On January 23rd, while demonstrations were taking place throughout the country and Juán Guaidó accepted his constitutional duty to occupy the presidency, the second game of Venezuela’s baseball finals was being played. Reporters covering the League later declared that the players of both teams, though especially Leones del Caracas, were reluctant to go on the field, stating that it was not the time to be thinking about baseball. The game was eventually played after two hours of delay, making for an anticlimactic final, which Cardenales de Lara won. A few days later Maduro declared in a press conference that he personally intervened to force the players to take the field. Reporter Iván González stated that the players were afraid of being sent to jail.
Almost two years ago, Venezuela’s professional soccer football players devised a way of defying the league and the Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF) that was blocking their attempts to show solidarity with the student protests that were raging in the streets. The players had asked for a minute of silence to honor those that had died but the league declined. So after the initial whistle was blown both teams stayed put and had their minute of silence during the game, to the surprise and rage of television executives aligned with the government. These acts of defiance set off a number of other protests with players from the national team abroad chiming in through their social media accounts.
The players lined up at their spots and waited for the whistle to blow, after which they talked amongst themselves without touching the ball for ninety minutes.
Last Sunday, March 10th, the Venezuelan Football Federation again wanted to go on with another regular football weekend. The players had asked for the weekend games to be canceled and again their petition was denied. In Maracaibo, where the match between Caracas F.C. and Zulia F.C. was to be played, there hadn’t been any electricity in three days. The Caracas team had to deal with chaos at the airport to be able to reach the field. At the hotel, there was no air conditioning in their rooms, and the players were not able to eat well the previous days because most supermarkets and restaurants were closed. All things considered, their thoughts were not on focused on the football game. The Zulia players reported the same; the team captain, Evelio Hernández, challenged the league on his Twitter account, asking if they (and the federation) thought these were suitable conditions to be playing soccer. He received no reply. At the Pachencho Romero, Zulia’s stadium, there were no lights, no television, no air conditioning for the locker rooms. But the league said they had to go on and play.
So the players lined up at their spots and waited for the whistle to blow, after which they talked amongst themselves without touching the ball for ninety minutes. It was the most boring and most exciting 0-0 football draw you may ever witness. At half time, the delegate from the federation was reported to have gone to both locker rooms trying to threaten players into playing the second half, arguing that it was a disrespect to the referees. But they defiantly stood their ground.
Afterward I spoke to César Farías, co-owner of the Zulia football team, who I’ve worked with and know very well. He assured me that he is a coach before anything else, that he was on the side of the players and completely supported their gesture. There are no conditions in the country for a professional football match. Miguel Mea Vitali, the General Manager of Caracas, ex-national team member for many years, stated quite the same. He told me that the team fully supports its players and feels proud of them. It is not a coincidence that the only match where players took a visible stance was this one. It is no secret that these are two of the few teams not owned by enchufados, as we call in Venezuela the people close to the regime. Some of them, like Deportivo Táchira, are clearly linked to corrupt incomes, as investigative reporters have evidenced.
In a country that is dealing with disaster, their gesture may seem insignificant. Don’t think the players are not worried: the level of government persecution scares us all. Yet it is a marvelous example of how power dissolves if we don’t obey. The league and the federation can shout orders, the ref can blow his whistle until he turns red, but if the workers, which in this case are football players, don’t move, the wheel stops spinning. It’s non-violent protest at its purest.
It is no secret that these are two of the few teams not owned by enchufados, as we call in Venezuela the people close to the regime.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their clenched fist with a black glove during the Olympic medal award ceremony for the 200-meter race they had just placed first and third at, manifesting their support of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and leaving an image that still stands out today. In 1981 the Brazilian football club Corinthians, led by the legendary Socrates, began a movement of democracy in football that consisted of taking votes from every player for every team decision. It symbolically defied the military regime that controlled Brazil at the time. Most recently, at the US, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick fired up a storm kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
The players will most probably receive threats and be accused of “politicizing” a sporting event. Although trying to force players to make it seem like everything is normal -while it’s not- brings the sporting event right into the political court. Politics inevitably play out on the sports field. I am proud of our athletes who defend our country, not only playing for being part of the national team, but for setting an example to other workers around the country who are being forced to perform tasks against their conscience.