They have had to wait 105 years since their first international – a 2-1 defeat to Argentina. Ninety nine years since they were one of four to take part in the inaugural Copa America – then called the South American Football Championship. What was another 90 minutes? But then they had to wait 30 minutes more. Then the dreaded penalty shoot-out where heroes are made and villains are primed for a lift-time of infamy.
Twelve months previously Gonzalo Jara had the misfortune of sending his kick against the post in the World Cup last-16. But this time the stakes were higher. Much higher. Last summer Chile had the whole of Brazil and a partisan crowd against them. This time there were 40,000 plus behind them at the Estadio Nacional. And 17 million more up and down the country. A country brought to a stand still.
One hundred and twenty minutes couldn’t separate Chile and Argentina. A ferocious opening turned into a slog which was as much a mental battle as it was a battle against two neighbouring countries, separated by the Andes which rose to the east of the stadium.
Matías Fernández was up first. He thundered the ball into the roof of the net. Lionel Messi, an increasingly frustrated figure throughout, made it 1-1. Arturo Vidal squeezed the ball under Sergio Romero. Gonzalo Higuaín continued his miserable penalty taking record and the penchant for sticking the ball high over the bar from 12 yards at this tournament. A step forward. Charles Aránguiz made it 3-1. A leap forward. Claudio Bravo dived to his left. Ever Banega was denied. One hand on the trophy. Alexis Sánchez made the walk forward. The best player of the best generation of Chilean footballers. A nation held its breath. A cool head and immortality awaits. From Arica in the north to Punta Arenas in the south, Chileans edged closer to their TV sets. Ninety nine years has been a long wait. They only had to wait seconds more.
Sánchez ran forward, Romero anticipated and dived left. Sánchez didn’t get the purchase on the ball he had wanted. But he had went for the Panenka down the middle. Romero had already gone. The ball, barely off the ground, bounced on the line before hitting the net and no more. Chile were champions. Chile ARE champions.
O el asilo contra la opresión
O el asilo contra la opresión
O EL ASILO CONTRA LA OPRESIÓN
The final lines of the chorus of the Chilean national anthem were belted out. Passionate, loud. A rallying call. There had been question marks as to how Chile would approach the final. How they would approach the unenviable task of stopping the greatest there has ever been, Lionel Messi. But as the players looked south, each to a man singing in unison with the crowd and those watching from further away, there was no option. The sea of red, the noise fierce, acting as an amphetamine.
High-tempo, energetic, run, chase and hunt, Chile were not letting this Argentina side settle. There seemed more red than blue and white for much of the opening stages. Controlling the game when in possession and controlling the space without it. Francisco ‘El Gato’ Silva came into defence for José Rojas and Jean Beausejour for Eugenio Mena. Chile were accordion like, Marcelo Díaz the one controlling the music, the tempo. He would drop into the backline and then back into midfield. The full-backs would respond to his movements. Sometimes wingers, often wing-backs, every now and then full-backs.
Chile tortured Argentina early on. Suffocating them high up the park, subsequently starving Messi and Sergio Agüero. They did what Paraguay tried to in the semi-final, prevent them playing from the back. As fit as he has ever been Jorge Valdivia has arguably been chile’s player of the tournament. As exciting as he is on the ball his best work came from marking Javier Mascherano out the game. Something which becomes even more outlandish when seeing it in words. He prevented the Barcelona man from getting on the ball and Argentina a way out. They had to kick long.
With Chile swarming midfield, Charles Aránguiz tempering his forward thinking instincts to play as a defensive midfielder, they kept winning the ball back. When they got it back Argentina’s left-hand side was targeted. Very early on Sánchez set Mauricio Isla scampering down the line and it was a theme which would continue. Sánchez found Isla who played in Valdivia but instead of shooting Valdivia tried an eye of a needle pass to Eduardo Vargas. Moments later Sánchez and Valdivia exchanged passes for the former to burst into the space behind Marcos Rojo before the ball was turned into the direction of Vidal but his volley lacked the power and accuracy to beat Romero.
All of this happened in the opening 11 minutes. Breathless. Chile were playing with pace and control. Argentina were laboured and panicky.
