Venezuela's vino tinto earns respect in 'the country of baseball'

Its men's soccer team won just its second Copa America game in more than 40 years of the tournament.

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The country of baseball has succumbed to soccer.

The Copa America, the tournament played between the 10 South American soccer nations plus the US and Mexico, is taking place in Venezuela right now – and against all odds, it is a success.

The tournament has even rivaled this week's All-Star game in terms of interest.

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"If both the Copa America and the All-Star game were on TV at the same time, I wouldn't know which to watch," admitted Miguel Diaz, an architecture student and sports fanatic who is traveling the country watching Copa America matches.

That dilemma came Tuesday night when the big leagues faced off at the same time as Brazil played Uruguay. The diplomatic Mr. Diaz found the obvious solution. "I think I'll flick between the channels," he said with a smile.

Fans have packed stadiums, even though some are only half-finished, and Venezuela reached the knockout stages for the first time ever.

"For 40 years, we had no respect or dignity (for soccer)," says Domingo Carrasquel, a former professional with the L.A. Dodgers team and now the manager of a baseball school in the western city of Barquisimeto. "The Copa America has reawakened interest in soccer."

Traditionally, soccer has never rivaled baseball. Both sports were introduced at the end of the 19th century. But whereas British miners brought soccer to remote regions where the lack of people meant that it spread slowly, Americans brought baseball to the main cities where it caught on quickly, says Julio Ordaneta, the sports editor at El Informador, Barquisimeto's newspaper.

Later, Roman Catholic priests from Italy and Spain taught football in schools. But the schools charged a fee, which meant that soccer won a reputation as the game of the monied classes, while baseball was seen as the people's game.

There are growing pockets of interest, mostly in the areas near soccer-mad Colombia and Brazil, but Venezuela is still proud to call itself el pais de béisbol.

Unlike in the rest of the continent, there is a vibrant baseball league and baseball culture – and so many talented players that many play in the US major leagues, 42 according to one recent count.

But the arrival of the Copa America, the oldest international soccer tournament in the world, has popularized soccer. Venezuela has spent more than $1 billion to build, among other things, three new stadiums and renovate six others.

More and more Venezuelans are enjoying the game and supporting their team, known as the vino tinto, or red wine, because of its distinctive claret-colored shirts. And thanks to a new coach who has instilled some passion and respect in the national side, it is no longer a pushover.

Venezuela won just its second Copa America game in 40 years last week, and in doing so qualified for the quarter-finals for the first time ever. The team was eliminated by Uruguay, one of the region's powers, but fans were nevertheless proud.

"People used to wear baseball shirts on the street. But now that the vino tinto is doing so well, people are also buying soccer shirts and are happy to wear them on the street," says Mr. Ordaneta.

Venezuelans have even adapted their baseball chants to the new game. Fans at baseball games often chant "Home Run!" when a big hitter comes to the plate. Here, at free kicks and corners, fans have chanted, "Un Gol!"

The Copa America might be the first step in convincing baseball fans to change the channel, but Ordaneta says there is a still a long way to go. For no matter how much vino tinto they enjoy, in Venezuela nothing compares to the flavor of baseball.

"People who didn't know about soccer are now aware of it thanks to the Copa America," he says. "I hope one day we will be good at both sports. But football will never be bigger here. This is Venezuela, the country of baseball."

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