Venezuela's club football on the verge of historic breakthrough

Australia's new coach Bert Van Marwijk was quick out of the blocks. A week ahead of Monday's deadline he named his provisional 32-man squad for the World Cup -- to be whittled down to 23 by the time the competition kicks off.

The members of his squad are strewn across Europe and Asia, with very few based at home. Just five players make their living in the country's A-League, the competition launched in 2005-06.

The then eight-team A-League got underway just as Australia ensured qualification for Germany 2006, ending an agonising 32-year wait to return to the World Cup. More than a decade on, Australia have moved from Oceania to the Asian confederation, and have become regular World Cup qualifiers. The domestic league, meanwhile, has expanded to 10 teams and is going through a stage of consolidation. But the fact that it is home to so few of the national team is indicative of the difficulties of launching a domestic league in today's globalised football environment.

There is a clear CONMEBOL example in Venezuela. Right up in the north of South America, the country felt a considerable influence from United States sports. Baseball is the traditional pastime, with football historically linked to immigrant communities from Europe. But there was always an underground interest -- which came screaming to the surface at the start of the century when the national team started doing well.

Traditionally, Venezuela had taken the field in the mere hope of keeping the score down. But a bolder approach started to pay-off. They strung some wins together in World Cup qualification, and football became the sport of the future.

In 2007, Venezuela hosted the Copa America for the first time. Huge investments were made in building new stadiums or refurbishing existing ones. On the back of all this development, the first division was expanded from 10 to 18 clubs.

But then came the problem. This process had been kick-started by the success of the national team. But that very success had put the players in the shop window. They were now being sold abroad, to Europe as well as across South America. This had its benefits for the national team -- the players were picking up valuable experience and losing their inferiority complex.

But it was not so good for the revamped domestic league. At the very moment when it would have been useful to have the best Venezuelan players at home, doors were opening for them to move abroad. And so the bigger first division, with its new stadiums, was short of star attractions, and short of quality as well.

The consequences are clear from a glance at results in the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. Since that 2007 Copa, there have only been two occasions when a Venezuelan club has managed to get out of the group phase. Every other country can point to a better record. There has been no great leap forward at club level.

The national team, however, have shown some interesting progress. The work carried out at youth levels is paying off. Last year Venezuela reached the final of the Under-20 World Cup. It was an astonishing achievement, and a stepping stone -- it is hoped -- on the way towards both qualifying for and shining in a senior World Cup. The best players, though, have already moved abroad. And with the country's current economic problems, the incentive to move is all the stronger.

Every little bit of good news at club level, then, needs to be celebrated. In the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent, Caracas have made it through to the second round, beating Everton of Chile. But the most surprising achievement has come in the Libertadores. Deportivo Lara of Barquisimeto have inherited one of those brand new stadiums built for the 2007 Copa. Their home, the Metropolitano, is highly impressive, although somewhat inconveniently located on the outskirts of town.

In the current Libertadores campaign, the stadium has already played host to a pair of surprise wins over big name opponents; Lara beat Independiente of Argentina 1-0, and Millonarios of Colombia 2-1. Next week they host Corinthians of Brazil. A third consecutive home win would put them in genuine contention for a place in the knockout round -- which, all the circumstances taken into consideration, would be one of the biggest shocks in the history of the Libertadores.

It would also act as an inspiration to all those nations attempting to launch their domestic league in the age of globalisation.