Copa America footballers aim to bring 'joy' to Venezuela

Belo Horizonte (Brazil) (AFP) –


Venezuela's players are hoping to give their long-suffering countrymen a rare taste of "joy" when they play Bolivia knowing that victory would qualify them for the Copa America quarter-finals.

Venezuela made history in this competition following Tuesday's 2-2 draw with Brazil by becoming the first team ever to start the tournament with a pair of goalless stalemates.

Between their two matches against Peru and Brazil, Venezuela have seen their own net bulge five times, but every time the goal has been ruled out, four times by VAR.

It means that a victory over Bolivia in Belo Horizonte on Saturday will send them into the knock-out rounds.

And the players know that would be a welcome boost back home in a crisis torn country wracked by five years of recession, shortages of basic necessities and a political tug-of-war between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido.

"We have the opportunity to give some joy to our country at a time when the people need joy," said forward Fernando Aristeguieta, "even if it is just for a few days."

Venezuela is suffering a profound humanitarian crisis with a quarter of its 30 million population in need of aid, according to the United Nations.

People face shortages of food and medicine while public services such as water, electricity and transport regularly fail.

Inflation is expected to reach 10 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, while the UN says 3.3 million people have left the country since the start of 2016.

And in the middle of that, Guaido, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as interim president, is trying to force Maduro from office, having branded the socialist leader a usurper over his controversial re-election last year.

"Everyone knows the situation the country is in. The best thing would be to bring happiness to all our people," said midfielder Junior Moreno at the start of a training session on Friday night at the SESC Venda Nova complex.

- 'Sport unites, politics divides' -

Some of Venezuela's players, including Aristeguieta, having spoken out in the past about their opposition to the Maduro regime.

"Sport is an activity that unites people and politics divides us, that's why it's not good to mix the two," said Aristeguieta at Friday's pre-match press conference.

However, he's not planning on curbing his own activism that has seen him take part in protests when back home.

"We footballers are citizens ... and we have the right to take part in the debate," he added.

Given the bitter divisions at home, it can be difficult for the national team to stay out of it.

Coach Rafael Dudamel was angered following Venezuela's 3-1 friendly victory over Argentina in Spain in March when Antonio Ecarri, Guaido's representative in the European country, posted pictures to his Twitter account from a meeting with the team.

Dudamel offered to resign and accused Guaido and Ecarri of "politicizing" the visit.

Venezuela's federation chose to keep him on though after he promised to ensure the team would represent "all Venezuelans."