In the vast shadow of Maradona’s Argentine circus another less sensational yet no less fascinating story reached its climax as South American World Cup qualifying drew to a close. Chile, a nation of 16.8 million people with little pedigree in international football finished the tournament in second place, just a solitary point behind the mighty Brazil.
This Brazil, coached by Dunga, is functional and ruthless but seldom thrills in the way we expect from players clad in those famous yellow shirts. He is the arch pragmatist whose team are admired but rarely loved, even at home.
Chile on the other hand regularly produced moments of brilliance. Their success was characterised by high octane, attacking football from a side packed with imagination. With Argentina a potential basket case and Brazil happy to bore, those seeking Latin American flair may be wise to head straight to Group H and La Roja.
The reason for this is simple. Marcelo Bielsa.
The Argentine is a disciplinarian whose dedication became obsessive long ago. His tactics however betray a passion for open, attacking football that verges on kamikaze. Bielsa’s formation of choice is a 3-3-1-3. It uses two attacking wingers, one central striker and a traditional number 10 in front of three central midfield players. One of these sits deep while the other two seek to link up with the wingers to create overlaps on the flanks. The formation is designed to force opponents back into their own half and pressurise them high up the pitch when they have the ball. Fitness and tempo are crucial as is possession.
His style and character have seen Bielsa nicknamed El Loco. The reasons for this are clear to anyone who has seen one of his more bizarre press conferences. In spite of this, the respect he commands among footballers who play for him cannot be questioned.
“While you are sleeping, I am thinking of ways for the team to win” he once remarked to one player.
This tortured, thoughtful man began his coaching career at Newell’s Old Boys after injury curtailed an unremarkable career as a player. He moved on to Mexico before returning to his native country with Velez Sarsfield. In 1998 Bielsa was given a chance in Europe with Espanyol but after a few short months he was summoned from his plough. Daniel Passarella had left his job as coach of Argentina and Bielsa returned home to coach the national side.
Argentina qualified for the 2002 World Cup with ease, losing just once in eighteen matches and scoring forty-two goals. They were immediately installed as tournament favourites and arrived in Japan and Korea in high spirits. Then disaster struck. Defeat against England and a draw against Sweden saw Argentina eliminated at the group stage. Bielsa’s attacking system produced just three goals.
Argentina dominated possession and territory but lacked penetration. Both Sweden and England defended far better, particularly at the set piece than many of the sides they had faced in South America and went some way to matching Argentina’s tempo. While Bielsa went on to win Olympic gold and reach the final of the Copa America before leaving the job, the scars of World Cup failure remain.
In 2007 he was given the chance to exorcise those demons as coach of Chile. He took over a team still smarting from a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Brazil in the Copa America and beset by internal strife. Bielsa won the players’ trust quickly and successfully sold his project to the group. Building a team around the likes of the exciting Alexis Sanchez and the powerful Humberto Suazo, Chile qualified with ease, defeating Argentina in Santiago in the process. They won ten of their eighteen games and scored thirty-two goals. Bielsa is widely credited with revolutionising the game in Chile and the mindset of the country’s players.
In South Africa, Bielsa will attempt to guide Chile through to the knockout stages for only the third time in the country’s history. They certainly have the quality to go deep into the tournament but questions persist as to how they will deal with the European opposition in Group H. Such an attacking formation will surely leave them open to the counter attack against Spain, the most accomplished passing side in the world. Switzerland on the other hand offer a physical and aerial threat that Chile may struggle to defend. Their squad is small and often struggles under the high ball.
Bielsa seems concerned too and as the tournament approaches, the ghosts of 2002 may be playing on his mind. In Chile’s penultimate warm up game against Zambia he decided to experiment with a back four in an effort to improve the team’s solidity. It remains to be seen if the coach will remain true to his convictions and attack his opponents from the outset on the biggest stage of them all. Every neutral with a passion for attacking, passing football will be hoping he does and wishing him success. The image of South American carnival football may rest upon it.