By Jordan Florit.
Pelé and Romário of Brazil. Alfredo Di Stefano and Gabriel Batistuta of Argentina. Names from ages past — the great goalscorers of South American football who will be known for years to come.
Others such as Diego Maradona and Zico boasted tallies many elite strikers across the world could only hope to reach, but whose legacies are built on more than just goals.
Today, the out and out goalscorer still exists, but the skillset is increasingly becoming just one facet of the multidimensional athlete today’s strikers are demanded to be. Sergio Agüero and Luis Súarez, both considered relentlessly goal-hungry strikers, are likely to hit 500 career goals each before their time is up, yet it is the celestial Lionel Messi, above any generic position in a 4-3-3 or the like, who has over 700.
A consistent churning out of goals, wherever they are scored, tends to get a player noticed. However, at the top of South America, in the country with the smallest footballing pedigree on the continent historically, a man with 320 goals and the records such a number invariably brings went largely unheralded outside of his homeland: the Venezuelan striker Juan García Rivas.
Born in Tumeremo, Bolívar State, on 16 April 1970, the natural sporting path for García would have been baseball. Football in Venezuela was still struggling to take hold among the native population, with many of the country’s biggest teams founded in the middle of European migrant communities and stuffed full of their countrymen to the detriment of the small pool of local Venezuelan talent.
Teams like Deportivo Español, Deportivo Portugués, Deportivo Italia, Unión Deportiva Canarias, and Deportivo Galicia had all won league titles in the 14 seasons of professional football that preceded García’s birth. In that time, there had been just two Venezuelans to finish as the league’s top scorer, compared to nine Brazilians, two Spaniards, one Uruguayan, and one Argentine.
Born a year later than García was a man many consider to be the most talented Venezuelan footballer of all-time: Stalin Rivas. Also from Bolívar State, Rivas said that it took the import of Chilean and Portuguese labourers to expose him to the game in which ‘all the players were behind the ball’.
Meeting with him in his favourite restaurant in a Caracas shopping centre, he told FUTVE English for WFi how football had caught his attention having grown up playing his father’s choice of sport, baseball.
“Workers arrived to build the Guri Dam and a camp was made for them,” he said. “We had never seen football before. They marked a pitch out and played in front of us.”
The dam, also known as the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant, was originally built between 1963 and 1969, but by 1976, the demand for electricity had risen so much that the construction of a second dam began, inadvertently changing Stalin’s life and exposing children across the state to the Beautiful Game.
Where baseball had taken hold in Venezuela due to the influence of an influx of American labourers brought over to staff the facilities of US petroleum giants like Shell, now economic migrants from Europe and fellow South American countries were starting to level the playing field.
Three days after his 19th birthday, García scored his first professional goal, setting him on the way to — at one point — becoming the fourth-highest active goalscorer in the world.
“I remember very clearly my first goal as a professional,” he recalls. “It came in Calabozo, Guarcio, against Arroceros de Calabozo. It could be my favourite, despite scoring against even the World Champions, because as the first one it is the one that started everything.”
He scored the goal for Minerven del Callao, where he would spend the first eight years of his career, ending his time there with the 1996 Venezuelan League title, the first of four he would win before retiring some 18 years later at the age of 44.
Remarkably, his next two league titles came in the following two seasons, both with different clubs, meaning in a three-year spell, García won three titles at three different teams: Minervén (1996), Caracas FC (1997), and Atlético Zulia (1998). Yet his first season as the league’s top scorer wasn’t to come until the new millennium.
At the end of the 1999/00 season, 11 years after his first professional goal, García finished the season at the top of the scoring charts for the first time. It took 24 goals for Caracas – his second spell at the club – to win the accolade.
“I’ve always valued precision,” García says. “As a child, I was a striker, so the goal has always been my objective, but even as an amateur I had a hard time being accurate.
“I learned to master the art with the passing of my career. I started practising my finishing with real purpose and began to see the results after many years of work.”
By the time it had been recognised with a Golden Boot, García was 30 years old. It had been seven years since he had leapt higher than Cláudio Taffarel to meet a long punt upfield and nod a dropping ball over the goalkeeper’s reaching fist to score Venezuela’s first goal against Brazil in a World Cup qualifier. It may have come in a 5-1 defeat, but Brazil had gone three games without conceding and were on route to winning the 1994 World Cup.
🗓On this day in 1993, Juan García became the first Venezuelan to score against Brazil in a World Cup qualifier.
