World Cup Review: Chile will be missed in Russia

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PRAISE be – Lionel Messi is going to the World Cup.

Argentina may not be much of a team but individual genius got the job done in the suffocating climes of Quito, rescuing a qualifying campaign that had threatened to come off the rails so many times most people had lost count. His country needed him and Messi obliged, beating Ecuador almost single-handedly with a superb hat-trick.

Russia 2018 will be a better tournament for his presence. The same is true of Cristiano Ronaldo whose (admittedly more functional) Portugal side snatched an automatic qualifying spot from Switzerland last night. This, clearly is good news.

Football’s big jamboree would simply have been a little less thrilling, that golden summer month just a few carats poorer, without the game’s two leading repositories of star power.

On Unibet‘s latest outrights it’s Germany who are 11-2 favourites followed by Brazil and France at 6-1 and Spain at 17-2.

Tuesday night was also one for mourning, however. For while the soloists booked their World Cup places one of the most compelling collective powers of recent times came up short.

It was never going to be easy for Chile. They had given themselves a slither of a chance with a gritty win over Ecuador last week, jumping from sixth to third with a round to play, but the fixture list was against them. Their opponents? Brazil in São Paulo. The last time the Seleção had lost a qualifier on home soil? That’ll be never.

That record never looked like changing, for all La Roja huffed and puffed in search of victory. They were in the game until Paulinho plundered his sixth goal of the qualifying group and even after Gabriel Jesus had made it 2-0 they still dragged themselves forward like a wounded action hero.

Yet by the time the final whistle went, Claudio Bravo having gone up for a corner, one final kamikaze raid that allowed Jesus to score again at the other end, realisation was beginning to set in.

Players rested on their haunches, exhausted and dazed. For the first time since 20 the World Cup will take place without them. “The dream is over,” read the front page of El Austral. Bravo was more emphatic: “It’s a shitty feeling.”

For them but also for us. For few teams have been so relentlessly entertaining over the last decade of international football. Success is measured in trophies but also in memories, and in South Africa and Brazil, in two slightly different but equally thrilling packages, Chile created plenty of those.

Under Marcelo Bielsa and then Jorge Sampaoli they were the ultimate neutrals’ team, making everything better just by being more attacking, more exuberant and, yes, more fun than most of their rivals.

The original 2010 formulation was probably the pinnacle in terms of pure spectacle: 3-3-1-3, Arturo Vidal as left wing-back, swarms of players wherever you looked. It was the tactical equivalent of a shaken-up bottle of pop exploding in your face, all shock, awe and sugar sweetness.

They were underdogs, yes, but effortlessly cool with it. We know how good Vidal and Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez have since become but Bielsa also coaxed magic from more humble resources: the loping Jean Beausejour, pocket rocket Gonzalo Jara and Humberto Suazo, a man whose DNA was 90% cannonball.

And, pulling the strings, little Jorge Valdivia, that woodland sprite who looked like he would be blown away by a light breeze. They shouldn’t have been good but they were.

Four years later, after the brief Claudio Borghi interlude, Chile were back at it again in Brazil, kneecapping Spain and making it to the knockout stages again.

The team had evolved a touch – Eduardo Vargas, Eugenio Mena, Charles Aránguiz and Marcelo Díaz had been added to the mix – but the energy levels, angles and commitment were unchanged.

Only the width of the crossbar and some poor penalties stopped them beating Brazil to reach the quarter-finals and who knows how far they would have gone thereafter.

Eventually, the reward for their blitzkrieg brilliance came, Sampaoli guiding them to a historic Copa América triumph on home soil in 2015.

When they repeated the trick at the Centenário edition 12 months later, this time under Juan Antonio Pizzi, talk of a golden generation no longer seemed frivolous. They were entertainers and now they were winners too.

But they won’t be in Russia, the good vibes having ebbed away over the course of a frustrating qualifying campaign that yielded just eight wins from 18 games. Given that one of those was awarded to them because Bolivia fielded an ineligible player in a game that originally finished goalless, it’s fairly damning stuff. The sparky displays at the Confederations Cup last summer turned out to be little more than a death rattle.

Part of the blame must lie with Pizzi who tendered his resignation immediately after last night’s game. His more circumspect approach often looked at odds with the more expansive instincts of his players.

But there are other factors, too. Tiredness is one: Chile’s stars have played competitive football in six of the last seven summers. That is a huge commitment, especially considered alongside all of the transatlantic travel for qualifiers and friendlies, which makes recent whispers of lingering off-field issues all the more relevant.

Vidal infamously crashed his car while drunk during the 2015 Copa América and Carla Prado, the wife of Bravo, hit the headlines this morning after accusing her husband’s team-mates of indiscipline.

More prosaically, age is probably also playing a part here. Sánchez is still the right side of 30 but many members of the squad appear to be on the downslope of their careers.

Bravo is bench fodder at Man City and hinted at international retirement on Tuesday night. Díaz now plays in Mexico and hasn’t made recent squads. Beausejour, Valdivia and Jara are back playing in the Chilean league. No wonder El Mercurio calls it “the end of a golden era”.

There may be a swift revival. New talent is coming through with Nicolás Castillo and Paulo Díaz as youngsters to watch. But an inquest awaits and questions must be asked after this unexpected failure.

For the rest of us, it’s time to get used to the idea of a slightly less watchable, less vibrant World Cup next summer, as Chile’s great thrill seekers shuffle off into the hinterland of the international game.

Jack Laing (Unibet blogger)

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1 Comment
  1. Profile photo of evens knievens
    evens knievens 6 days ago

    Not surprised Chile were eliminated.

    Playing a tournament every summer for thethe last 5 years was always going to catch up with them eventually.

    The players are knackered basically, they’ve run out of steam.

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