The Revolution Has Begun
After a bad run of defeats and disappointments, Chilean football is back on its feet again. The national team has its sights set on qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and due to various factors, they are in with a good chance of making it to South Africa in two years’ time.
Chile are different now, that is for sure. They are more motivated, better organised and more enthusiastic, and they are capable of rising to the challenge they face with a genuine expectation of success. The team is determined not only to take part in the World Cup but also to end a ten-year barren spell by qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time since 1998.
The man chosen to lead the revolution is none other than Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa, a big-name appointment who has brought his experience, his work ethic and his obsession with football to bear despite opposition from some quarters. Under Bielsa’s helping hand, la Roja are on their way to achieving their dream of qualification for South Africa 2010. The revolution is here. With Harold Mayne-Nicholis at the helm of both the Chilean football and professional football associations (FFCH and ANFP respectively), it was possible to persuade Bielsa to return to the game after a three-year hiatus. In exchange for a highly lucrative deal, the FFCH President brought in a man with prior experience of leading his native country to FIFA World Cup™ qualification with a view to transforming the Chilean mentality, thinking big or at least feeling bigger.
As a result, Chile are travelling down the hard road to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ with a different attitude, bearing their coach’s tactical hallmark (three at the back) and making hard work the central pillar of their bid for success. In addition to his professional ability, a coach’s name also carries weight and Bielsa is so highly respected in football circles that his arrival in itself has had a positive influence on the Chilean players. Unlike in previous years, all Chilean footballers have their sights set on playing for the national team, both those who play domestically and those who play abroad. The latter group is the one that is now making the difference in terms of the effort they are putting in compared with under previous coaching regimes.
NO BUTS, NO COMPLAINTS
The main focus is on changing the mentality of Chilean players; on not contenting oneself with playing a secondary role and looking on at the exploits of the continent’s big teams but being protagonists themselves, playing their game, imposing their game plan on a match and using the same established system wherever they play. “I closely examined the human resources available to Chilean football, the players are there and it is possible to organise them as a team. That’s why I accepted the position,” explains Bielsa, who has now settled in Santiago (he lives in the Juan Pinto Duran training centre, which was refurbished at his request) as if he were Chilean himself and travels the country watching football, looking for players and different options. This creates the feeling that everyone has a chance of being selected for the national team and that players are not going unnoticed.
After missing out on the last two FIFA World Cups™, finishing seventh on 22 points in the last preliminary competition and last (of 12) in the 2002 qualifiers and generally performing poorly in major competitions, the revolution is finally under way. Mayne-Nicholls explained to FIFA magazine that “these are processes that need to be analysed over a longer period. Marcelo came here in mid-August and it would be risky to make a full assessment at this time. It would be better to do that in 2010, hopefully after the FIFA World Cup™! But we are already delighted with his working methods, his professionalism, the commitment of the whole group and the passion and affection that he has put into everything. There are no buts and no complaints.” But has Mayne-Nicholls noticed a change in the players’ attitude? Mayne-Nicholls: “Yes, in terms of the motivation caused by having a highly talented coach. They all want to be there and are interested in playing for Chile. This is real progress, the players want to fight for 90 minutes and try to play during away matches. We are looking for an identity, we want to know what kind of game the national team is going to play. I like the idea of having enough conviction to leave your mark on the game, of having a playing style.”
In previous years Chilean players have made the news more for their antics off the pitch than their achievements on it. This was the case at the Copa America in Venezuela in 2007, for example, when five players drank to excess after qualifying for the knockout stages and ended up disgracing themselves. The ANFP handed them a 20-match ban, which may be reduced after the qualifying match for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in Bolivia on 14 June. “We do not want to see a repeat of what happened there and on other occasions; we do not want to continue to be involved in acts of indiscipline and we now hope that there will be a complete change,” explained Mayne-Nicholls, who took the opportunity to praise Chilean fans and emphasise their importance. “Over and above the players and coaches, we have the most loyal supporters in South America. We fill all of our stadiums, we have just held the South American Women’s Under-17 Championship and it was the same there. The fans are always there through good times and bad and we hope that they will continue to support us on the road to South Africa.”
The supporters are so committed to the revolution that there were 52,000 of them in the Estadio Nacional for Chile’s 2-0 victory over Peru, bringing in more than USD 1.3 million in gate receipts. Even in previous qualifying campaigns, Chile was the country that sold the most home match tickets. Now, under the orders of Bielsa and with the legendary Marcelo Salas, the talent of Matias Fernandez (Villarreal), other “Europeans” such as Claudio Bravo at Real Sociedad, Mark Gonzalez at Real Betis, Arturo Vidal at Bayer Leverkusen, Luis Jimenez at Inter Milan, the goals of Humberto Suazo (Monterrey), the skills of Alexis Sanchez (Udinese, on loan to River Plate) and young players who forged their reputations at the last U-20 FIFA World Cup, Chile certainly have reason to dream. That said, as Bielsa points out, “everyone knows that qualifying is not an easy task for anyone. It’s hard work, but it’s exciting.”