Jose Torrealba: The Venezuelan who graced South Africa’s shores

The sights of varying nationalities in the UEFA Champions League is not a headline grabber, after all, the current format when starting out had a multidimensional imprint to it boasting over nationalities in the lineup. In fact, the first goal in this new iteration was scored by a Nigerian born in Kaduna, Daniel “Owafem” Amokachi, “the Black Bull” for Club Brugge against CSKA Moscow on November 24, 1992. It was the only goal.

The AFC Champions League is also following this template, with winners since the start of the decade boasting multinationals from varying continents, a crossbred between Africa, South America, Europe and Asia; Bafe Gomis, Asamoah Gyan, Elkeson, Muriqui and Marcelo Lippi have stamped their authority on Asia’s biggest competition in their own way. The story isn’t as similar in South America and Africa.

Africa is particularly much alien to the concept of players from other continents triumphing in its tournaments.

This is not for the sake of wanting. Since the turn of the century, Many CAF Champions league winning coaches have been mainly European; Manuel Jose is Portuguese, Partrice Carteron, Diego Garzitto and Bertrand Marchand are French, Michel Decastel from Switzerland has lost a final, as Bulgaria’s Mitko Dobrev, France’s Denis Lavagne, Germany’s Theo Bucker, Poland’s Antoni Piechniczek, Belgium’s Walter Meeuws and Bosnia’s Mehmed Bazdarevic, Carlos Roberto Cabral, a Brazilian lifted the trophy in 2002 with Zamalek.

There is indeed diversity, however, there has been not a single non-African lining up in those teams as a player. The export nature of the continent the probable cause. Yousef Belaili, last year’s best player moved to Saudi Arabia within weeks after triumph, Flavio Amado, Vincent Enyeama, Mbwana Samatta, Stopilla Sunzu and Roger Assale are others to tow the CAF Champions League to greener pastures route. However, there are exceptions as with every case.

The story begins off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, North of South America, in Acarigua, Venezuela, known only for producing Luis Antonio Herrera Campins, the Venezuelan President from 1979 to 1984.

Before his tenure, Venezuela were ragged in football, a total mismatch for its rival. They had recorded only three competitive wins, two in the Pan American Games with the other in the Copa America.

It was during his tenure the Vinotinto recorded their first FIFA World Cup Qualification win, against Bolivia. It ultimately proved a false dawn, but the jinx was broken. Jhuan Arango, Jose Manuel Rey and Luis Vaelenilla would prove the first of two generations to attempt to alter that landscape, in this midst of diamonds was one José Antonio Torrealba born in Acarigua.

At 19, Torrealba was a hotshot in the Venezuelan divisions, scoring fifteen goals in forty appearances for Universidad de Los Andes, who misfired in the 1999 Copa Libertadores. Soon, the whizkid tag would fade away and football’s brute nature would reveal itself to young Torrealba. With options limiting and time racing, Torrealba headed South to the Rainbow Nation to be part of Patrice Motsepe’s new project under coach Angel Kapa. Torrealba is ready for this session as he adjusts, eager to reminisce his time in South Africa.

“I met Miguel Gamondi, a friend of my manager who worked as a physical trainer at Sundowns,” Torrealba tells AFHQ when asked how his surprise move materialised.

“I gave my video to Gamondi who showed it to Kapa and they offered me a contract. I accepted because of the opportunity that South Africa represented to get to Europe. This country was the host of the next FIFA World Cup, it was not difficult to accept the challenge.”

It yielded instant rewards, with Torrealba scoring in his second league outing away against Ajax Cape Town before a two-month wait was terminated by a fine finish against Umtata Bucks. Goals against Supersport United, Black Leopards, Golden Arrows, Dynamos and Tembisa Classics would follow and total seven in the Premier Soccer League as Sundowns clinched League glory.

It put him third on the scorer’s chart, one behind Sandile ‘AK-47’ Ndlovu and four behind Brazilians legend Surprise Moriri, his friend and partner in crime.

The attacking trio contributing twenty-six of Masandawana’s forty-five. It could have gone differently, with the player initially admitting it was difficult to adapt to the lifestyle upon arrival.

“Off the field, it was difficult for me to adapt to life because many things worked differently in Venezuela: transportation, store schedules and pharmacies. It took almost 2 months to meet fellow Venezuelans.

“It happened with the help of the embassy. It made things easy. I and my family were thrilled with the lifestyle.”

In the Cups was where he etched his name in the hearts of Brazilians, scoring the third penalty in the Telkom Charity Cup against Bloemfontein Celtic, before another virtuoso performance against Ajax Cape Town, his regular prey, first in the SAA Supa 8, then in the League Cup Quarter Finals, where he would score the equalizer and then get subbed off, a dose for subsequent penalty shootout heartbreak.

Masandawna faithful will never forget his brace against Bloemfontein Young Tigers that took his goal tally to ten as he ended as the club’s second top scorer that season. It seemed the perfect tonic for Sundowns as they sought continental glory.

But they came unstuck at the playoff stage, falling like a pack of cards to eventual Champions Al Ahly, but Torrealba had terrorised and tortured defences on the continent up till that point.

Using his speed and trickery in demolition jobs against Despacito Maputo and Royal Leopards but he concedes that Ahly were a class above the rest.

“Al Ahly were the hardest team I faced in Africa,” Torrealba explained. “Although the Clásicos between Kaizer Chiefs and Pirates and Sundowns were also very special and demanding.”

Torrealba’s move to South Africa in 2005 was the cue for further international involvement, making his debut in a friendly against Ecuador, scoring the consolation goal in a 3-1 loss.

South Africa was his coup de grace, and he rode on the crest of the wave. His four goals for La Vinotinto would come while he donned the Yellow of Sundowns, tagged the Brazilians, Ironies haven’t been better defined. His CAF Champions League form had proved sufficient to earn him a shirt at the 2007 Copa America, earning Richard Paez’s number 7 shirt. Venezuela topped their group before crashing out against Uruguay in the Quarter Finals, it would prove his peak, as he returned home to Deportivo Tachira after the tournament, one facilitated by personal and club reasons.

It was the spring in the step for the national team, who went a step further four years later. He would return to Mzansi not long after, signing for Kaizer Chiefs, a team he felt he could have given more too.

“During the World Cup I renewed my contract with Kaizer Chiefs I thought I would have more opportunities but I almost didn’t play, I had to watch many games even from the stands, a situation that as a foreign player was very uncomfortable for me,” he admitted.

“I loved South Africa, the delegates of Chiefs were very good to me and my family but not being able to play made it very difficult.”

Regardless, Torrealba encourages South Americans to head west for more adventures; “it’s a very colourful and organised game in South Africa. The glamour of Sundowns, Pirates, and Chiefs, their culture of winning, fans, a great organization. Look at Sundowns, they want to go to a higher level. ”

Ambition

The great institutions of football don’t offer more than this. History, organization, tradition and a Fanbase. Now, there is Gaston Sirino, Jose Ali Meza, Mauricio Affonso, Leonardo Castro and Ricardo Nascimento.

All have played for Sundowns, with Castro, now at Chiefs. Torrealba may have ignited the fire of a generation, and maybe for those who can’t go to Europe, Mzansi is the next option.

Afterall, what is the difference between Diski and Djinga…