“While the chances of winning the title are limited, the opportunity of pleasing the fans watching you is in your hands. Luckily, Chile has grasped that”.
The above quote came from Johann Cruyff, writing shortly after Chile were eliminated from the tournament at the hands of Brazil. Following on from the group stage, the secular saint of beautiful football bestowed upon the South American’s the accolade of “the best team I’ve seen so far”.
If ever a side had reason to grasp the opportunity to please the fans at home it was Chile. Home had been devastated by a violent earthquake just 109 days prior to the start of the tournament and was in need of a potent tonic.
The tremors hit 8.8 on the Richter Scale, killed 5,000 people and damaged or destroyed around 1.5 million homes. Chile has never been a football mad nation in the way of Brazil or Argentina but this summer, it looked to La Roja to help ease the pain and mask the scars in a country torn apart by nature.
The team didn’t disappoint. In a group blighted by the negative Swiss and featuring the tournament’s longest of long-shots in Honduras the Chileans stood out. They dominated their first two group opponents before pushing the eventual champions Spain all the way despite playing with ten men for most of the game.
They did so playing a unique brand of passing, attacking football that at times verged on kamikaze. Three at the back, protected by one midfield anchor provided a platform for six attackers to express themselves at will. The wonderful Alexis Sanchez and hitherto unknown Jean Beausejour offered some sublime play out wide while Mati Fernandez and Jorge Valdivia showcased imagination and flair in the middle.
In the first two games Chile created chance after chance and the fact that both games ended with the score stuck at 1-0 flattered the opposition greatly. They were never ruthless enough in front of goal, a fact which would come back to haunt them.
The profligacy in the final third can be explained though. Star striker Humberto Suazo, top scorer in South American qualifying arrived at the tournament struggling for fitness having torn a hamstring in a warm up game. That he made the plane was miraculous enough but his brief appearances exposed the sad image of an excellent player begging his body to co-operate on the biggest stage of all only to be answered in the negative.
In the end they finished second to the Spaniards on goal differences which left them facing Brazil in the last 16. It was the worst possible opponent for a Chile side vulnerable to counter attacks and in the air. Brazil excelled in both departments and won 3-0, eliminating a team large numbers of neutrals were beginning to take to their hearts.
The fact that Chile sought to take on the role of South American entertainers in the face of Dunga’s dour, pragmatic Brazil was remarkable however. Livewire coach Marcelo Bielsa was wonderful to watch throughout and remained stubbornly wedded to his attacking philosophy despite overwhelming odds.
In addition to the flair on display, the likes of Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla showed an appetite and work rate to embarrass many of their French and English colleagues while defender Waldo Ponce regularly placed his body on the line for the cause.
The outrageously talented Sanchez was the star but this was a team effort inspired by Bielsa who made every member of this young squad buy into his vision of football to win and to entertain.
Later on this year Chile celebrates its bicentennial. The nation often eschews the stereotypical image of wild South American patriotism in favour of a more modest appraisal of their own standing. It has been said that the nation lacks confidence, stuck on the edge of the continent between the sea and the Andes.
Recent reports emanating from Santiago seem to indicate a change in the national psyche over the past few weeks. As Cruyff and the football world queue up to praise the national team, Chileans have begun to vocalise their pride in a squad drawn largely from the humble barrios.
Many say that the main legacy of this World Cup will be in proving to Africans that they can be first world, that they are not inferior and that they can achieve great things. The same may be said of Chile. In some small way Bielsa’s side has given 17 million Chileans something to be proud of.
The cover the national newspaper La Cuarta the day after elimination said it all:
“Thanks for everything, kids!” It cried.
With its key players still firmly in their 20s this team could continue to inspire and instil pride right through to Brazil 2014.