Tuesday, November 10, 2009

32 For 2010: Chile

The FIFA World Cup 2010 welcomes Chile to South Africa after they qualified in an impressive second place. This will be the first time they have qualified for the finals since 1998 (they were banned from qualifying for 1990 and 1994 after their 'keeper feigned injury during a qualification match against Brazil). While they have made seven appearances at the World Cup (including the first in 1930) the Chileans have never fared too well. Their best performance was as hosts in 1962 when they made it as far as the semi finals only to be knocked out by the eventual winners Brazil.

For most of us however, the most memorable Chile side was the one that played in France 98. The team boasted two exciting attacking players in Ivan Zamorano of Inter and the great Marcelo Salas who was a striker at River Plate in Argentina at the time. Salas proved to be the superstar that many pre-tournament experts believed him to be. He scored four goals in as many games. A record that was to seal a move to SS Lazio where he would go on to win the Scudetto.

Chile reached the furthest in France than they had in any World Cup since 1962. They finished as runners-up in their group and progressed to the knockout stage, however their run was cut short once again by Brazil in the Second Round. Unfortunately, the Chileans paid the price for failing to turn any of their draws into wins in the group stage of the tournament where they played Italy, Cameroon and Austria. While the first two teams provided stiff opposition, it was unforgivable that they failed to beat a poor Austria team. While they were enteraining to watch, they finished a poor second behind Italy and drew the short straw in the Second Round.

La Roja's qualification to South Africa 2010 has been aided in no small way by the goals of Humbarto Suazo. The 28-year-old has scored 39 international goals since his selection in 2006. He scored three in the 2007 Copa America and ten in the 2010 qualification campaign. Suazo was a prolific striker in Chile for Colo Colo and is currently banging them in for Monterrey in Mexico. Salas himself was still playing in 2007 and he scored in Chile's 2-2 draw in Uruguay. He retired in 2008 but his team-mates went on from strength to strength.

Most of the current squad are South American-based. A few are based in Europe. The goalkeeper Claudio Bravo plays for Real Sociedad, ex-Liverpool winger Mark Gonzales (now at CSKA Moscow) is coming up to 50 caps and West Brom fans would have enjoyed the versatile Gonzalo Jara's thunder strike against Leicester City at the weekend.

But the main man for the Chilean National Team is not a Chilean. He's the Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa. When the Chilean FA awarded the position of their national team coach to Bielsa, their was no small amount of controversy. There remains a great deal of antipathy between Chile and their neighbours Argentina and while Bielsa is an experienced international coach (he left the Argentina National Team position in 2004), the decision was not a popular one at first. However, as Rex Gowar reported in World Soccer magazine, he has become a national hero:

"Bielsa, a reclusive studious man who enjoys success but not the trappings has been talked about by politicians, psychologists and newspaper columnists to name a few. When he was discovered in the audience at a Santiago theatre, the applause for him a the final curtain was as loud as it was for the actors."

Bielsa is hailed as the coach who has instilled a great team spirit which in the squad. Under him, Chile won more matches in the qualification campaign than anyone else. If the South Americans can maintain that sense of togetherness and with a favourable group draw, they may go one better than the Second Round in 2010. At the very least they will be a team well worth watching next summer.

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