After an enthralling 2012 the Chilean Primera División was set to kick-off on Friday evening, only for disorganisation, the nasty habit of South American football, to throw the league into disarray for 24 hours.
SIFUP – the players’ union led by Carlos Soto – emerged on Monday and demand the postponement of the first week’s round of fixtures. The reason was two-fold: SIFUP were unhappy with the debts accrued by a number of clubs with players still due money and with the reduction in substitutes allowed from seven to five.
A meeting with Carlos Jadue, president of the ANFP, on Tuesday saw the two associations reach an agreement with debts set to be paid to players, and the number of substitutes remaining at seven.
Yet, that has only been the icing on the cake in terms of disorganisation in the close season with uncertainty as to how the structure of the league will look come June. Between January and May there is a Torneo Transición. But as of yet, due to disagreements between the ANFP (Chilean football federation) and broadcasters, there is no clue as to what the ‘Transición’ season will transition into.
There has been talk about ridding the league of the play-offs, which create intense excitement, for a more straightforward, European structure. The ANFP have also spoke of their desire to see the top division reduced to 16 teams, rather than the 18 it is now.
As for the Torneo Transición it is simple: there is one round of games and the team that finishes top wins the Championship and qualifies for the following year’s Copa Libertadores. Potentially two teams could drop into Primera B.
The continued confusion as to how the league will look in six months should not take away from what should be another exciting, enthralling and manic year in Chile. Three new teams give the league a refreshing look; the trio of Santiago giants are desperate to bounce back after faltering towards the end of 2012; an abundance of young, velvet-footed youngsters are waiting to break through, and what for Huachipato and Unión Española who saw some of their most impressive performers depart after competing the final of the Clausura play-offs.
At one point in the last six months of 2012 all three of Colo Colo, Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile appeared to be on the cusp of achieving what they had set out to achieve and more, but in the end all were left disappointed as Huachipato and Unión Española came through the play-offs to contest a surprise final with Huachipato becoming the first team outside of Santiago to win the title since 2008.
The most noteworthy change is at Universidad de Chile where La U are no longer under the management of Jorge Sampaoli who is now manager of the Chilean national side. Fellow Argentine Darío Franco is the new incumbent and has already made moves to integrate his own footballing philosophy into the side; a more measured possession based approach compared to the high-tempo, swashbuckling style fans have become accustomed to. However, there is still the promise of attacking and entertaining football with Franco planning to stick with a front three but varying between a back three and back four.
La U president Josef Yurasczeck announced that the appointment “is the continuation of a process” as they try and stick with an attacking identity. Expectations are no different to those under Sampaoli with three trophies to play for in six months – Primera, Copa Chile and the Copa Libertadores. No important player of the Clausura has left, instead La U have rewarded players from ‘lesser’ clubs with a move to the capital, most notably O’Higgins’ creative ‘enganche’ Ramon Fernandez and Huachipato’s César Cortés, one of the players of the Clausura season.
Both Colo Colo and Universidad Católica have stuck with the managers that led them through the Clausura, despite rumours – some weak, some strong – that both could move on.
Omar Labruna has signed the most exciting player in the Chilean peninsula, the vivacious Emiliano Vecchio, as well as Emilio Hernández, who started his youth career at los albos before moving to La U. Both arrive from Unión Española, giving el cacique an abundance of attacking midfielders and forwards, reminiscent of Championship Manager/Football Manager stockpiling.
Pre-season has not been without problems however. Labruna has clashed with president Carlos Tapia over signings, former player Alvaro Ormeño over a new contract, and, in a running case, the Chilean authorities after he crashed his car last year and blaming it on his wife – as you do. The case is complex but he is being charged with obstructing the authorities.
On the pitch Labruna wants to see Colo Colo play the 3-4-1-2 formation his Audax Italiano side played. There is, however, only one aim at the Estadio Monumental – the 30th league title. With the money splashed out on Vecchio alone the third star is expected to appear on the Colo Colo shirt come June.
Católica have had a less controversial summer break. Last year’s bulging squad has been trimmed. Yet, no key players have been moved on – if you discount Kevin Harbottle of course. Two experienced strikers have been added but the form Nicolás Castillo showed in the run to the Copa Sudamericana semi-finals and is currently showing in the Sudamericana Sub 20 will surely mean he will play a prominent part, while the much-vaunted 17-year-old Diego Rojas should be given increased game time, although he will have to contend with returning legend Milovan Mirosevic.
The Copa Sudamericana performances saved Lasarte from the sack after the club, embarrassingly, missed out on the top-eight and the play-offs. With no distractions, other than the Copa Chile which is in its final rounds, there is little excuse for a poor performance this coming season. Lasarte is another manager who seems keen on moving to a back three, and analysing the personnel available it could be a move that pays dividends.
