It has taken an Argentinian to restore Chile’s pride in its national team
Absent from the finals since 1998, it would appear that no one in Chile will hold it against their respected coach Marcelo Bielsa if La Roja fail to get very far in South Africa as the team have already greatly exceeded all expectation.
But how will the Argentinian cope with his own disappointment if the team that has captured the imagination of millions of his adoptive countrymen and neutral observers alike fail to meet his own high standards?
Not getting out of the group would be a huge personal blow to Bielsa, who was devastated but hid it well, when his Argentina side fell at the first hurdle in 2002. As the only coach in Group H to have been to the finals before, he is probably more desperate than he would care to admit, even to himself, to have a better finals than in Japan.
His experience eight years ago has probably given Bielsa a more developed psychological armoury to cope with a failure, and he has always said that real learning and the discovery of how to rectify things comes from failure. But are Chile really that dependent on their coach?
Bielsa is always trying to get others to accept that the real praise for Chile’s fine qualifying campaign should go to the players for their ability to apply his ideas on the pitch. They obviously respond well to his coaching style and he has been working with a fine generation of players, some of whom came out of the side that finished third at the Under-20 World Cup in 2007.
Their final game against Spain, with their strong core of Barcelona players, is one of the biggest attractions of the group stage in South Africa, featuring two sides with a passing game and commitment to attack. But with Spain the red-hot group favourites, and Honduras regarded as the weakest link, Chile’s hopes of getting through to the knockout stage may hinge on beating Switzerland. And confidence is high after Bielsa’s side were impressive against European opposition when beating Slovakia 2-1 in November.
However, preparations for the finals have been disrupted by external factors as they missed a friendly against Germany in November, after the suicide of their opponents’ goalkeeper Robert Enke, and they then had to cancel two March warm-up games because of the earthquake that devastated south-central parts of the country.
The view from Chile
“Today no one can take away our right to dream. We have a great coach. The players are 100 per cent behind Bielsa’s philosophy and that’s reflected on the pitch. Chile were able to build a group of young players who are very strong. We have a coach who has been to a World Cup and knows the errors that were made and hopefully he won’t commit them again.”
Ivan Zamorano, 1998 World Cup striker
“The earthquake is an important starting point from which to react to a negative experience that the country went through. It could unite the Chilean players more in search of a common objective. I think it would be unrealistic for Chile to think they are going to play a World Cup Final. One can dream but what they can think is to set themselves the goal of reaching the quarter-finals come what may because in France [in 1998] they reached the second round. That would be a great step forward.”
Jose Del Solar, ex-Universidad Catolica coach