On March 10, 2019, Caracas FC and Zulia FC, two of Venezuela’s biggest clubs, took the field in the seventh round in the most recent first division season. The match began with the whistle, but the players did not play. Instead, they simply stood in loose formations, passing the ball around or chatting. The match, which would be postponed by the Venezuelan Football Federation, or FVF, and eventually marked down as a draw, was taking place in the midst of a crisis still unresolved at the time of writing: nationwide blackouts.
The said blackouts, though improved with time, plagued football matches across Venezuela and left many of top division clubs in conditions one would perhaps, at best, allow at Sunday League matches.
Seeing Caracas, one of the most respected clubs in Venezuela, take this action in the midst of a nation gripped by political conflict and violence, I couldn’t help but think about a film about Los Rojos.
The following section is a review of the film Hermano, directed by Marcel Rasquin. The movie, highly acclaimed within relevant circles, was Venezuela’s submission for “Best Foreign Language Film” for the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011. However, to talk about the film is to talk about Venezuelan football, a key vehicle for its plot, and to talk about Venezuelan football you must speak of Caracas FC.
Caracas is home to, as of 2019, five first division clubs, one of which may very well be the country’s biggest. While Venezuela’s limited history of success in the game may not be all that interesting, history reveals that Los Rojos have indeed paved a deep path in South American football.
The club has eleven first division titles, a large amount for a league that only turned professional in 1957 and saw many of its early clubs fold or collapse into the lower leagues by the time the 21st century arrived. The club also has five domestic cups, the last being won in 2013.
Caracas’ biggest trophy, however, is the sort of invisible trophy clubs from lower leagues fight for. The club doesn’t just have the second highest amount of Copa Libertadores appearances, beat only by rivals Deportivo Táchira, it also holds the record for reaching the furthest round in the Copa Sudamericana, the second-tier of continental competition in South America, in Venezuelan history.
Caracas lost that Round of 16 tie 4-1 on aggregate to Atlético Paranaense, who went on to win the competition, but their 2018 run was historic enough to overlap the slightly embarrassing result.
In a league struggling with finances and attendance, continental football has proven a hugely important part of Venezuelan football. Many of its best young prospects have earned moves outside of Venezuela due to either national team experience or positive showings in the Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana.
That legacy of success has also led the club to creating some of the standout Venezuelan footballers in the country’s history, from younger stars like Wuilker Fariñez of Millonarios in Colombia and Sergio Córdova of Augsburg, to more seasoned veterans like Josef Martínez, Juan Arango, Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, Fernando Aristeguieta, and Roberto Rosales.
All of this is to say that when you watch Hermano, Marcel Rasquin’s award-winning directorial debut, the chance presented to play for Caracas is not huge simply because the characters come from very little. It is huge because they are presented an opportunity to play with a club where finishing below the playoff line is utterly unacceptable and going six years, as they have, without winning a trophy has been a major point of contention.
For the average Venezuelan, a chance with Caracas is a chance to win titles, to explore the world, and to find the answers to countless dreams of football stardom.
(The following section contains spoilers for the film Hermano.)
Hermano, released in 2010, is the tale of two brothers, Julio, a biological son, and Daniel, adopted as an infant after being found by Julio in a dumpster.
When we next see the brothers, they are almost adults, edging toward the end of high school. Both play for the football club of their local barrio, La Ceniza, and have made it to the semi-final of the inter-barrio football tournament, winning the said match through a devilish set of plays created by both, with Julio setting up the attacks while Daniel dribbles and finishes two goals.
Their ability to combine and thrive earns them the attention of the local Caracas FC scout who attended the match. He invites them to a tryout the club will be hosting in several days. With both players wanting to play at the club and international level, the offer is met with joy and excitement.
Both return home before heading out to a party for the team. The film reminds us of how tight the brothers’ home life is when their mother asks Julio for extra cash so she can buy sugar, which she says, “has gone up again,” so she can make cakes to sell.
The film goes on to show us many aspects of the two’s lives, with Daniel chasing after his crush and Julio caught deep in the criminal network of a local boss named Morocho. La Ceniza’s goalkeeper, Max, is Julio’s day-to-day partner in crime and the two spend days harassing and threatening indebted caraqueños (people of Caracas). Despite their problems the two brothers continue to train and live life, both seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
The film finally shows us what all the excitement is for when Morocho helps Max, Julio, and Daniel sneak into a Caracas FC home game, where we’re shown a huge crowd, something more common at the time the film was made when Venezuela’s economy was vaguely stable, and a passionate match of Venezuelan football.
We suddenly see that things aren’t so simple as Daniel’s life starts to fall apart, with his crush pregnant with her boyfriend’s kid and seeking help, while Julio and Daniel’s mother is killed by accident when Max confronts several kids who previously robbed Daniel, though only Daniel knows he did it. Morocho also continues to reign over the story as a cruel Robin Hood, providing La Ceniza with new kits for the final shortly before breaking Julio’s hand for disrespecting him.
All the while, Julio and Daniel continue to fight for their dream, though Julio’s spirit has been brought low by the loss of his mother. They attend the Caracas FC tryout and impress, though Julio shows a poor temper, which leads to Caracas only offering Daniel a contract. He tells them to come to the inter-barrio final and see how good they are, proclaiming that he needs two contracts or no contracts.
Tensions are running high, as Max realizes Daniel knows what he did and Julio gets angrier at Daniel for not telling him what he knows.
The final arrives. A poor first half leaves La Ceniza in a deep hole but a magical second half from Julio and Daniel leads the barrio to a 4-3 win. In a mixture of joy and rage, Daniel finally explodes, running to Max and beating him to death. Morocho’s men rush the field to save Max. We hear gunshots while chaos covers the screen.
It is gameday and Caracas FC are lined up to face another club at home in front of an explosive crowd. The camera slowly walks by each player. Julio is the last face in the starting eleven. There are tears in his eyes. He marks a cross on his chest and takes a deep breath. Julio has made it.
Football has survived in Venezuela, much like the people it shares the nation with. As the country struggles against extreme poverty, economic collapse, high crime, and government abuse, football has had to fight its way into their hearts.
The crowds in Venezuela these days are rarely as big as shown in the film, with a worsened economy compared to 2010 leaving many unable to afford tickets. Yet, what remains is the story of Venezuelan footballers, the shared thread of struggle and survival. Venezuelan football has been defined by players who brawl their way to the top, players who came from little.
All of this is perhaps most true for those in Caracas, who in recent years has found itself the host of horrific problems, including stints as the murder and kidnapping capital of the world.
The Miami Herald reported last year that Caracas was the most dangerous capital in the world last year, citing an annual Serguridad, Justicia y Paz study which said Caracas had 111.2 murders per 100,000 residents in 2018.
This hasn’t stopped Caracas FC playing and thriving in the beautiful game. Indeed, Caracas as a whole is home to many of Venezuela’s best. So full is the capital that some of Venezuela’s top players from the city slip through the cracks, ending up in other parts of the country. Newcastle United striker Salomón Rondón is a prime example, born in Caracas only to debut professionally with Aragua FC of the neighboring state of the same name.
To make it in football you have to be strong. To make it in Venezuela you’ve all too often needed to be even stronger.
The nation of Venezuela is currently in a state of change, one that leaves observations like the ones in this article open to change. Despite this, Venezuelan football is in its heyday, with a miraculous U20 World Cup run in 2017 where they finished as runners-up, unprecedented success in both continental cups in recent years, and a largely improved senior national team.
Only time will tell how much a new era will change how the world’s game is played and watched in Venezuela. Perhaps, films like Hermano will eventually prove an archiving of the past, instead of an indictment of the present.