It will be a mighty ask for Huachipato to repeat the feat of the Clausura win, which strengthened their ‘el campeon del sur’ nickname, especially with Copa Libertadores participation starting next month. Before the transfer window had even creaked open they had already lost Cesár Cortés to La U and a number of their star performers had been linked with moves elsewhere, including top scorer Braian Rodríguez – who was late returning to pre-season training from Uruguay due to being sued for alimony payments. At one point it looked like being a pyrrhic victory, yet, they have added to their squad intelligently despite the loss of Manuel Villalobos to Deportes Iquique. After a move to Colo Colo fell through promising centre-back Carlos Labrín has arrived on loan from Palermo and Felipe Reynero joined from Rangers after an impressive Clausura. The biggest move may have been keeping manager Jorge Pellicer, who will be looking for a similar balance between defence and attack.
Ever since arriving at Unión Española José Luis Sierra – the owner of the left-foot that set up that Marcelo Salas goal – has made La Furia Roja one of the most open and entertaining teams to watch – almost as much as La U. Unsurprisingly Sierra was linked heavily with the job at the Estadio Nacional – he masterminded Española to a 4-1 win in the Clausura play-offs against los azules. However, in an endearing move he announced his loyalty to the club and signed an extension to his contract to continue his work.
He has had a substantial rebuilding job on his hands. Eminent performers Vecchio, Hernández, Rafael Olarra and Mauro Díaz have all left, but a number of replacements have arrived at the Estadio Santa Laura with the pick of the bunch being Francisco Castro who was such a vital and penetrating figure in La U’s Copa Sudamericana win. The big question is whether the raft of new signings can fit into Sierra’s expansive and high-tempo system which is reliant on a concoction of pace and free-willed creativity.
Rangers and Palestino, two sides that did ever so well in the Clausura, have hung on to managers Dario Giovagnoli and Emiliano Astorga respectively. Their influence will have to shine again as they attempt to repeat the efforts of the second half of 2012. Giovagnoli has the harder job on paper having seen the spine of his team move on – six of the players that left played a combined 185 league games in 2012. Top scorer Milton Caraglio and defensive rock Damien Ledesma the two most noteworthy departures.
O’Higgins laboured to a disappointing 14th position in the Clausura after such a remarkable Apertura season where they were cruelly beaten on penalties by La U in the play-off final when they were set to the lift the trophy until Guillermo Marino intervened with the last kick of normal time.
Manager Eduardo Berizzo is spoken about warmly in the Chilean media due to his close relationship with Marcelo Bielsa – he worked as el loco’s assistant. His philosophy is slightly different to Bielsa’s, although he still aims to entertain. But he will have to do without creative, if temperamental, fulcrum Ramón Fernández. However, zestful wide player Cristián Cuevas will get more minutes to parade his ebullient ability, which saw him land a trial with Chelsea and gain recognition in the current Sudamericano Sub 20 tournament.
Deportes Iquique hit a rough patch after the resignation of Fernando Vergara during the Clausura season, yet they managed to finish with the second best record in 2012. The man charged with continuing los dragones celeste’s improvement in the New Year and qualifying for the group stage of the Copa Libertadores is Cristian Díaz, who will have a captivating squad to achieve that goal. Edson Puch returns for a third spell at the Tierra de Campeones, to the benefit, not only of Iquique, but of all Chilean football viewers. Add his unpredictability to Villalobos’ ingenuity and Iquique may just be the team to tune into in 2013.
The trio of new teams will be disadvantaged due to having only six months, rather than 12 months to prove themselves as a Primera División side. The importance of hitting the ground running is vital. Ñublense, who have bounced straight back at the first attempt, will have to make do without striker Issac Díaz – now wearing the azul of La U. Mauricio Gomez will have to find the net more regularly than he did at Rangers to replace the goals shorn from the side.
Despite promotion, at one point it seemed as if coach Luis Marcoleta would not be kept on, along with the majority of the squad. There have been a number of changes but the newcomers may have pulled off the signing of the summer in Nicolás Trecco from Católica. It did not quite work for him in Santiago, but the Argentine was mesmerising with Cobreloa scoring all types of goals, while still providing assists. He has been joined by Francisco Ibañez and Renato Ramos and keep an eye on club legend Joel Estay.
Everton will make the bitter re-acquaintance with rivals Santiago Wanderers, adding extra spice to the season. The midfield trio of Maximiliano Ceratto, Ángel Rojas and Fernando Saavedra could prove the club’s best weapon in retaining their Primera status.
2012 threw up a number of inconsistent sides, namely Audax Italiano, Cobreloa and Unión La Calera. It is Cobreloa, however, that should be followed. They have appointed the controversial Macros Antonio Figueroa, who was doing a fine job rescuing Unión San Felipe from relegation – an unthinkable assignment – when, after a heavy defeat in the Copa Chile, he walked out. He has risked alienating himself to the younger players of the squad by criticising their weight.
On the field he has overseen substantial change. Volatile but talismanic figure Cristián Canío has moved to Antofagasta, but experience has been recruited with Pablo González and Francisco Pizarro arriving from Católica. Antofagasta will be aiming to better last season’s consolidation, while Cobresal will be hoping for a season without struggle as manager Oscar Del Solar has renewed his contract.