Italia 90: The View from Venezuela

When Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot an air of incredulity spread through the web of electromagnetic waves that over the course of the previous four weeks had kept a firm grip on an entire country’s emotional (as well as commercial) interests. Back in 1990 FIFA had not yet come up with the creative tool that is its world rankings, but it didn’t take a genius to understand that Venezuela was neither very good at nor very much into football. However, the FIFA World Cup and football are two altogether different propositions, and so much was evident when the initial incredulity that arrested the hearts of millions of Venezuelans was swiftly displaced by a thick, dark cloud of indignation that swept through the air like a mist arrived from the coldest sea. While Codesal was being manhandled by a hoard of Argentinean players every spectator, commentator and pundit—specialised or not—in the country highlighted the unfortunate performance by the officials on the day, questioned the referee’s impartiality and, in short, shrouded the occasion in a veil of suspicion and controversy that to this day persists, at least among Latin American fans. And then came hope, like a glimmer of light shining through the smouldering ashes of everything that had been burnt—integrity, respect, expectations—over the previous ninety seconds, when left back Andreas Brehme stepped forward, relieved captain Lothar Matthäus from his duties and positioned himself to take the penalty—with his weaker foot, the right one.


Back in 1990 there were five terrestrial TV channels in Venezuela: two state-owned ones, including Channel 5, the country’s “cultural” channel, and three private ones, one of which, Televen, was still being tested. Italia 90 was broadcast by the three major TV channels in the country excluding Channel 5 and Televen, and all three teams of commentators and pundits featured key journalists at the time in Venezuela, but in the collective memory of Venezuelans any significant football-related event from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s is inextricably linked to the voice—simultaneously raspy and shrill—of Lázaro Candal, affectionately know by all as “Papaíto” (quite literally, the “Daddy”).


Lázaro Candal was the anchorman at Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) and for years developed an affectionate relationship with the considerable number of people who followed Spanish football every weekend. Candal’s passionate and unreservedly partial style was contagious and proved immensely popular among an audience that more than knowledge was looking for intensity, excitement, entertainment. Game after game Candal treaded the fine line between a nervous breakdown and a heart attack, and the final of Italia 90 was no exception: Candal, a Galician Spaniard by birth, called the penalty, cried to the heavens, remonstrated against fate, his voice breaking, his speech muffled, and right at the moment when you could almost sense his lower lip quivering, German football specialist Andrés Salcedo stepped in to put things in perspective. Unlike Candal’s harsh Spanish accent, Salcedo’s northern Colombian diction was similar to Venezuelan, except mellower, gently sprinkled with a foreign touch that could be explained with his long residence in Germany and that in Venezuela at the time infused his commentary with an aura of distinction, of sophistication and, naturally, of erudition. Thus, as Brehme placed the ball on the spot, measured his run-up, took a deep breath, looked around and began his sprint Salcedo explained that the left back (Andy, he called him, never Andreas) was ambidextrous, recalled his powerful left-footed free kick against France four years before, brought up his wonderful right-footed goal against the Netherlands earlier in the competition, and that was it, he had no time to say anything else, because “Papaíto” Candal was back, shouting from the very top of his lungs (and then some) “gooooooooooooool”, as Brehme calmly rolled the ball past the right hand of keeper Goycochea, and Venezuelans learned the hard way what the English already knew: that the Germans hardly ever miss a pen’.


Brehme scores. Photo:

It was the 85th minute of the biggest match in four years, and the city of Caracas—usually a buzzing cauldron of tropical heat, chaotic traffic and South American effervescence—suddenly went silent. But not for long. Before the end of the game the first flat, isolated detonations announced the joy of at least a portion—however small—of the population. Once Codesal signalled the end of the tournament Caracas’s sky was speckled with a flurry of fireworks that could be heard a lot better than they could be seen (since it was just past four in the afternoon), and by the time Matthäus landed the first of many kisses on the cup the city was already covered in the cloud of smoke and the smell of powder that marked the beginning of a big celebration.


Traditionally, football has never been a major sport in Venezuela. Even today, after a progression of approximately fifteen years during which the national side has developed certain levels of respectability, baseball and basketball remain far more popular in the country. Initially considered a sport for European (and consequently white) immigrants, football took a long time to become organised in the country, and far longer to filter to the cultural roots of its people. The Venezuelan FA was only established in 1951, and the national football league has only been disputed since 1957. Back in 1990 Venezuela had only ever won a single match in World Cup qualifying rounds and one other match in the Copa América (both against Bolivia), Venezuelan clubs had never made it past the second group stage of the Copa Libertadores, and only two Venezuelan players had ever signed for a foreign club (Freddy Elie, 1971; Herbert Márquez, 1987).


