In Chile, like in all of South America, football generates an almost religious fervour. It is no surprise then, given the recent travails of the country's senior team, that millions of fans have turned to the youth side for some much-needed cheer. And if La Rojita's recent results are anything to go by, the fans have every reason to be optimistic.
Jose Sulantay's squad, which is brimming with talented individuals who work selflessly for the cause, further underlined their potential at a recent tournament in Korea Republic, where they saw off the challenge of Gambia, Poland and the host nation. Among the side's top players who missed that tournament in Asia was Arturo Vidal, a standout performer at January's South American U-20 Championship in Paraguay. Not only has the utility man made a starting berth his own at Chilean league leaders Colo Colo, national team head coach Nelson Costa felt moved to reward the youngster's displays with a recent call-up to the senior squad.
Now, as he awaits news of whether he will playing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup or the Copa America this July, the midfielder found time to talk to FIFA.com about his general expectations and the youth side's chances of success in Canada.
We're going there to win
At the Sudamericano in January, Chile secured their berth at Canada 2007 with a fourth-place finish, even though many observers felt they had been the best team at the tournament. Vidal, demonstrating considerable maturity for someone so young, is of the same opinion: "We were the best side there and deserved a better outcome, but we lost our concentration at some key moments and that prevented us from finishing higher. That said, we're going to the World Cup to win it. I utterly believe we can do that," he says proudly.
Vidal's optimism is not unfounded either. In Paraguay, deployed as a central midfielder, he still managed to finish as second-highest goalscorer with six strikes. "That was no easy task from the position I played in but, truth be told, things went well for me there," says the player who first learned to kick a ball with the help of his Mum, among others. "With the exception of our last result, which prevented us from going for the title and making the Olympics, it was a good tournament for Chile," says Vidal, a player known for his aerial prowess, tireless movement and good ball control.
A huge football fan and never one to miss a televised game, Vidal explained how good it felt to secure qualification for Canada 2007. "Chile is not used to sending teams to World Cups, which is why every time we qualify for one, we celebrate it like a title win itself. We were disappointed though not to qualify for the Olympics, and it seemed like another case of Chilean bad 'karma': just when we get close to our goal, something strange happens and it's denied us."
An even group
In the draw for the finals of Canada 2007, Chile find themselves in Group A alongside Congo, Austria and the hosts , all clearly dangerous sides, though not the biggest names on planet football. None the less, Vidal insists there are "no easy opponents at a World Cup" and that his side will have to prepare for each one "as if we were facing Argentina or Brazil".
So what does the Chilean squad have that will enable it to overcome these obstacles? "We have a group of good players, among them Alexis Sanchez, a striker capable of outwitting an entire defence and making the difference. Single-handedly, he can find a way through any defensive formation," Vidal says of his Colo Colo team-mate. "Mind you, he wouldn't get past me," adds the youngster with a broad smile.
Vidal, a big fan of Fabio Cannavaro, is the first to admit he still has much to learn. After being catapulted into the limelight in the wake of the Sudamericano, he received a phone call from his coach at Colo Colo, Claudio Borghi, on the subject of his new hair cut. "He told me to change it for something less flashy if I wanted people to look at me as a footballer. It made sense, just like all the advice he gives me," says Vidal, who recognises he could be a target for European clubs in the not too distant future.
"I'm happy at Colo Colo, battling for the league championship and the Copa Libertadores, but playing in Europe is every player's dream. Hopefully, I'll get the chance one day, as I'd be thrilled to play there," he says. Vidal also realises that a good performance in Canada would put him very much in the shop window. "If we were to win the title, it would change the way people perceive Chilean football around the world. Naturally, that would then open a lot of doors," says the player, only hours after receiving his first call-up to the senior squad for their friendly against Argentina.
Now the big question is: will Nelson Acosta name him in his squad for the Copa America in Venezuela, or will he travel with the rest of Jose Sulantay's charges to Canada? For his part, Vidal says: "Whatever the final decision is, I'll be happy. All I want to do is defend my country's honour, and I'll do that willingly wherever it is. I can't ask for any more than that."