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From thrashed teen to stardom

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina, July 20 – For most people, football is a game of two halves, but where Venezuelan goalkeeper Renny Vega is concerned his Copa America experience is a tall-but-true tale spanning three decades.

Vega, who plays for Caracas FC, is 32 years old and until this month was a perfect example of the sporting “journeyman” cliche.

If he was known outside his homeland it was only to the handful of fans at Italian side Udinese who may remember him from a non-playing spell there as a teenager while later stints at Bursaspor and Denizlispor in Turkey were barely more eventful.

While Vega played a blinder in the goalless opening draw with Brazil, since when the Vinotinto have gone from strength to strength, his Copa America debut is one he would prefer to forget – though it is illustrative of just how far the baseball-loving nation has come in the global game.

It was back in 1999 and again it was an opening match against the Brazilians.

The man from Maracay was between the sticks and had a box-seat view as the likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo bore down on his goal – regularly and to great effect.

Brazil won 7-0.

This time, Vega saved everything that Neymar, Robinho, Pato and company could throw at him – to the surprise of everyone except the man himself and his teammates.

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“We are not surprised. We came here humbly to get on with the job and that’s what we’re doing,” says Vega.

After Chile were dispatched in a historic quarter-final triumph, Vega told Argentinian daily Clarin the Venezuelans had been fired up by what they took as the arrogance of the Chilean media.

“They said the Venezuelans only know how to make soap operas. Well the game against their lot was the best soap opera of the lot!”

But the previous episode had been a bit of a cliffhanger as well, thanks to Vega’s stunning intervention at the ‘wrong’ end of the field.

Having beaten Ecuador in their second group game they were already guaranteed a place in the quarters as they went up against a Paraguay side who were not assured of further progress.

The experienced Paraguayans, regular World Cup participants, were 3-1 up as the clock ticked down before substitute Nicolas Fedor reduced the deficit in the 90th minute.

Then, with 93 minutes on the clock and the whistle almost in referee Enrique Osses’ mouth, up popped Vega to nod down a corner for Grenddy Perozo to throw himself forward and head home, preserving their unbeaten record.

“The bench told me to go up and head it and it was a good call,” Vega grinned.

In fact he is no stranger to rival penalty areas.

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Six years ago, stricken with a shoulder injury, he came on from the bench to play up front for Aragua FC and also showed similar attacking instincts on one occasion with Deportivo Italchacao.

Now the Paraguayans stand between the Vinotinto and a place in Sunday’s final.

Can they do it?

“Why not? That’s what we are fighting for,” said Vega.

“We are improving all the time. We stopped being Cinderella a long time ago.”

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