As Violence Rages In Venezuela, Athletes Call For Peace

Fresh off the country's greatest soccer triumph, calls for an end to repressive government violence grow louder

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Jun 09, 2017 at 11:30 AM ET

Venezuela is a South American sporting outlier: one of the world’s great suppliers of baseball talent while remaining the only nation in its continental soccer federation to have never played in a World Cup. The team has already been eliminated in qualifiers for the 2018 edition, too.

That’s why Thursday’s victory in the semifinals of the international Under-20 tournament has already been called “Venezuela’s greatest achievement in world football.” National team coach Rafael Dudamel, a former goalkeeper for the club, has taken over the reins of the U-20 team as well because of its importance as a talent pipeline.

Dudamel, however, could not solely bask in his squad’s accomplishment or look forward to its Sunday final against England—not against the backdrop of a grave recession back home where food and medical supplies are in dire need and the government is violently cracking down on protesters. This is all happening under the directive of repressive president Nicolas Maduro, who’s asserting the power of authoritarian rule in defiance of the country’s constitution.

So after his teenage forward, Samuel Sosa, scored a remarkable free-kick goal in injury time to force penalty kicks in the semis victory over Uruguay, Dudamel could not ignore the news headline back home that trumped his team’s spot atop the sports page: a Venezuelan teenager, Neomar Lander, had been killed while protesting, making him at least the 66th to die since April.

“Please, put down the weapons,” Dudamel said at his postgame press conference. “Today a 17-year-old has filled us with happiness, and yesterday a 17-year-old boy was killed. President, put down the weapons against these kids that go into the streets, the only thing they want is a better Venezuela. The only thing they want is to enjoy life.”

Supporting Dudamel was Tomás Rincón, the 29-year-old senior national team captain who earlier this year joined top Italian club Juventus, which played in last weekend’s Champions League final. Rincón shared the video of his coach’s comments on Instagram with the caption, “Totally agree with you, sir, this is the message.”

🇻🇪 Totalmente de acuerdo contigo mister, este es el mensaje @rafaeldudameldt

A post shared by Tomás Rincón (@tomasrincon8) on

Again, Venezuelans are using the platform granted them via sports to speak out, following the example of more than a dozen major league players who recorded videos to condemn the violence in their homeland. And sports is a language Maduro understands and commends. He had already taken to Twitter to post a highlight video of the Under-20 Vinotinto—the team is called “red wine” because of their burgundy uniforms—and offer congratulations.

(Translation: “Our boys of the Under-20 Vinotinto are the pride of a dignified fatherland, forgers of great victories”)

Such praise is meaningless as Venezuelan athletes are clamoring for a far more important victory for their homeland: access to food and an end to violence.