican Republic and the USA can currently boast more Major League Baseball players than it can.
Venezuela had met Paraguay four times in the Copa America before Wednesday's final Group B clash. It had lost all four and conceded 16 along the way. But this was a new Venezuela.
"The important thing is that we faced Paraguay as equals," said its goalkeeper Renny Vega, who ventured into the opposition penalty area in the final minute to flick on the corner that led to Grenddy Perozo's equalizer.
Venezuela more than equalled its opponents Wednesday night. It even has grounds to feel aggrieved that it didn't take all three points.
"[Now] we ask for respect," added coach Cesar Farias. "We have triumphed against two great teams [Brazil and Paraguay] ... we can win, lose or draw, but always with respect." His side have earned nothing if not that.
Despite a World Cup qualifying campaign that saw them finish just two points behind Argentina and a potential playoff for the final qualifying slot, few gave Farias's side much chance of escaping the strongest group of Copa. All three of their fellow Group B competitors had finished above La Vinotinto in the qualifiers.
And while it was no secret that Venezuelan soccer was most certainly on the up - Argentina aside, it has beaten every team on the continent over the last decade -Copa America was seen as little more than a chance for Farias to prepare his team ahead of a push to secure their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals, part of what's being labelled the most important period in its soccer history.
In Juan Arango, the country found its first true idol almost a decade ago, proudly representing his nation in Mexican football before heading to Europe with Mallorca in 2004. The timing of his rise to prominence was perfect, coinciding with then coach Richard Paez's ushering in of a change of mentality for the national side. Under Paez, Venezuela picked up four straight victories in the 2002 qualifiers, post wins over Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Paraguay.
It would again finish second from bottom in the next marathon of qualifiers four years later, but a 3-0 victory over Uruguay in Montevideo was seen as symbolic of a new found potential.
Real progress would come a year later when Venezuela hosted Copa America, making it past the first round for the first time in its history. Despite going down 4-1 in the quarterfinal to Uruguay, the tournament's impression was lasting. Arango spoke of the importance of President Hugo Chavez's support while sports minister Eduardo Alvarez claimed Venezuela had the "third-best sports infrastructure in the world" thanks to investment from the government. Alvarez insisted soccer was now more popular than ever in the country.
Since then, Venezuelan soccer has gone from strength to strength. Then 34-year-old Farias was appointed in 2007 after Paez resigned, citing a lack of support from the fans created an "inadequate atmosphere which surrounds the national team." Under Farias, though, Venezuela would achieve its highest points total in qualifying history.
"We get the results," said the coach last night. "We're not great, but [we're] a team that fights - we are Venezuelan ... there has been a clear growth. We have players in Europe and the youth teams are doing well. The number of those playing soccer has gone up in our country."
Victory on Sunday night over Chile would see Venezuela make the Copa America semifinals for the first time in its history, but it's a different history remains the priority for this emerging soccer nation. World Cup qualifying will resume at the end of the year and, with Brazil hosting the tournament, four out of the nine remaining South American nations will qualify automatically, with fifth place earning the playoff that eluded Farias last time out.
"Right from the day I took over I felt that we had a real chance of making it to the last World Cup, and we didn't fall too far short," Farias told FIFA.com last month. "But in the back of my mind throughout was the importance of making sure everything was right going into these qualifiers. This looks like being our World Cup."
Venezuela has never had a better opportunity to make it so.