When Chile begin their World Cup campaign against Honduras on June 16th it will have been just 109 days since the country was devastated by a huge earthquake.
The earthquake measured an awesome 8.8 on the Richter Scale, killed over 500 people and damaged or destroyed the homes of around 1.5 million others.
Events such as this put the World Cup firmly in its place in terms of importance but some commentators have ventured to say that football may have a role in the healing process currently underway in Chile.
Hopes are high among the Chilean people for a successful tournament. The national team qualified with ease and could be one of the surprise packages in South Africa this summer. Drawn with Spain, Honduras and Switzerland they have realistic hopes of progressing to the knockout rounds, something that would provide a welcome distraction for a nation suffering through a large scale reconstruction process.
Since the earthquake, the national team has sought to reconnect with the public and play in provincial areas affected by the disaster. Since the cancellation of two friendlies in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the team has played in the Northern towns of Coquimbo, Iquique and Calama. They also travelled South to play in Talcahuano, Temuco, Chillan and Concepcion.
Coach Marcelo Bielsa has worked hard to restore pride in the national team following the dismal spell which preceded his arrival and support for La Roja has grown massively. A recent survey conducted by pollsters Adimark found that more than 85% of Chileans believed that the national team helped foster unity in the country. The results also show that more than 71% of the country’s poor actively support the team. These are the people who suffered most in the aftermath of the disaster.
The team will train in South Africa under a national flag pulled from the rubble of a building in the town of Puyehue. The team cannot fail to understand who they are playing for when they take to the field in ten days time. They play for a nation desperate for a success they can share in and proud of the team’s expansive style. Chile longs for an excuse to celebrate.
In 1962 Chile hosted the World Cup just two years after an even bigger earthquake had hit the country. They reached the semi-finals and eventually came third, their most successful finish in any World Cup. If this team can offer the people at home a similar cause for optimism they will create a positive energy that transcends football.