Argentina slowly found a footing in the game. By which point Agüero had shown up Chile’s set-piece deficiency forcing Bravo into a smart save. But still Sampaoli’s plan to negate Messi was working. Sampaoli had burnt the midnight oil night after night, consulting software used for the Playstation 4. Díaz’s and Silva’s calming presence at the back allowed Gary Medel to confront him higher up the park. The snarling midfielder by trade is the attitude, heart and balls of the team. He never has a bad game for La Roja; his diminutive stature, aggression pace and strength the perfect combination to stop Messi. Even if it did cross the line at times, Medel chopping Messi down from the stomach.
Come Wilmar Roldán’s whistle to signal the end of the first half there had been signs of what was to come. Three cards had been shown, yet there could, really should, have been more. Many more. Aránguiz, who cut down Ángel di María, Argentina’s most dangerous player before going off injured, had miraculously avoided the book. Vargas had fired over after being freed down Chile’s right, while Ezequiel Lavezzi should have scored as the interval approached, Bravo beating away his effort.
The second half was a slog. It was tempestuous, gritty, ugly, stop start. The Estadio Nacional is littered in infamy and it resembled a battlefield at times. Players clattering into one another. Players lain strewing. Weary, tired. Emotionally and physically drained. For Chile Medel continued to thwart Messi. Díaz was a calm head in possession among a sea of anxiety-ridden minds. Aránguiz, eventually booked in the 86th minute, was everywhere. Run, tackle and pass. A fine performance in the heart of the midfield. Sánchez tried in vain to twist and turn his way to goal. To the goal. And he almost did it.
With less than 10 minutes remaining he spun in behind Argentina’s defence. Martín Demichelis had given up on any notion of an offside line as his team mates appealed in vain. Catching the ball on the volley Sánchez sent his effort narrowly wide of the far post. The wait would continue.
And it appeared the wait would continue for another year. Until the Copa Centenario. Messi lofted the ball over Chile’s defence for Lavezzi but he was rightly flagged offside before finishing. Then came the moment. The moment which looked set to break a nation’s heart and give Argentina their first trophy in 22 years. For once Chile committed too many men forward without sufficient protection. Messi got the ball and drove forward into space. That dreaded running style, legs working over time pushing the ball forward, arms powering the body away from red bodies. Bearing down on goal there was an intake of breath. The ball was shifted to Lavezzi who then laid the ball across goal to Higuaín. It was time to avenge his miss in the World Cup final. Only the ball was too far in front. Too wide. He could only stab it against the side netting.
With cramp winning the battle of body and mind it was a case of one chance. One chance to win it all. One chance to make history. And it fell to the man the Chilean nation would want. A long ball had been missed by a lunging Mascherano. A broken Mascherano. Sánchez hared through on goal. But Pablo Zabaleta. Summoning energy from the very basement of his body raced after him exerting enough pressure that Sánchez had to take the shot earlier than he would have wanted. It flew just over the bar.
The one chance had been and gone. One hundred and five years. Ninety nine years. Thirty seven Copa Americas. Nine World Cups. Ninety minutes. Thirty more. Penalties.
The ball bounced on the line and barely hit against the net. Sánchez was already off. Shirt removed ala Ryan Giggs. Swinging it as he ran to the crowd then back towards his team mates who were hunting him down and then back to the crowd. The wait had been too long. The emotion of all those years poured out. The wait may have been painful. But in the end it was worth it. At home with their own people after four previous finals Chile had done it.
Leonel Sánchez and Sergio Livingstone. Carlos Caszely and Don Elías Figueroa. Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamarano. They had all tried but they couldn’t quite achieve. This squad is regarded as the best the nation has produced. But to be ranked as the greatest they said they had to win something. They have finally done just that.
From Claudio Bravo to Gary Medel through Marcelo Díaz and Charles Aránguiz to Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Led by Jorge Sampaoli who had been referred to as the Bielsa of the Poor not long after taking charge of Universidad de Chile. They have created history. Their own history and that of the nation.,In a stadium which is infamous for its history. A place where Chileans were held against their will. Beaten and tortured. Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro. The inscription above the empty Salida 8 a constant reminder.
Now Chileans rejoiced, remembering the past, looking for a bright future but enjoying the moment. The moment they have been waiting for. History has been made. Chile are champions of South America.