Chile, La Roja. The breath of fresh air in what was a mostly stagnant 2010 World Cup – the neutral’s favourite. It’s probably fitting then that their nickname is El Equipo de Todos (Everybody’s Team).
And yet despite receiving plaudits and appreciation from all over the footballing world, this is a team that historically is not very far away from controversy. Incidents in the Chile team range from a player infamously feigning being hit by a firework to banning some of their best players for “breaching internal discipline” – the Chilean Football Federation phrasing nicely what was also described as a “drunken rampage”. The days of Biesla maybe over but at the very least you can expect something entertaining and exciting from this young Chile team, even if it does happen off the field.
Long before Patricio Yáñez was crotch thrusting to Brazilian fans, Chile was always a footballing country. By South American standards it began its life in the sport quite early, the Chilean Football Federation (FFC) was founded in 1895. This makes the FFC the second oldest football association in South America, trailing 2 years behind Argentina’s AFA.
In a sense this gained Chile a head start but Chile in comparison to Brazil and Argentina it is a small country, its population is similar to that of the Netherlands and so are its football fortunes. Both are countries punch above their weight, trading in a lack of resources in place for their own particular style and the help of technical skill. They both have a similar population, around about seventeen million. That comparison dies quick when you consider that unlike Chile, the Netherlands actually have won a trophy, the European Championship of 1988. The Chilean national team is still without a trophy in major competitions, including the Olympics.
The Copa America is Chile’s greatest chance to win silverware, but it’s always exceedingly difficult when you have to face the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay on the way. Yet in spite of that Peru, Paraguay and Colombia have all lifted the trophy. If you take into consideration too the results from the pre-Copa America tournament, the South American Championship, then you’ll even have to add Bolivia’s 1963 win in to the equation.
When you expand to look at the domestic game it becomes apparent once again that Chile are certainly an underachieving team. The countries’ biggest club is Colo-Colo, one of South America’s biggest clubs, and yet they have only won the Copa Libertadores once, in 1991. They are the only Chilean team to manage it so far.
Yet in spite of their poor historical results, there are reasons for Chile to be cautiously optimistic this year. This is perhaps one of Chile’s better squads in recent times. In fact it’s probably their best since 1998’s Marcelo Salas inspired squad that negotiated through the group stages of the ’98 World Cup. The team, that also included Internazionale’s Iván Zamorano, was knocked out by Brazil in the first knockout round. Eliminations by Brazil are a reoccurring theme for Chile; the Seleção also ended their 2007 Copa America and 2010 World Cup campaigns.
This year their team is young, talented and hungry. Looking at the probable squad, as indeed many scouts will also be doing, and there are some stand out names. Alexis Sánchez is the star man who will understandable be garnishing all the attention from fans and from opposition defenders but their squad goes beyond that. Sánchez was one of the young players for Chile who excelled at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup, with Chile taking a predictable third place finish.
The other young players include Alexis Sánchez’s Udinese colleague – the versatile Mauricio Isla, Atalanta’s young defender Carlos Carmona who helped Atalanta return to Serie A in Italy, Gary Medel former of Boca Juniors and now of Sevilla, and Arturo Vidal who is plying his trade in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen.
That Class of ’07 eventually lost out to the strong Argentina U-20 squad. It could end up that that young Chilean batch will face up against some of their Argentine rivals from that year once again: Sergio Romero, Éver Banega, Sergio Agüero, Ángel di María, and Maximiliano Moralez are all likely to be included.
There is also 25-year old Matías Fernández, the classy Sporting Clube de Portugal playmaker who is capable of sublime pieces of skill at times. It may have been a poor season for Sporting, but Mati has been one of the few players that have still shone. The ex-Villarreal man has scored in both games under Chile’s new boss, Claudio Borghi, who took over from the popular and innovative Marcelo Biesla.
Chile as a team has come along way, there were some very dark periods as recently as 2002, and the Chile national team had a FIFA ranking of 84. This put Chile below Kuwait, Kenya, Canada, Cuba and Haiti. It was a strange year for Chile; they only played one international game that year, a 2-0 defeat to Turkey due to their failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. A look at the graph of their FIFA rankings shows a steady increase, when you consider their opponents for this year’s competition; they rank only behind Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
Of course, you can’t talk about La Roja without mentioning Chile’s darkest ever point will almost certainly be the infamous incident that happened in 1989 involving Roberto Rojas. It’s reads and looks like something straight out of pro-wrestling.
In a World Cup qualifying match against Brazil, there was a firework thrown onto the pitch by a Brazilian fan in the Maracanã stadium. Rojas immediately fell to the ground, writing in apparent pain, and selling the bump well. Like any good wrestler, he had a hidden blade; the Blade Rojas had been in his goalkeeping glove, which he used to cut himself to add to the effect. Understandably the other Chilean players and the referee reacted furiously – they hadn’t seen the incident take place, only the aftermath. Patricio Yáñez was the player most outraged, deciding to crotch-trust towards the Brazilian fans, which became later know as the “Pato Yáñez”. 1998 Shawn Michaels would have been proud of it all.
The game was stopped soon after, and then the replays showed the firework had clearly not hit Roberto Rojas. The result was given to Brazil (they were 1-0 up at the time anyway), and the Chile team was banned from the 1994 World Cup. Rojas was given a lifetime ban, as was the coach, team doctor, and then captain – Fernando Astengo, for pulling his team off the field.
Of course, an incident like this probably won’t happen again this year. In fact, Chile have a tough group to even qualify from, they’re in a Group of Death along side Uruguay, Mexico and Peru – teams of similar ability. Despite the team’s youthful talent, it’s more the safe bet would be that once again Chile progress through the group stages only to be soundly beaten by Brazil.