June 08, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) The coach of Venezuela's national soccer team criticized President Nicolas Maduro's bloody crackdown on protesters in the wake of the country's first-ever trip to a World Cup final

Rafael Dudamel's comments Thursday came after the shooting death Wednesday of a teenage protester. Dudamel spoke hours before he led Venezuela's Under-20 squad to a semifinal victory over Uruguay.

''President, it's time to put down the weapons,'' Dudamel said Thursday in post-game comments broadcast on TV from South Korea, where Venezuela will face England in Sunday's final.

''Today a 17-year-old has filled us with happiness, and yesterday a 17-year-old boy was killed,'' said Dudamel, referring to Samuel Sosa's injury-time equalizer that forced the match into a shootout, and the death of teenager Neomar Lander during an anti-government demonstration. ''These kids that go out on the streets, the only thing they want is a better Venezuela.''

Dudamel, who also coaches Venezuela's senior team, has complained in the past about the difficulties fielding a competitive team amid so much economic and social turmoil. But the former goalkeeper has largely stayed clear of politics, preferring to hold the ''Vinotinto'' (for its red, wine-colored jerseys) as a model of national unity in a country beset by deep divisions.

His latest comments are the most forceful yet and are likely to run afoul of Maduro, who never misses an opportunity to celebrate the team's success.

''Our boys of the Under-20 Vinotinto are the pride of a dignified fatherland, forgers of great victories,'' he said in a message on Twitter earlier Thursday.

High-ranking officials have blamed Lander's death on the explosion of a homemade mortar in his hands as he was preparing to launch it at security forces trying to control a violent protest in Caracas. But video circulating on social media showed him being carried away by paramedics bleeding profusely from a highway where police had been firing on protesters. The chief prosecutor's office has opened an investigation.

The level of soccer in Venezuela has improved over the past decade, but the sport still struggles to get the same attention and sponsorship as baseball. Dudamel took over the senior team a little more than a year ago after 15 players threatened to quit over what they thought was a lack of support from Venezuela's soccer federation. The team has already seen its hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup dashed, having won just a single game of the 14 played in the South American qualifying round.

But the junior U-20 team has been the sensation of the tournament, breezing through the early stages with the best offense and least number of goals allowed.

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