By Gideon Long
SANTIAGO, (Reuters) - It was not too long ago that Venezuela were the laughing stock of South American soccer -- the team that never beat anyone and never won anything. Between 1967, when they made their Copa America debut, and 2007, when they hosted the tournament, they went 42 consecutive Copa matches without a win.
In the 1975 tournament, they were humiliated 11-0 by Argentina. Even more recently, the Venezuelans were a pushover. Brazil beat them 7-0 at the 1999 Copa America and 6-0 on Venezuelan soil in a World Cup qualifier the following year.
But those days are gone. As their gutsy 1-0 defeat of Colombia on Sunday showed, the Venezuelans are more than capable of holding their own against their South American neighbors.
“We took on one of the best teams in the world and we worked like little ants to make sure they didn’t surprise us,” coach Noel Sanvicente told reporters.
“We still need to improve but this historic result at the start of a Copa America is quite something.” Venezuela’s transformation into a respectable footballing team began in 2007 when they hosted the Copa. They were beaten by Uruguay in the quarter-finals but finished top of their group, undefeated in three matches.
More importantly, the event generated a soccer buzz in Venezuela, where traditionally baseball has been the more popular sport. At the next Copa America in 2011, the Venezuelans surprised everyone by reaching the semi-finals, holding Brazil to a goalless draw and beating Chile in the last eight.
Many of the players from that tournament are still playing. Oswaldo Viscarrondo is a towering force at the heart of their defense and Salomon Rondon, their goal scorer against Colombia, is their deadliest weapon up front. Crucially, their players are getting European exposure these days. Viscarrondo plays with Nantes in France and Rondon with Zenit St Petersburg in Russia. Three members of Sanvicente’s squad are based in Spain and another two in Italy.
Sunday’s victory sparked raucous celebrations back home and, in a politically polarized country, prompted a rare show of national unity. Both President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles tweeted messages of support for the side.
The “vinotinto” (red wine) -- as they are know for the burgundy-colored shirts -- still have progress to make. They have yet to qualify for a World Cup and their victory over Colombia was only their fifth in 56 matches at the Copa America.
But each year brings a new milestone -- last year they beat Argentina for the first time in their history and they face Peru in Valparaiso on Thursday looking to secure a place in the knock-out stages of the competition.
(Additional reporting by Rodrigo Charme in Rancagua and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Editing by Ed Osmond)