On Saturday evening Chilean football comes full circle as La Roja go in search of history. Of immortality. It was 105 years ago, on May 27, Chile played Argentina in their first international game. A 3-1 defeat in Buenos Aires. Now the the same opponents stand between Chile and their first ever trophy.
Chile, 99 years ago, were one of the four teams to contest the first ever Copa America. Of the four Uruguay have won 15, Argentina 14 and Brazil eight. Chile still wait for their maiden victory. Forty three Copa Americas, four finals, nothing tangible to show for it. And how they would love for the duck to be broken, history to be made, against their great rivals.
Chile fans displayed their bitterness towards their Andean neighbours in Argentina’s thumping 6-1 win over Paraguay with chants of Argentinos – hijos de puta. Yet the irony is that if La Roja finally do go on to overcome Lionel Messi & Co they will owe a great deal of gratitude to Argentina, particularly two Argentines. Current manager Jorge Sampaoli and Marcelo Bielsa.
It is difficult to write about Chilean football and not mention El Loco. Even more so when Saturday’s showdown could be renamed el final de los Bielsistas. The fabled crazy one has had a profound effect on the two managers who will line up in opposite dug-outs, as well as Chilean football as a whole.
On taking charge of La Roja in 2007 Bielsa discovered what was in essence a blank canvas to work with. To mould and shape to his will. Chilean football did not possess a distinct identity. The engañche isn’t worshipped as it is in Argentina, there isn’t the societal garra as there is in Uruguay and Chileans don’t have self-delusions of joga bonita like the Brazilians. Bielsa had scope to deliver his own ideals without being met by stubbornness of pre-conceived values and systems.
He pioneered a buccaneering, hard-pressing, attacking style which is still in place today. Under Bielsa Chile qualified for the 2010 World Cup, their first since 1998. Fabio Orellana’s goal at the Estadio Monumental in 2008 gave La Roja their first ever win over La Albiceleste in qualifying. Chile would go on to light up what was a dull World Cup.
But Bielsa was gone in 2011 and the newfangled and compelling Chilean style dropped in intensity under Claudio Borghi. Off-field issues hampered his time in charge, but it was on-field performances and style which was the biggest bugbear of fans. With World Cup qualification in the balance, the ANFP looked to address the problem. Gerardo Martino, who will lead Argentina into the final, was considered but it was his opponent Jorge Sampaoli who was appointed after a fruitful time in charge of Universidad de Chile, namely three league titles, a Copa Sudamericana success and the hearts and minds of football fans the world over. Football at its tantalising best.
To say Sampaoli had a mediocre playing career would be putting it lightly. The bald-headed bundle of energy suffered serious injury problems before devoting himself to management. A self-confessed Bielsa disciple – he would listen to tapes of Bielsa when out running – Sampaoli has had a nomadic way to the top. But since his arrival he has taken La Roja to the next level. Working with of a more mature squad with a higher calibre of players he has returned to the swashbuckling style the players knew, loved and yearned for under Borghi.
Speaking in 2013 Sampaoli said: “We are continuing on Bielsa’s path, but with more mature players. We have progressed, but he has made it easy for us.”
Another positive showing at a World Cup has been followed by the search for the Holy Grail. Chile may have been a Mauricio Pinilla thunder strike off the bar away from knocking Brazil out last summer before penalty shoot-out heartbeat ensued, but the Copa America was the aim. Is the aim. The team, the coach, may be idealistic in the way they play but they are realistic in their ambitions.
Handed a favourable draw, momentum has built throughout the tournament with the belief that this is destiny. They have thrived from the backing of the fervent and expectant hinchas. In an anxiety-ridden opening game they scored a crucial 2-0 victory over Ecuador, both goals coming when they were under pressure before a pulsating 3-3 draw with Mexico, which gave prominence to the defensive deficiencies which have plagued La Roja. The Chilean penchant for hitting the self-destruct button appeared to be on the horizon when Arturo Vidal crashed his car with alcohol in his blood. Sampaoli controversially stood behind his player, knowing he has a better chance of bringing success to the country with rather than without him.