⚽️García is Venezuelan football’s all time leading goalscorer with 320 goals. He finished the league’s top scorer 5 times with 5 different clubs & won 4 titles. pic.twitter.com/4hVdZfmUCi
— FUTVE English (@FUTVEEnglish) August 1, 2020
“It was a great year for me,” García said of his 1999/00 campaign. “I also finished top scorer in the Copa Merconorte, so undoubtedly my experience and the work I had put in over the years was vital to those two achievements.”
Yet, his 30-goal season didn’t coincide with silverware for the club. In fact, despite winning four league titles and finishing the league’s top scorer on five occasions, only once did the two accomplishments overlap. It came in the 2001/02 season, by which point García was 32 years old and with his sixth club.
Once more, his stay at Caracas lasted just one season. After a brief spell at Deportivo Italchacao, García moved 12 hours away from the capital to the state of Táchira, bordering Colombia. For one season, he brutalised defences alongside international teammate Giancarlo Maldonado, scoring 34 goals in 33 games for Nacional Táchira.
In the league’s final, a two-legged tie with Estudiantes de Mérida, García’s performance had everything his nickname warranted. El Lagarto was his moniker — The Lizard, or rather, The Alligator. As a coldblooded striker capable of stillness and speed, García could spend large spells of the game seemingly inactive, but with the slightest chance of a goal, he would shoot into life — and often past the ‘keeper.
“García was the typical caimán [alligator] striker, a No. 9 who didn’t waste a chance in the area,” says Gabriel Morales, a Venezuelan football journalist from Táchira. “The caiman striker no longer exists; a No. 9 always staying in the area, waiting for a ball to come in to strike it.”
“Mind you, García wasn’t ever wasting a ball. That’s why they compare him to an alligator. Sometimes he’s quiet and seems harmless, and suddenly he kills you.”
The fact there was a popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon character called El Juancho Lagarto (better known as Wally Gator in English) also helped the nickname along.
With 32 goals to his name heading into the final — already a new record — it didn’t take much of the first leg for García to build on it. With exactly two minutes on the clock, a poor pass out of defence was intercepted by García’s teammate, who released him with a quick pass. He took one touch on the turn and his second was a thunderous shot from the edge of the box that left future Venezuela manager Rafael Dudamel without a second to leave his feet as it whizzed past him and put Nacional into an early lead.
His second came seven minutes later, and this time he didn’t even take a touch. A long ball forward was helped on in the direction of García, who let it bounce once by his side and then again before smashing it before it hit the ground for a third time. Dudamel was once more helpless to the ferocity of the strike.
Despite the early two-goal lead, the final wasn’t settled until a penalty shootout after a 3-3 draw over the two legs. With 89 minutes played of the first leg, Nacional were three goals up — and had been since half time — but an own goal was then followed by a converted penalty in the 93rd minute, and an unimaginable goal scored by Estudiantes’ Colombian centre-back Diego Valdés from his own half, just seconds later. Of course, García scored his shootout penalty as Nacional won 5-3.
“That season was very special for several reasons: the goals, the team, the city, the players, and the achievements we had,” Garcia said. “After that year, I never again had a performance like it. Scoring that number of goals was something impressive, and today it has still not been beaten.
“That team was, is, and will continue to be very special to me. I achieved all that I was able to as a professional footballer. It really was very special and unforgettable.”
Not for the first time in García’s career, however, it was over after just one season. Despite the title win, it was to be the end of Nacional. Halfway through the 2002/03 campaign, they withdrew from the league out of financial necessity. The money had run dry.
While it was unprecedented for a reigning champion to dissolve, something not too dissimilar had happened earlier in García’s career. Having won the 1998 league title with Atlético Zulia, also against Estudiantes in the final, the club were then sold to Universidad de Los Andes FC, resulting in Atlético Zulia changing name, badge, kit, and location.
Juan García Rivas, mejor conocido como el Lagarto Juancho. pic.twitter.com/nHdalPm4PT
— Dom Ugas (@DomUgas) June 26, 2020
Nacional’s disappearance didn’t slow García down, though — nor did his advancing years. He finished top scorer again for the following two campaigns, both times with Mineros de Guayana, having moved to the club halfway through the 2002/03 season after 18 games with Monagas SC.
That season, one particular solo display stood out, but García wouldn’t say that it was his best ever. On just his third game for Mineros, García grabbed his first goal for the club; in fact, he grabbed his first five, singlehandedly dismantling Carabobo with a 12-minute hat-trick, adding a fourth and fifth eight minutes apart later in the game to take the score to 5-0. Carabobo managed to score three in the final ten minutes, but nevertheless lost 5-3. The other three games that day saw a combined two goals.
