Chile head into their World Cup qualifiers against Argentina and Venezuela with the euphoria of July’s Copa America victory well and truly behind them.
While the ANFP (Chilean FA) should have been guiding the team into potentially the most successful and dominant period in the country’s history, they instead contrived to almost completely dismantle the foundations put in place by Marcelo Bielsa in 2007.
In the space of just six months, Chile went from continental champions to a football organisation in crisis. New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi and new ANFP president Arturo Salah will be hoping to quickly stem the tide of negativity that has engulfed football in the country since crooked ex-president Sergio Jadue’s fraudulence was uncovered.
It leaves La Roja going into the upcoming qualifiers with a desperation to win that belies their current standing in the table.
Indeed, they’ve started better than last time around, in qualification for Brazil, but a home draw against Colombia and a hammering at the hands of Uruguay in the Centenario only served to exacerbate the off-field negativity created by Jorge Sampaoli’s acrimonious departure.
It was a sour and messy way for Sampaoli’s tenure as head coach to end, and certainly not synonymous with the unparalleled success experienced during the majority of his reign. Certainly, Sampaoli could have handled the situation better. His ill-advised comments — which he later retracted — of feeling like a “hostage” in Chile only served to stoke the fire.
For a day, #FueraSampaoli (Sampaoli Out) was the top Twitter trend in Chile, while the follicle-deprived Argentine was met with cries of “andate pelao” (leave baldy) from a sizeable group of displeased Chileans upon his return to Santiago from Miami.
For a man that turned Chile from perennial continental losers into the best team in South America, it wasn’t a fitting way for his time in charge to end.
Looking forward, Pizzi is already facing an uphill battle in his first game in charge. The 47-year-old will be without three key men for the game against an Argentina side undoubtedly out to avenge last summer’s Copa America final defeat.
Jorge Valdivia and Eduardo Vargas are serving bans for petulance and middle finger-brandishing, respectively, while Arturo Vidal is suspended for accumulating yellow cards in consecutive matches.
However, with a new manager comes new ideas. For some time, the question has been posed as to how long this aging group of players can sustain its high-tempo, high-pressing game first implemented by Bielsa — in particular with the physical demands European football brings.
Already, with the inclusion of Nicolas Castillo, Bryan Rabello and Felipe Campos, Pizzi is attempting to unearth the much-maligned “lost generation” of players who impressed at the 2013 Under 20 World Cup in Turkey but passed Sampaoli by during his time in charge.
Both Rabello — who made it into Sampaoli’s final Chile squad — and Castillo attempted to make it in Europe with smaller clubs but, ultimately, failed to make the grade.
The current Copa America-winning golden generation will, bar a handful of players, be the wrong side of 30 by the time Russia 2018 comes around, and the test now is to ensure Chile’s recent success is not just a flash in the pan.
Pizzi’s main task will be to ensure the winning mentality instilled in the squad by Sampaoli is not lost. Had Sampaoli remained in charge for this fixture, large portions of the Chilean public and the neutrals would have expected another La Roja win.
But the result in Pizzi’s opening match as coach will by no means make or break his future. Sampaoli’s first game at the helm ended in defeat against bitter rivals Peru in Lima and the Argentine still subsequently led Chile to a comfortable third place finish in qualifying.
If Pizzi does fail to pick up a point against Argentina, however, then victory against rock-bottom Venezuela — without a point to show for their opening four matches — is a must.