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Last Updated: Monday, 25 June 2007, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Football tries to tackle Venezuela
By James Ingham
BBC News, Caracas

High in the hills above Caracas, in the middle of one of the city's barrios, or poor neighbourhoods, a group of boys is full of excitement.

Children playing football in Caracas (Photo: Hector Riazuelo)
Young Venezuelans are keen to pick up football skills
About 30 boys, aged between seven and nine, have turned up for football coaching.

One tiny lad wears a shirt that almost drowns him. It is an obvious hand me down. Another boy's green socks show through holes in his scruffy shoes.

But what they lack in kit, they make up for in enthusiasm.

I love football as it has more passion than other sports
Cristobal Ramos
Football fan

"I come here because I love football," said eight-year-old Luis Julio Janis. "I want to play for Venezuela when I'm older."

I can imagine him achieving his dream. He is one of the handiest players on the small concrete pitch.

'On the up'

This is grassroots football in a country where, unusually for South America, the sport is not number one. Here, baseball and basketball come first.

Venezuelan footballer Jose Rey (front) controls the ball in front of coach Richard Paez during a training session
Venezuela's only win in the Copa America came in 1967
But with the Copa America football tournament being hosted in Venezuela over the next three weeks, football fans are hoping this will change.

"I love football as it has more passion than other sports," Cristobal Ramos told me at one of the capital's sports bars.

"Football is on the up. The Copa is increasing interest."

On of his two friends from Colombia, Gonzalo Perez, agreed.

"Typically there's a rivalry between Colombia and Venezuela in everything," he said. "But in football there's more 'now'.

"Venezuelan football has risen to a new level."

Teething problems?

After years in the doldrums, Venezuela's national team is getting better results and more teams are now involved in the domestic leagues.

"More people actually practise football than baseball, but baseball is better organised and managed like a business," said Hans Graf, who has written two books on the national team.

Barquisimeto stadium
It's perfectly acceptable - only the chairs are missing
Felix Ducharne
Head of stadium inspection team

"There are isolated examples of good management, but as a whole, there's still something missing."

This is the first time Venezuela has held the Copa America, so it has lots to prove.

Perhaps inevitably though, there are some problems.

The government has invested about $1bn on infrastructure, including three new stadiums. They have been built quickly, but one in the western city of Barquisimeto is not quite finished.

"It's perfectly acceptable. Only the chairs are missing," said the head of the inspection team, Felix Ducharne.

Excitement

Tickets have also been hard to come by, with many people suspicious that the government has been holding them back for their supporters.

A woman walks past a billboard of Guaky, the mascot of the Copa America 2007, in Maracaibo, Venezuela
Venezuelans have been heavily encouraged to support their team
"I spent six hours on the phone for four days trying to get tickets but I only ever got a recorded message," Mr Graf said. "So I tried the internet, but that didn't work either."

Despite the potential problems, there is excitement in the country. Venezuelans are keen to show off to the rest of the continent and prove they can be serious rivals.

"Obviously, Brazil and Argentina are favourites," said the general manager of the organising committee, Oswaldo Narvaez.

"But Venezuela has a lot of fans. They're the 12th player in the camp."


SEE ALSO
Tim Vickery column
25 Jun 07 |  Internationals
S America urges Fifa to lift ban
15 Jun 07 |  Americas
Fifa bans high-altitude football
28 May 07 |  Americas
Tim Vickery column
12 Mar 07 |  Football

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