*With four different tournaments kicking off this summer (the Women’s World Cup, the Copa América, the Gold Cup, and the African Cup of Nations), Between the Sticks will preview one goalkeeper to watch from each tournament. The other previews can be accessed by clicking on the embedded hyperlinks.*
When they were 21-years-old, Humphry Davy discovered nitrous oxide, Stephen Foster wrote the traditional American song “Oh! Susanna”, Thomas Edison created his first invention (an electric vote recorder), and Steve Jobs co-founded Apple with Steve Wozniak.
And at age 21, Wuilker Faríñez has etched his name with those greats as the best goalkeeper in world football.
OK, that might be a slight exaggeration. With all due respect to goalkeeping, the position will never have the same cultural or societal impact as a scientific discovery or a technological advancement. But Faríñez’s accomplishments as a young goalkeeper are nothing to scoff at.
“He’s been playing football since a very young age,” said Adam Brandon, a South American football expert and reporter. “He actually made his club debut at 17 for Caracas FC, and he made his debut for the senior Venezuela national team at 18.”
While Europeans were occupied with teenage goalkeeping sensations like Italy’s Gianluigi Donnarumma and France’s Alban Lafont, the Venezuelan was making a case for himself as the best teenage goalkeeper in world football through South American play. By 2015, he was Caracas FC’s starting goalkeeper. By 2017, he was Venezuela’s number one.
Despite his young age, he’s already setting records at both the club and international levels. With Caracas FC, he went 689 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal, the longest clean sheet streak in club history. With Venezuela, he set a similar record when he kept a clean sheet for 213 consecutive minutes, which is the longest a Venezuelan goalkeeper has ever gone without conceding in a FIFA World Cup qualification. Faríñez is also the youngest Venezuelan goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet with the senior team (age 18 years and 3 months) and the youngest to save a penalty (age 19 years and 36 days).
“He’s already a key player for the senior side, and his ceiling is very, very high,” Brandon said.
In 2017, Faríñez made his first big splashes on the international stage. First, there was the South American Youth Football Championship. Faríñez opened that tournament with a 0-0 draw against Uruguay, saving a penalty in the process. He would go on to start in Venezuela’s remaining eight games. Faríñez conceded just six goals in those appearances; the fewest amount of goals conceded by a single starting goalkeeper in the tournament. Venezuela ultimately finished in third place—ahead of Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia—and clinched qualification to that year’s U-20 World Cup.
Although he didn’t receive the Golden Glove award, many viewers will tell you that Faríñez was the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup’s top goalkeeper. The Venezuelan, who was 19-years-old at the time, started all of his national team’s matches. He scored a penalty in a 7-0 win over Vanuatu, becoming the first goalkeeper to score a goal in a FIFA U-20 World Cup match. He also kept a clean sheet in all three of Venezuela’s group stage games, turning aside Germany, Vanuatu, and Mexico. In fact, Faríñez didn’t concede a goal until the quarter-finals against the United States. His clean sheet streak of 506 unbeaten minutes is the second longest consecutive run of its kind in U-20 World Cup history.
Faríñez particularly came in clutch during Venezuela’s final two games. In the semi-finals, he made four important saves and turned aside two more in a penalty shootout win over Uruguay. In the final against England, Faríñez conceded just his third goal in seven matches, tying him for the fewest conceded by a goalkeeper in the tournament.
“He was a key player in Venezuela’s run to the FIFA U-20 World Cup final in 2017,” Brandon said.
Those tournaments, coupled with his stellar play at the club level, led to Faríñez being recognized as the Venezuelan Primera División’s best goalkeeper for the second year in a row. It also earned him a move to Millonarios, one of the most successful clubs in Colombian football. As a result, more South Americans are keeping tabs on the 21-year-old.
“He’s certainly one of the young South American players I’m most excited about,” Brandon said. “I’m interested in seeing how he develops over the next decade.”
Faríñez’s potential is very high given where his skills are at today. While most fans would select someone like Alisson Becker or Ederson as the most in-form South American goalkeeper in world football, Brandon believes that Faríñez deserves that honour.
“If I was to name a South American best eleven at the moment, Faríñez would be my number one,” he said. “That’s ahead of goalkeepers like Ederson and Alisson.”
Brandon is not alone in his belief. Eduardo Saragó, who gave Faríñez his professional club debut at Caracas FC, called him one of the world’s elite goalkeepers. Furthermore, Venezuela head coach Rafael Dudamel has constantly praised Faríñez, even saying that he’ll be the national team’s starting goalkeeper for “the next 20 years.”
These praises haven’t been sung for nothing, though. Faríñez has earned them through consistent top-quality performances, including at the most recent FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
“Venezuela’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers got off to a terrible start, and by the halfway point they were completely out of the running,” Brandon said. “But what that meant was that Dudamel was able to bring a lot of the U-20 team—who were successful in the 2017 U-20 World Cup—into the senior set-up.”
One of these players was the teenage Faríñez, who ended up appearing in six qualifiers. These included games against Argentina and Chile, both of whom he played very well against.
“Faríñez was one of those players who really shone in the last few rounds,” Brandon said. “He was one of the main reasons why Argentina had to sweat it out until the very last day, he was one of the reasons why Paraguay didn’t go to the World Cup, and although he conceded three goals against Chile, Faríñez did save a penalty from Alexis Sánchez.”
His attributes were on full display in all of those games, including his superb reflexes and quick footwork.
“He can stop any kind of shot at any kind of angle at any kind of height,” Brandon said. “And because he’s so light on his feet, he’s able to get across his goal so quickly.”
