In the west of Venezuela, 500 kilometres from the capital, Caracas, Barinas’ Zamora FC have become the Liga FUTVE’s biggest exporter of players overseas. El Blanquinegro, presided over by Adelis Chávez, brother of the former president of the country, Hugo Chávez, have sold 17 players to clubs around the world since Jhon Murillo’s 2012 departure to Benfica.
It is an impressive list, as well. Of the 15 players (two have left on two separate occasions), 12 of them have represented Venezuela at senior or U20 level, and a further one, Gabriel Torres, has 83 caps for Panama and was in their World Cup 2018 squad, starting in their 2-1 defeat to Tunisia.
Venezuela are yet to qualify for a World Cup finals, so the same cannot be said for the several former Zamora players who have represented the senior side, but four played a prominent role in La Vinotinto’s recent Copa América 2019 campaign, which saw them reach the quarterfinals in Brazil and go 278 minutes before conceding, including clean sheets against both the eventual finalists, Peru and the hosts.
Of their 23-man squad, just two play football in their homeland – defensive midfielder Arquímedes Figuera of Deportivo la Guaira, who had only returned from a spell in Peru in January, and Zamora’s 22-year old goalkeeper Joel Graterol. With such an illustrious record developing on the transfer front, the young ‘keeper may be the next big thing to come out of Barinas.
“He can still become more,” Zamora fan Leopoldo Taylor believes. He has been following the club, which was founded 17 years ago, since 2008 and goes to games regularly.
“I love the way he carries himself. I really like the effort he puts into every game, the way he goes for the ball; I think he can be Venezuela’s second-choice ‘keeper after Wuilker Faríñez.”
“He needs to play outside of Venezuela. He has done everything asked of him at Zamora, and as a fan I could not ask for more either. I think Brazil or Argentina is well-suited to him.”
Joining Graterol in Brazil were former Zamora players Yeferson Soteldo (Santos, Brazil), Yordan Osorio (Porto, Portugal), Ronald Hernández (Stabæk, Norway), and Jhon Murillo (Tondela, Portgual).
Although a late call-up to the squad, following visa issues preventing him from joining La Vinotinto at their pre-tournament training base in the US, Soteldo was picked out as one of the country’s best performers at the Copa, despite being limited to just 95 of the 360 minutes they had at the competition.
“His work was great,” Marie Ferro, a football talk show host for Meridiano TV and Difusión Latina, told me. “He created a lot of opportunities, opening spaces, dragging markers, and unbalancing the other team, and he also helped the defence when they needed him.”
A substitute in all four games, the diminutive trickster made an impact every time he was introduced, including setting up Josef Martínez for his goal against Bolivia. Also assisting that game was Hernández, who drove down the flank from right-back before crossing to the far post for Darwin Machís to head in.
Osorio was part of Venezuela’s most resolute performance of the Copa, partnering Mikel Villanueva at centre-back, and managing to hold firm in a game that saw Brazil take 19 shots, hit the target just once, have more than one goal ruled out by VAR, and also see a goal chalked off due to a foul in the build-up. He then missed the final two games through a knee injury, leaving many fans wondering what if? after his excellent man-of-the-match display.
Murillo was trusted to start in three of La Vinotinto’s games, only dropping to the bench for the final group game against Bolivia in which he was introduced in the second half. His hard running and willingness to track back made him an invaluable asset to head coach Rafael Dudamel and kept more creative players, such as Soteldo, on the bench.
Since Venezuela’s quarterfinal exit, Zamora have continued to trade on the international market, with Erick Gallardo and Christian Makoun leaving for Toronto FC and Inter Miami respectively, and Antonio Romero joining Royale Union Saint Gilloise of Belgium on loan, with an option to buy.
While Toronto fans have every right to get excited about Gallardo, scorer of the goal that won Zamora the 2018 Apertura, Makoun is the player being touted as the future defensive lynchpin of the international team; an eventual heir to La Vinotinto captain Tomás Rincón, even if not in the exact mould. In January, for example, he wore the armband at the U20 South American Championships, 18 months on from being part of the squad that got to the U20 World Cup Final, losing 1-0 to England.
Joining David Beckham’s MLS franchise, which will start competing in 2020, Makoun not only has experience of playing in Europe already, having spent last season on loan at Juventus’ U23s, he also has access to a European passport courtesy of his Belgian-based Cameroonian father – a stumbling block for many South American players with the continent in mind.
However, Zamora’s ability to do business this way isn’t comparable to, say, Southampton F.C.’s development of youth players who are then sold at high profits, such as Luke Shaw, Gareth Bale, and Adam Lallana. In Venezuela, academies haven’t existed in the same manner as they do in Europe and those that do are fledgling and rudimentary. Instead, players tend to join professional clubs at 15 or 16 years of age.
This route was – roughly – the case for 10 of the 15 players in question, with the exceptions being Gabriel Torres, Juan Manuel Falcón (who had been playing professionally for six years before he joined Zamora and then French side Metz two years later), Anthony Blondell, Danny Pérez, and Romero. Those five had all played professionally elsewhere before joining Zamora.
This is why, rather than being similar to Barcelona’s La Masia or Ajax’s De Toekomst, Zamora is a footballing halfway house; a finishing school where some of La Vinotinto’s brightest stars have passed through on their way to Europe, the MLS, and the bigger leagues of South America.
By Jordan Florit (@TheFalseLibero), author of upcoming book “Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion.”
You can preorder his book through Kickstarter. Link Below:
It is worth noting that Anthony Blondell was playing for Monagas SC when he was sold to Vancouver Whitecaps, being co-owned by Zamora FC.