Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion
How many Venezuelans have graced the St. Mary’s turf? Two: Salomón Rondón four times and Fernando Amorebieta once. The former visited with West Brom on three occasions and Newcastle for the other, and the latter made one appearance for Fulham against us back in 2013.
It’s indicative of Venezuela’s impact and presence in the Premier League in general. In fact, Amorebieta was the first Venezuelan to play and score in England’s top tier, and he signed for the West London club as recently as 2013. His sole appearance against Saints, a 2-0 defeat with goals from Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert, was only the centre back’s fourth start and would transpire to be his sole campaign in the Premier League. Rondón’s time was more enduring, making 130 appearances and scoring 35 goals. Despite Adalberto Peñaranda and Williams Velásquez spending two seasons in the top flight with Watford, Rondón and Amorebieta remain the only Venezuelans to actually play in it. An impressive season on loan in Spain with Granada, in which they qualified for Europa League football, gives hope that Yangel Herrera, Manchester City’s 22-year-old Venezuelan midfielder, will be next.
So why did a Southampton fan decide to write the first English language book on Venezuelan football?
“My grandfather emigrated to England from Spain in 1962 and two years later my dad was born,” Jordan Florit, author of Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is becoming Venezuela’s Religion told SaintsWorld. “My dad grew up on Lordshill estate and told me he was the only kid in his class with a foreign parent and that he got bullied for it.” While Florit’s grandfather came to England, his brother swapped Spain for Argentina and neither lived in their homeland again.
“I lost all ties with my Spanish family a few years after my parents got divorced in the early 2000s,” Florit continued. “My grandparents both died shortly after, and that was that.” It left the future author with a bubbling desire to rediscover his paternal roots, which surfaced when he started studying Spanish at secondary school. With a strong passion for football, it was the obvious choice to help him along the way. “That’s when my interest in Spanish and Latin American football began. I’d watch La Liga games, or any from South America that I could, and I change the language settings on FIFA or Pro Evo to Spanish. It expanded my vocabulary, familiarised me with the language, and made me feel less distant from a part of my life I’d lost.”
As many of us do, Florit fell for the raw passion and artistry of Latin American football. One of the CONMEBOL nations, however, had far less going for it than the others. With no World Cup participations and a 40-year winless spell in the Copa América between 1967 and 2007, Venezuela’s seemingly absent football quality sparked interest in the young writer.
“It wasn’t until I left college that I started to read about Venezuela. I read a lot of books anyway and although I was no longer studying Spanish, I wanted to continue learning.”
After reading about most of the continent, including the glut of football books available on the football powerhouses of Argentina and Brazil, Florit found that when it came to Venezuela, a country of 30 million at the northernmost point of the continent, the vast majority of English language books focussed on Hugo Chávez, his political revolution, and their 19th century independence hero Simón Bolívar.
“There just wasn’t anything to read about their football ten years ago. It was a shame, but I had already grown fond of the country’s culture and intrigued by its current affairs, so I remained interested. In 2017, their U-20s reached the final of the World Cup and faced England. We won 1-0 thanks to a [Dominic] Calvert-Lewin goal, but for me the most interesting thing was Venezuela’s success in reaching the final and the press coverage it gave them – albeit small.”
The perpetual economic and political crisis the country has found itself in for the past decade and Florit’s continual growing knowledge of the country naturally led to friends and family turning to him with their questions each time the British media touched upon the topics.
“At the beginning of 2019, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition in Venezuela, declared himself president. It generated worldwide news coverage, and everyone had a lot of questions. It was just a continuation of the one-dimensional narrative we have on the country, though. It just plays out with all the typical Latin American drama of their telenovelas but with serious real-world consequences.”
Since 2016, Florit says, any time he’s been abroad, no matter where in the world it is, the only topic the locals want to discuss with him is Brexit. “It’s become the way we are viewed in the world now. Whatever side of the debate you’re on, we can’t escape it and its what foreigners want to talk about with us. Well its been like that with Venezuelans and their politics for over 20 years now. Imagine your country being distilled into one topic of conversation for the majority of your life. I wanted to add to it, to diversify the discussion.”
Football is The Beautiful Game, ‘much more than a game,’ as the saying goes, and more important than “a matter of life and death,” according to Bill Shankly. For a growing number of Venezuelans, it is no different, and Florit decided it was the best way of telling the world the stories of the culture and society beneath the headlines.
“Identity is one of the most important parts of football, if not the most. In England, we’re losing that a bit. The Premier League, Sky, and BT are increasingly and intentionally repackaging the game as an entertainment package above all else and globalising English football as a product. I’m not a fan of that even though its not all bad, but it is leading to an existential crisis at the heart of the game: the fans. In Venezuela, the national team has the value of identity that its people crave, need, and deserve. If they can qualify for a World Cup, it’ll be the population’s first positive representation on an international stage of any form, and that’s why it’s growing in popularity and importance in their society. With the book, I have tried to explore and examine Venezuela as a country using football as the method. It’s a book about football, but it’s also a book about the country, its communities, and its culture.”
Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion is available to order as of today, you can click here to do so. For free international shipping, use the code ‘RONDON’ at the checkout. The offer is only valid until Monday 3 August. You can also follow Jordan on Twitter – @TheFalseLibero. He runs @FUTVEEnglish, a new account dedicated to Venezuelan football in English.