With both the team and manager behind Vidal, the incident did not derail Chile. Backs against the wall. Siege mentality. Bolivia were swept away 6-0 before Chile showed they were made of sterner stuff against Uruguay then Peru. The attacking verve was matched by gamesmanship and a modicum of pragmatism as Chile reached the final.
Waiting for them is the brains of Marcelo Bielsa’s storied Newell’s Old Boys team, Gerardo Martino. Despite the influence of working under Bielsa, Martino is not as devoted a disciple as Sampaoli. Until he failed at Barcelona, becoming the only club manager not to win anything with Messi, Martino had been best known for his Paraguay side which made it to the World Cup quarter-finals in South Africa and then all the way to the final of the previous edition of the Copa America without winning a game.
Writing for The Guardian Marcela Mora y Araujo, “Martino’s Paraguay were fast-paced, long-ball, somewhat defensive exponents of the game, which led many to decree that Martino the disciple had cut the umbilical cord from Bielsa and learnt to work as best he could with the players available to him, as well as the idiosyncrasies of Paraguay.”
Martino simply displayed his tactical nous and intelligence, carrying out an astute SWOT analysis of the players at his disposal and moulding them into an effective unit. The manager’s pragmatism was displayed in the Argentine Primera 2013 Final, when he led Newell’s Old Boys to their first league title since 2004. In a league renowned for its cynicism, Newell’s were proactive and exciting. It showed Martino wasn’t a defensive coach, simply one who identifies what is best for the collective to succeed.
With Argentina Martino has removed any shackles that were tied to the squad under Alejandro Sabella, making them more vertical but like Chile in the build-up to the tournament struggled to turn dominance into goals – six of their 10 goals at the Copa coming in their previous match with Paraguay.
Yet there is no question that this is a match between the best South America has to offer – even the most ardent Brazilian will surely admit to that. The two teams who think about attack more than defence, proactive rather than reactive. There is a feeling that Argentina are the best opponents for Chile and vice versa. Argentina’s weakness is Chile’s strength. Chile’s weakness is Argentina’s strength. There is potential for a 90 minute orgasm of football to wow the body, mind and senses.
Mexico highlighted Chile’s vulnerability to balls played over the top and at set pieces, while Peru’s Paolo Guerrero bullied Gary Medel and most notably José Rojas, who was panned in the Chilean press. Once swift over the ground Rojas’s pace is dwindling and, ironically, fast. Gonzalo Jara, despite not being a world beater, is missed. Meanwhile, Sampaoli has tried three different left-backs in five games. The area in which Sergio Agüero and Messi will hunt and stalk. A whiff of vulnerability and they will leave Chile bloodied.
Chile will be brave, some may say reckless, in their defensive mindset. They will face the Argentinians head on rather than backing off, with Francisco Silva possibly replacing Rojas having performed well at the back as Chile beat Spain at the World Cup. Javier Pastore and Ángel Di María have been excellent at bursting past the midfield and behind defences. Charles Aránguiz and Vidal who make comparable runs forward will have to be vigilant going backwards. While Marcelo Díaz will have to improve both in and out of possession, he will be the player most likely to be in the areas in which Messi drifts. Defending the box is not an option for Chile, neutralising Argentina’s strengths is key, which means pushing them as far away from the goal as is possible.
Argentina are similarly vulnerable defensively. Their centre backs are on the slow side and can come across ponderous and will be extra cautious with the pace of Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas. Paraguay showed that pressing them high causes trouble but it does leave space behind the midfield.
Both teams are flawed but they appeal to neutrals, tongues already wagging at the prospect of the teams facing off. Argentina will be looking to end their 22-year wait for a trophy. But Chile have been waiting a whole lot longer. And if they do it they will do so by playing their style.
“The style is above the system,” says Sampaoli. “While I am in charge of the team there will be only one way.”
A style forged in Argentina.
The road to the final: