Waldo Ponce is a cornerstone of the Chilean national team. An integral part of the side that impressed at the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™, the Cruz Azul central defender remains a permanent fixture even though Marcelo Bielsa has now handed over the reins to Claudio Borghi.
With the semi-finals of the Mexican Clausura title play-offs looming large and the 2011 Copa America a little further in the distance, Ponce took time out for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com and discussed Chile’s recent past and immediate future and his current form for club and country.
The first topic up for discussion is La Roja, now under the stewardship of Borghi following the shock departure of his fellow Argentinian. Ponce, for one, is impressed with the new man in charge: “He’s doing a great job. He said it himself: he isn’t planning to make many changes, just to add a few things. The foundations were laid a few years ago and the results we’ve achieved in our first few games with the new coach have been pretty encouraging.”
So in what ways are Borghi’s methods different to those of his predecessor? In Ponce’s view, there are fewer than you might expect: “What we’ve shown in the games we’ve played up to now is that the philosophy will be the same: to go looking for the result and to never sit back. The style of play is very similar. He’s made a few changes to the system we used with Marcelo, but only a few, and the mindset is still to go out there and win every game.”
We can’t just come out and say we’re going to be the champions because it’s a long race, but that’s what we have to be aiming for.
One thing that has not changed in any way from Bielsa’s reign is the strong team spirit in the Roja camp. “It’s a very tightly knit team,” he explains. “We’re all about the same age and pretty similar too in terms of character. We get on really well, we’re all very good friends, and there’s never been a problem between us. Whenever someone new comes in we make them feel part of the team straightaway. That’s a big advantage, as we’ve shown on the pitch.”
Borghi’s first big test as Chile coach will come in July, when he takes his new charges to Argentina for the 2011 Copa America. “We want to go as far as we can,” says Ponce, who is relishing the prospect of taking on Latin America’s finest.
“We can’t just come out and say we’re going to be the champions because it’s a long race, but that’s what we have to be aiming for. What we can promise, and without getting too carried away, is that we will get past the first round. After that it’ll all depend on who we get, but the first objective is to come through the group phase.”
And in that phase La Roja will come up against three tough opponents in Uruguay, Mexico and Peru. “It won’t be easy,” says Ponce, acknowledging the scale of the task. “Uruguay are obviously the team to beat because of how well they did at the last World Cup. Even so we beat them in a recent friendly [2-0 in Chile last November] and if we can play like that we’ll have every chance of doing it again.
"As for Mexico, I’ve been there for a while and the standard of the league is very good. They play at a high tempo and have some excellent players. Though they’re sending a U-22 team to Argentina, we’ll be making a big mistake if we think it’s going to be easy. We’ll also need to see what shape Peru are in.”
Cruz Azul ambitions
In the meantime, however, Ponce has domestic duties to attend to with Cruz Azul, the club he joined after an unsuccessful attempt to make it in Spain with Racing Santander. Having put that disappointment behind him, he is more than happy to be with Los Cementeros, who have a Mexican Clausura play-off semi-final coming up against Monarcas Morelia on Thursday.
“Circumstances dictated that I couldn’t play much in Spain,” he explains. “It was a dream of mine but for lots of different reasons it just didn’t work out. I’m getting back to my best here. I feel comfortable, they’ve treated me well and I have no complaints at all.”
Cruz Azul’s recent trophy curse, which has seen them lose the last five finals they have appeared in, is something the Chilean stopper is hoping to break sooner rather than later.
“It’s not something we’re proud of obviously," he says. "I wasn’t involved in any of those finals but I did play in the CONCACAF Champions League semi-final defeat [against Monterrey earlier this season] and it was a really big blow. It’s everywhere around us, in the people who’ve been through it, the fans and in the dressing room. It’s not a weight on our shoulders though, but a source of motivation. We want to write a different story now.”
Before he signs off, the amiable Ponce looks ahead to Brazil 2014 and believes Chile can peak just in time. “By then most of the team will be in their footballing prime, although I might be a bit past mine (laughs). Seriously, though, it’ll come at a good time for us, although we need to concentrate on our immediate objectives first of all.”