“I had already done it before with Minervén against Deportivo Tuy,” he says. “It was the second time I had scored five in a game, and I don’t think it was the best performance of my career.”
Neither of his top-scorer triumphs with Mineros would result in a league or cup title and nor did his fifth and final one with Deportivo Táchira in the 2005/06 season, but they continued to make history; not only for his growing record but for the clubs he scored them for too.
At the end of the 2002/03 season, just a year on from playing in the final, García found himself in the relegation playoff. Finishing second from bottom, Mineros had to face Unión Lara, who had finished second in the Segunda División. Mineros drew the first leg 2-2 away from home with García getting both the goals, leaving them a home leg to conserve their top-flight status. A 2-0 win sealed their safety.
Given his tremendous goalscoring abilities, a career abroad was surely deserved, yet he spent time at just one club outside of Venezuela, Colombia’s Deportivo Pasto. It was nothing more than a one-season sojourn at the age of 36, but García is still grateful.
“It was a nice experience because we played in the Copa Libertadores that year,” he recalls. “I had several offers from Europe and the US, but unfortunately they couldn’t be finalised. I never had an agent or a representative. It’s not an excuse, but it could have helped.
“There was the possibility to go to France, I even had the plane ticket, but in the end I didn’t even travel. What I want to tell you is that I did not reject any offers. I was always willing. Various reasons meant the transfers never materialised.”
Sadly, it wasn’t just a move to Europe that García missed out on. Although 50 international caps are nothing to be smirked at, arguably, it could and should have been many more. After his 30th birthday, García featured in just three competitive internationals: the full 90 minutes of a 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Ecuador on 15 November 2000 in which he scored, 30 minutes in a 3-1 World Cup qualifying victory over Ecuador on 13 October 2004, and then, anomalously, 70 minutes of a 1-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Bolivia on 6 June 2009, at the age of 39.
Between 2001 and 2007, the international team was completely revamped by Venezuelan football legend Dr Richard Páez. The revolutionary manager led the country to just its second competitive victory in eight years, since a 2-1 win over Ecuador in September 1993 (a game in which García scored), its first-ever winning streak (an unprecedented four games), its first Copa América victory since 1967, and its first advancement through the competition’s group stages — those last two achievements coming in 2007.
“It was crazy to beat all of them,” Páez said of their four back-to-back victories, speaking to FUTVE English in 2019. “It was the first time we had won an official game away.
“How do you explain that? This is called transformation; we transformed the mentality of the Venezuelan player, we knew how to give them a feeling of confidence and rebellion, overcoming our fears and facing every team in the same way. We stopped looking up at our opponents.”
Sadly, that transformation did not involve García, despite finishing Venezuela’s top scorer four times during Páez’s reign. “You’d have to ask the coaches at the time why they didn’t take me into account throughout that stage of my career. Even though the numbers backed me up to be there, it wasn’t like that.”
When Páez spoke to FUTVE English in 2019, García was not a topic of conversation, but Páez’s tactical philosophy was, and from that, an assumption can be drawn.
“The national team did not have a Venezuelan-born coach like me before,” he said. “I was the first to lead us in competitive matches and it was a challenge; a challenge I was prepared for because I was mentally ready.
“I was going to take that other [attacking] way of playing with me, convinced, because I had tested it with Estudiantes, that it was the best way.”
Instead of setting up to avoid embarrassment, Páez set about picking the best technical players available for each position with the aim of playing with the ball.
The shape that became their default from which all systems would be played consisted of two full-backs with the freedom to play down the wings, one anchorman paired with a midfielder to move the ball from the back to the front, three No. 10s, and a false nine.
“My only conception was to have an attacking approach that defended itself by having the ball and I aimed for that by having five players who were good with it,” Páez added.
Perhaps García was seen by the coaches as El Lagarto, the stealthy and deadly striker who was happy being quiet and predatory. Perhaps García was viewed as too much of a #9 to be considered capable of operating as a False 9.
It didn’t, however, subtract from his legacy. Páez’s near seven-year tenure in charge of the national team came and went, and García kept scoring. Just weeks before his 39th birthday, García scored his 250th and 251st goals to become the top active scorer in the whole of South America. It was March 2009. They may have come for Zamora FC but they were scored in his home state of Bolívar in a 3-2 victory over Mineros de Guayana.
“I felt everything; a lot of pressure, anxiety, the pain of expecting it,” García said of the wait for goal 250. “In that time period, I didn’t know how to handle the anxiety. I spent more than 15 days being unable to sleep.”
Somebody should have told him another 70 goals beckoned.