- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (AP) - Venezuela’s unprecedented run to the Copa America semifinals has cut across the country’s deep political divisions.

The national team’s 2-1 victory over Chile on Sunday night dominated talk in Caracas, pushing aside speculation about President Hugo Chavez’s cancer treatment in Cuba.

Fans poured onto the streets immediately after the win, and fireworks filled the sky above the city of about 5 million people. In anticipation of the semifinal Wednesday against Paraguay, fans are proudly wearing the burgundy national jerseys that give the team its nickname “Vinotinto” (red wine).

It’s a rare show of common cause in a country where supporters and opponents of Chavez feud bitterly.

“Sports unite us. Politics divide us,” said Daniel Farinez, a 30-year-old security guard who has closely followed the matches in Argentina. The country seems “super united,” he said.

“I think Venezuela is going to end up the champion,” he added. “Venezuela is a team that’s inspired.”

The satirical Venezuelan website El Chiguire Bipolar _ which translates as “The Bipolar Capybara” _ posted a parody quoting politicians on both sides of the divide urging the country to put a stop to “the unity and the happiness surrounding soccer so that President Chavez can be talked about again.”

“It’s important for Venezuelans to remember the differences that we’ve worked so hard to emphasize,” the parody quoted one politician as saying. “It’s time for Venezuelans to hate each other once again.”

Chavez himself cheered the team’s victory over Chile in messages on Twitter. He said he watched the match along with former Cuban President Fidel Castro.

“I pay supreme tribute to our boys of the Glorious Vinotinto!!” read one message. “Viva Venezuela!! We will live and we will win!!”

A crowd watched Sunday’s match on a big-screen television set up in one Caracas plaza, and similar gatherings were being planned for Wednesday.

Venezuela has long been known for its standout baseball players, but interest in soccer has recently grown as the national team has improved.

The Venezuelan sports newspaper El Meridiano summed up a widely held view in a headline Tuesday: “Better physical preparation, tactical discipline and multiplication of talent placed Venezuela at the doors of a final.”

After Venezuela’s opening 3-3 draw against Paraguay, some fans said they expected a tough contest in the semifinals.

“The game is going to be very tight tomorrow. Paraguay is a strong team,” said Alberto Vazquez, a 60-year-old retiree who was wearing the Venezuelan team jersey in a Caracas plaza.

“We have hopes of at least getting third place,” Vazquez said. He added that if Venezuela were to be champion, there would be “four or five days of celebrations.”



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