It was a little under 16 years ago. July 11, 1999 to be precise. The Estadio Feliciano Cáceres in Luque, Paraguay. Chile had come from behind twice before Ivan Zamorano netted a 65th minute winner to see off Colombia in a topsy turvy five-goal encounter, booking Chile’s place in the Copa America semi-finals against Uruguay. It was the last time Chile had won a competitive match in knock-out competition. Until last night. A night in which squeaky bum-time took on a whole new meaning as La Roja squeezed through against La Celeste.
It was the game everyone expected. Two contrasting football philosophies: Chile v Uruguay. Attack v defence. Idealism v conservatism. Gonzo v Garra. Style v Substance. On one side you had the ultimate Bielsasist: Jorge Sampaoli. A maverick, a perfectionist, someone who attacks management at full throttle. His attitude reflected in the teams he sends out. On the other is the wily, experienced old-head of Oscar Tabarez, managing in his fourth Copa – his first being in 1989. It shows. He is a realist. He is calm, gentile almost, but his side don’t play that way, they are aggressive but organised.
And the football itself eventually developed as most expected. Although not in the beginning. Rather than survive an early red blitz La Celeste confronted Chile, surprisingly pressing early on. Unsurprisingly however the game soon found a rhythm. Uruguay on the back foot, where they feel comfortable. Chile on the front foot, where they feel comfortable.
The longer it went on the greater a penalty shoot-out loomed with no extra time until the final. It was not an outcome Chile wanted. We can all recall the last time they took part in a penalty shoot-out. Heartache in Brazil. Sampaoli infamously stating the team didn’t practice penalties.
One of the protagonists that afternoon reprised his role in Santiago with what proved a decisive ‘manoeuvre’ to prevent a nervy, spine-tingling, energy sapping, knee-weakening shoot-out. Gonzalo Jara was the unfortunate player whose penalty panged off the post and confirmed Chile’s exit from last summer’s World Cup. This time there was no ball or post or heartbreak. Only a finger and Edinson Cavani’s rectum. Cavani did not take kindly to Jara’s surprise prostate check-up, responding with a flick of the hand in Jara’s face resulting in a second yellow card and Uruguay facing the remaining 27 minutes with 10 men.
Up until that point it had been a slog for both teams. Uruguay were expanding a lot of energy chasing but were content as they kept Chile at arm’s length. Chile were expanding a lot of mental energy constantly moving the ball searching for an opening, any opening. Forwards and side ways, forwards and side ways, forwards and side ways. Yet they were met by resistance which bred frustration. One door was locked. As was another. And then reinforced. And reinforced again. José María Giménez and Diego Godín demonstrated why Atlético Madrid are far from restless as Miranda moves onto Inter Milan. They along with Arévalo Ríos epitomise the dogged nature of this Uruguay side. They headed everything, blocked everything, kicked everything. If a grenade had been lobbed into the area they would have jumped on it, so long as it did not harm Fernando Muslera or their goal.
However they began the brighter and demonstrated the threat they posed when they attacked. Breaking Chile’s press in midfield Diego Rolan was found in space to drive forward resulting in some usual last-ditch Chile defending. Uruguay played with two strikers high up the pitch to give them a two-pronged outlet for direct balls when possession was won, while Ríos took up a man marking role on Arturo Vidal early on. However Jorge Valdivia was increasingly finding space goal side of the Uruguayan midfield, producing one ludicrous nutmeg on Jorge Fucile.
La Celeste eventually retreated into a more compact shell after the 20 minute mark as Chile’s pressure and dominance increased as their full-backs pushed higher and higher up the park. Eugenio Mena took up a starting brief in place of Jean Beasejour but despite his importance to Universidad de Chile under Sampaoli it was Mauricio Isla on the other flank who was most threatening. Motoring forward at every opportunity he continued to link with Vidal and Valdivia, forming a pretty dangerous trident.
Yet, as mentioned, Giménez and Godín were there. Again and again. Openings were presented down the flanks but a mixture of poor crossing and sensible, intelligent defending meant goal mouth action was at a premium. Charles Aránguiz should have done better in the first half when he found space on the edge of the box, while eight minutes into the second half Rolan poked goalwards after a free-kick had been inadvertently diverted into his path by a Chilean body.
Despite the vociferous and ardent backing from a packed Estadio Nacional, the national anthem once again being sung a Capella, the players and management’s frustration levels grew as the game progressed towards penalties. It was exactly how Uruguay wanted. Tense, tight and tetchy. The masters of the dark arts. The masters of gamesmanship. The masters of winning against all the odds. The master underdogs. They possess the power of displaying their Garra in new and more imaginative ways each tournament that passes.
This time however they were on the receiving end. Jara had got up close and personal with Cavani then he dropped to the floor, innocently holding his face and looking to the referee. Having already been booked for a foul in front of the linesman before vehemently remonstrating, Cavani was brandished the yellow then the red. He had raised a hand. Footage would soon show that while his hand found Jara’s face, Jara’s had crept southwards. Like an eager drunken teenager on the dance floor of a one-horse town club, signalling his intention to the girl he is attempting to seduce, Jara set about groping Cavani and then without receiving the ‘go on, big boy’ eyes a digit was inserted into Cavani’s bum. Uncomfortable.
While Cavani raged, clearly not one for experimenting, the atmosphere continued to build. Ultra-attack v ultra-defence. On came Matí Fernández and Mauricio Pinilla. Chile’s shapes, angles and intricacies were not working. Uruguay continued to dig in deeper, the trenches were being reinforced. Then a cross was lobbed into the box. Vidal went for it. Pinigol went for it. So did Muslera who managed to punch to the edge of the box. El Mago. A cool head among a sea of men, women and children losing their’s. He nudged the ball right to Isla who drove hard and low into the corner.
An unlikely hero. Especially after a trying season with relegated Queens Park Rangers. With Chile he is a constant hive of activity and energy. Forever driving forward, more interested in the space in front than the space behind. The goal brought the proverbial roof down. He was chased into the corner before being buried among a pile of bodies. If they could everyone in the crowd would have joined in. Forming a 45,000 human pyramid.
From that goal there was no Uruguay onslaught, except on the near side linesman following the dismissal of Jorge Fucile after an overly excessive challenge on Alexis Sánchez, the Chilean bench rushing to the linesman’s defence. Chile saw the game out by keeping possession and more importantly keeping their head.
A raucous noise greeted the final whistle as Uruguay chewed and spat sour grapes. But there was only one team deserving of a semi-final clash against neighbours Peru or Bolivia. Chile are slowly developing a substance to their style. A ruthless side to their domination. A maturity to their bravery. La Roja are now only one step from a final. Two steps from nirvana. They’ve displayed courage to score when behind, to score when the crowd is restless and the opposition are in the ascendency. They’ve displayed all the hallmarks of a Jorge Sampaoli side, refined and refreshed from Marcelo Bielsa. Now they’ve displayed a controlling side to their game as well as a nasty one. They’ve displayed the qualities which will hell them reach the promised land.