Who can forget the aftermath of Deportivo La Coruna’s Champions League clash with Manchester United in April 2002. With about two months until the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, two months until David Beckham had the chance of redemption following the 1998 World Cup, the England captain was on the end of a robust challenge from Depor’s Argentine midfielder Aldo Duscher.
The weeks that followed saw the British media turn to medical experts to learn more about Beckham’s metatarsal injury. The public were subjected to blown up images of a skeletal foot as well as an extensive time line of Beckham’s recovery.
Fast forward 12 years and the Chilean media were swept into overdrive when it was announced that influential midfielder Arturo Vidal was to go under the surgeon’s knife to fix a problem in his right knee. The problem first arose on March 20 in Juventus’ 1-0 defeat of Fiorentina in the Europa League when Vidal felt discomfort in his knee, and then on April 10 El Rey was subbed with 15 minutes remaining of the Italian club’s 2-1 win over Lyon due to the pain. The severity of the injury was confirmed 15 days later by Dr Ramón Cugat. However, with the club into the semi-finals of the Europa League they were loath to operate on arguably the club’s best player as it would rule him out of the rest of the season. They felt they were justified because they pay his wages.
The Serie A champions fell to Benfica in the semi-final and it was then decided that Vidal would undergo surgery to fix the meniscus problem in his knee. On May 7 Vidal was operated on in Barcelona by Dr Cugat and a nation held its breath as the participation of the country’s most important player was in the balance with early projections suggesting he would face a recovery time of five to six weeks, missing the opening clash with Australia and possibly the following game against Spain. La Roja fans and players took to social media to wish El Rey a speedy recovery and pray that he is fit to line-up in the group stages, while the media have kept them updated on his progress.
However, people may be surprised to hear Vidal has not always lived up to his El Rey (The King) nickname in the eyes of the fans and media. It wasn’t that long ago he was coming in for criticism having been sent off in consecutive games against Ecuador in World Cup qualification and in a friendly defeat to Serbia. The two games were the culmination of five successive losses which saw Chile on the outside looking in for qualification to Brazil 2014, Claudio Borghi paying the price with his job.
Vidal had been vocal in his support for El Bichi, saying that the Argentine’s work was “superior” to that of his predecessor Marcelo Bielsa. There were even media reports that Vidal would consider his future with the national team if Borghi was sacked. Sacked he was, but nothing came of those rumours, instead El Rey said that the players had failed him.
One of the biggest culprits was Vidal himself. In 16 games he played under Borghi – 15 starts and one substitute appearance – he picked up twice as many bookings (four) as goals scored. During the Argentine’s time in charge Vidal made the switch from Bayer Leverkusen to Juventus, becoming an integral part of La Vecchia Signora as the club won its first league title since returning to Serie A. However, he wasn’t the key player for La Roja that he should have been. Borghi’s apparent struggles to find a team and system in which to settle on saw Vidal, as well as others, moved around. The player even came out to the media to say that his position was in central midfield as Borghi considered playing him as a sweeper in a qualifier against Colombia.
Despite Vidal’s pleas for him to be kept on the decision of Sergio Jadue to replace Borghi in the immediate aftermath of the woeful 3-1 defeat to Serbia would act as the spur which would eventually see Vidal overtake Alexis Sánchez as the country’s key player in the period of Sampaolismo. The appointment of Jorge Sampaoli and the subsequent improvements would coincide with Vidal becoming the finest rounded midfielder in the world.
Sampaoli wasted no time in installing the ideas which had worked so well with Universidad de Chile, while embracing Bielsa – something which Borghi was reluctant to do. Players who had played under him at La U were given more game time and responsibility, Gary Medel was moved into defence and the system would either be 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 – the latter is the likely formation at the World Cup.
With Marcelo Díaz performing a similar role at the base of the midfield as Andrea Pirlo does at Juventus, and another energetic midfielder, Charles Aránguiz, increasing in importance, Vidal has been catered to, awarded a more attacking role with greater freedom.
Due to suspension he missed Sampaoli’s first competitive match, a 1-0 defeat to Peru, but as Chile went on to win five of their remaining six games, drawing the other, to qualify for the World Cup Vidal replicated his Juventus form, scoring four goals. In the nine games he has played under Sampaoli he has suffered defeat only once – the country’s unfortunate 1-0 friendly loss to Germany. In that Germany match Vidal played as a roving forward. He ‘roved’ so much that he looked as if he was a number 8, number 9, number 10, false 9 all rolled into one. And in each position his performance bordered on immaculate. He even popped up in his own box to mark Per Mertesacker at corners.
He is the prototype Sampaoli midfielder. He offers fantastic verticality with his energy and forward runs as well as his aerial ability, he is indefatigable in his running as La Roja look to suffocate the opposition and it would be a disservice not to mention his technical attributes which will help Chile starve opponents of the ball, protecting their defence. He is a midfield leviathan.
Vidal has been undergoing his rehabilitation in Juan Pinto Durán, the national team’s training base in Santiago, taking kinesiology therapy three times a day. There is even hope that he will make a miraculous recovery to take part in Chile’s final friendly before they head to Brazil, against Northern Ireland in Valparaíso on June 4, emphasising the warrior-spirit which is in Vidal.
In the last 18 months Vidal has emerged as Chile’s King, a King in which the country can look up to and pin its hopes on as this special group of players look to achieve the country’s finest performance at the World Cup since they hosted the tournament in 1962. From now until the World Cup kicks off Sampaoli is likely to join the fans in praying for Vidal’s full health.
Viva El Rey!