One attribute most viewers of Faríñez will note when watching the Venezuelan is his size. With a height of 183 cm, Faríñez is on the shorter end of the goalkeeping spectrum. But while most would define this lack of height as a disadvantage, it can be argued that it actually benefits Faríñez.
“He has a light centre of gravity compared to a lot of other goalkeepers [as a result of his height],” Brandon said. “This means that he can jump up very quickly once he has made one save in order to make another.
“He quite often makes a quick succession of saves, one after the other, because he’s able to get up so quickly after making the first stop. With taller goalkeepers, that’s always a worry because they can take an age to get up after making a save.”
From a tactical standpoint, Faríñez’s main quality is his accurate distribution. Given his playing history and the requirements of the modern goalkeeper, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“He was a striker until he was 14 years of age, so he’s not scared of using his feet,” Brandon said. “He is comfortable with the ball at his feet, and he’s able to play both long and short passes with a very high accuracy.”
Like any young goalkeeper, Faríñez isn’t without his weaknesses. He has been criticized for his lack of concentration before, and some questioned his positioning on set-pieces and long-range attempts. These are likely down to his young age.
“You would expect the odd mistake from a goalkeeper who’s 21,” Brandon said. “I’ve heard people say that he sometimes leaves a bit too much of his goal open on one side [on set-pieces], but this could just be his goalkeeping style. He might just be tempting the opposition player to go there”
Faríñez will likely remind viewers of Jordan Pickford, England’s emphatic and passionate number one.
“Jordan Pickford would be a comparable example,” Brandon said. “He’s not the tallest of goalkeepers, but he’s able to recover from saves quickly and set-off a counter-attack through a drop-kick.”
Given all of his qualities, the question must be asked: Why haven’t any European clubs taken a chance on Faríñez?
“I’m surprised that he isn’t in Europe yet,” Brandon said. “I can only think he’s being discriminated against because of his height. I find it strange if he is, though. If you watched Faríñez regularly, you’d know that his height is not an issue at all.”
It’s also possible that Faríñez’s nationality is a factor. Venezuela are currently ranked 29th in the world; their highest ever FIFA ranking. But they’re the only CONMEBOL member to have never qualified to a FIFA World Cup, and they’ve often been described as the “whipping boys” of South America. With all due respect to Venezuela, their football factories are almost always overshadowed by those of the South American elite.
Research seems to support this theory. According to an October 2015 report from the CIES Football Observatory, Brazilians and Argentines make up the bulk of player exports worldwide. In fact, over 2,700 players worldwide—nearly 15% of foreign footballers in the world—are Brazilian or Argentine, and the two countries take up the top two spots on the worldwide footballer exports list. This is also the case in terms of player exports to Europe, where the only two South American nations in the top 10 are Brazil (1st, 1,134 players) and Argentina (8th, 338 players).
With that in mind, it’s possible that Faríñez is being overlooked simply because he’s Venezuelan.
“When it comes to European teams, Brazilian players are a lot more trusted and appreciated compared to other South American players,” Brandon said. “You can get two players—one from Venezuela and one from Brazil—who are of similar abilities, but it’s very likely that the Brazilian player is going to cost you more [just for being Brazilian]. So that certainly plays a part.”
Even then, European clubs have the resources and personnel available to unearth talents like Faríñez, so it shouldn’t be an excuse.
“With so many decent scouting operations in place in Europe, I would’ve thought that one of them would’ve seen Faríñez as a bargain,” Brandon said.
Whatever the case, the 2019 Copa América is the perfect opportunity for Faríñez to garner more worldwide attention. The tournament is often applauded for its openness; the last two Copa Américas were won by a 2018 World Cup no-show in Chile, and Uruguay are the competition’s most successful nation. It also helps that some of the tournament favourites don’t seem ready for this edition.
“Although Brazil are the favourites on home soil, they haven’t performed well since they’ve qualified for the 2018 World Cup,” Brandon said. “Argentina have a lot of issues at the moment, and Chile are in a transition phase, so it’s very difficult seeing them winning it for a third time in a row.
“That leaves a potential championship position open for a dark horse, and I think a lot of people will be looking at Venezuela.”
This aspiration highlights the new future of Venezuelan football. Despite the chaos that is South American football, Venezuela’s national team has displayed a lot of stability in recent years. Through head coach Rafael Dudamel, la Vinotinto have implemented a real structure into their play; something very few CONMEBOL sides can boast. Dudamel, as coach of Venezuela’s senior and U-20 teams, has been able to keep track of player development very closely, and that’s given Venezuela an advantage in terms of talent management. This has lead to the growth of their senior team, who now boast real chances at qualifying to the 2022 and 2026 World Cups.
“Venezuela have gone from the whipping boys of South American football to slowly becoming a force to be reckoned with,” Brandon said. “Whether they can pick up a shock Copa América win is a possibility.”
That ambition will largely fall on the shoulders of the 21-year-old Faríñez. Although this won’t be his maiden senior tournament (he was part of Venezuela’s squads for the 2015 and 2016 editions), this’ll be the first time he goes into the Copa América as the national team’s number one. How he performs will influence Venezuela’s chances.
“I expect Faríñez to be one of the stars of the 2019 Copa América,” Brandon said. “And if Venezuela are to have a successful tournament, I would put a lot of money on the fact that Faríñez would be their best player.”
And if Faríñez lives up to the hype, he should expect an increase of phone calls from European clubs.
Special thanks to Adam Brandon for his analysis. He is a South American football expert and reporter. He is currently based in Chile. You can catch him on Twitter through @AdamBrandon84 and through the South American Football Show.