Chile: The Unbalanced PowerhouseBy: Juan Mesa
HOW DID THEY GET HERE: The Chilean federation heard the fans right on time when they removed coach Claudio Borghi after match 10 of the CONMEBOL qualifying tournament. The team was losing at a record pace and was almost out of the race. New coach Jorge Sampaoli debuted with a 0-1 loss in Lima, but after that he led the team to four victories in a row, a draw in Colombia and a win against in Ecuador in Santiago. Chile got the direct flight to Brazil with a third place in the table.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Chile’s attack is one of the most aggressive in today’s game. Coach Sampaoli reinstated the model applied by Marcelo Bielsa for South Africa 2010, and the players seem to have found their natural habitat in it. They are fierce and intense. La Roja also touts a generation of skillful players—perhaps the best it has ever had—like Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez and Eduardo Vargas. On a good day, their style looks like a mix of Brazilian and German soccer.
BIGGEST WEAKNESS: The Chileans like to attack so much they often forget defense is also part of the game. Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo is world-class, but the weight of the match shouldn’t rest on his hands alone. Save for Gary Medel, the Roja defenders lose intensity in crucial moments, and the problem is even worse if you consider that fierce Medel is a frequent recipient of red cards. The uncertain presence of Juventus’ Arturo Vidal in Brazil—he underwent knee surgery six weeks before the tournament—is also a major concern for Sampaoli.
WORLD CUP CHANCES: Chile’s big challenge is in the group stage, where they need to face Spain, the Netherlands and Australia. If they make it through, though, the semifinals could be around the corner for a team that beat England and tied with Brazil and Spain in recent exhibition matches.
FUN FACT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Chile was one of the protagonists of the most infamous World Cup matches in history, when they hosted the tournament in 1962. The South Americans clashed with Italy during the group phase and both teams seemed to have come prepared for a martial arts exhibit rather than a soccer game. The game ended with two Italians expelled (one of them after receiving a punch in the face by a Chilean player) and a 2-0 win for Chile. A BBC commentator at that time described the scene as “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.” The history books call it the “Battle of Santiago.”
IF THEY WERE A SONG, IT WOULD BE: “Coming of Age” by Foster the People. That’s how Chile is going to feel if they remember that defending is a crucial part of any winning formula.