And yet, since the dawn of the age of colour TV in 1970 Venezuelans have had a periodic, fleeting but explosive love affair with the World Cup in general (and with Brazil in particular, the sweetheart of Venezuelan football fans ever since the image of Pelé being carried on the shoulders of his teammates was chiselled in the memory bank of an entire generation). Every four years the spark of that relationship is rekindled with the sort of fierceness that can only be found in neutral fans, undaunted by the prospects of their team progressing to the final stages of the competition and driven only by a hedonistic desire to partake in the most emblematic global party of them all.


Milla, Cameroon’s dancing ambassador. Photo:

In 1990, the World Cup fever started in Venezuela even before the tournament, with the infectious tune by Gianna Nannini seemingly getting more radio playtime than Sinead O’Connor. In the best style of true purists, Venezuela fell in love with every underdog—and no team was more of an underdog than Roger Milla’s Cameroon. Suddenly geography lessons at school dropped their regular programme and were tailored around the games scheduled for each day: I recall the name Yaoundé from those days, though I still have trouble pinpointing it on a map and have never learned how to pronounce it properly. Flag sales for the most random of nations reached all time highs and the likes of Colin Hendry (aka “Highlander”) and Toto Schillaci became instant cult heroes among the younger generations. Brazil’s exit to the hand of archrivals Argentina was mourned with the same intensity as Colombia’s demise to the Indomitable Lions was celebrated, and as it became evident that Diego Armando Maradona would be the sole bearer of Latin American pride allegiances switched rapidly and the vast majority of the country turned albiceleste.


Not that this was particularly evident on the night of July 8th after Brehme’s penalty sealed the fate of an Argentinean side that had exhausted its luck in the penalty shootouts of the previous two rounds of the tournament. That night, Caracas was brought to gridlock by the sheer volume of people and cars that emerged from all neighbourhoods to have a party. At least that was the landscape on the eastern portion of the city, where I—a ten-year-old child—rode with my father in his small Fiat Uno, sporting my cotton replica Adidas Germany shirt, elated beyond measure to see my team win and at the same time confused to find so many others joining in my delight. To top things off, the traffic, now at a standstill, gave me the chance to detail the people around me, men and women of all ages waving flags from all over the world—flags of Spain and Italy, of course, but also flags of Mexico and Portugal, countries that hadn’t even made it to the World Cup, and other countries I didn’t even know existed. I asked a girl with a flag tattooed on each cheek—Germany on the right one and Argentina on the left one—what team did she support and she simply said she didn’t care. “Why are you here, then?” And her answer (“To celebrate! Here, have a beer”) left me mystified for years.


But it also provided me with the tools to understand—many moons later—how Lázaro “Papaíto” Candal could go within seconds from almost breaking down over the prospect of seeing a penalty unjustly awarded against Argentina to shouting like there was no tomorrow once Germany had converted that very same penalty. Had my ten-year-old self asked Candal why he was shouting he would likely have answered the same thing as the girl with the two flags on her cheeks: “To celebrate!” Because football is a celebration of life, and goals are the culmination of a collective effort towards that celebration, and as such should always be recognised with a healthy dose of enthusiasm. By the same measure, the World Cup is a celebration of football, and the culmination of that celebration comes when the winner of the tournament is allowed to hold the cup and present it to the rest of the world watching. Venezuelans were watching closely in 1990, and all the while they revelled in the opportunity to bring and share joy, just for the sake of it.


Over the last two decades football has grown exponentially in the country, to the point where a victory on the pitch—which once would have been a landmark in itself—is no longer enough to bring joy or even satisfaction to the thousands of fans that now follow the sport: it has to be accompanied by the right performance. This progression results from the institutional stability and infrastructural investment that has allowed the national side to improve to the point where our dreams of someday reaching a World Cup are now coated with a glimmer of legitimacy. Venezuelan football has been moving in the right direction for a long time, and this can only be a good thing—but all progress comes at some expense, and the price to pay for realistic expectations is the extinction of the purest form of support for the beautiful game. Never again will Venezuelan fans live a World Cup like my generation did Italia 90—but don’t expect many of us to be looking back nostalgically when the Venezuelan national anthem is played in Russia in three years’ time!




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