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World Cup in the middle: Venezuelans use soccer to push political agendas

Soccer has become the latest target for Venezuela's beleaguered political opposition as it tries to use the World Cup craze to keep pressure on embattled President Nicolás Maduro.

Ramon Espinosa
A child wearing the team jersey of Argentina holds photos of soccer players he needs to get, to complete his World Cup sticker album in Caracas, Venezuela. While soccer has long taken a backseat to baseball and even basketball in Venezuela, the ritual of sicker collection still sparks a frenzy.

Soccer fans could certainly be forgiven for scratching their heads at the few hundred jersey-clad students taking to the streets of Caracas today, sporting Venezuela's national colors.

Venezuela's World Cup dreams died months ago when the Vinotinto failed to qualify for this year's games in Brazil. But those at the opposition-organized rally today aren't rooting for their home team; rather, they're trying to jump-start the stalled protest movement by capitalizing on World Cup passions.

"We didn't make it to Brazil, but we're representing Venezuela in the streets," says Samuel Ramirez, a political science student sporting the national soccer team jersey and waving the Venezuela flag. "We have to remind everyone that while they stay home watching the World Cup, things continue to get worse."

While inflation and crime climb in Venezuela, the crowds of thousands of antigovernment protesters that took the streets earlier this spring have dwindled in size. Demonstrators’ dreams of ending 15 years of socialist rule have, for the moment at least, suffered the same fate as Venezuela's national squad.

But soccer has given the beleaguered political opposition a fresh tool of choice. Even Henrique Capriles, the opposition's de facto leader who was initially cool on the idea of street protests, is piggybacking on the soccer craze in order to keep pressure on embattled President Nicolás Maduro.

The two-time presidential candidate and his supporters are flooding social media with a "Red Card" campaign, which highlights the country’s challenges from street crime to the struggling economy and rampant corruption. A red card is a penalty given out in soccer games, and in the campaign's context it compares Venezuela to teams facing off in Brazil that day. Here's an example from the US vs. Portugal game.

While members of the opposition are trying to use the tournament to focus attention back on antigovernment protests, some say the Maduro administration is banking on it as a distraction. For example, the government announced long-overdue inflation figures this month – making Venezuela home to one of the highest inflation rates in the world at over 60 percent ­– about an hour after the World Cup opener.

But will the opposition’s hopes to pry Venezuelans away from their TV sets actually work?

"Impossible!" says Elias Rodriguez, a schoolteacher hawking World Cup stickers to fans watching yesterday's Brazil vs. Cameroon match in an affluent shopping mall.

"Don't get me wrong, things are still bad here," Mr. Rodriguez says, citing continued shortages. "But now [the opposition] is competing with passion," and Venezuelans are far more concerned with the fate of their favorite World Cup teams than politics, he says.

Rodriguez says it's a toss-up if protesters stay on the sidelines or head back to the streets. However, one thing is certain: If protesters return en masse, "it will be after the World Cup."

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