Chile's La Rojita came to Canada with high hopes, but in truth few outside of South America expected much from the country that last qualified for a FIFA World Cup back in 1998 and have had little to shout about at senior level since the international retirement of Marcelo Salas and Ivan 'Bam Bam' Zamorano.
But with a pair of 3-0 wins in their first two matches, the Chileans have looked one of the sides of the finals so far. Playing a possession game that is as easy on spectators' eyes as it is hard on opposition defences, La Rojita have captured the hearts of a good number of the neutrals in Canada...and sent their adoring bands of ex-pat fans into regular fits of ecstasy.
Their new star pairing of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez (who missed the first game through suspension) have been lighting up the pitches in the Great White North and new names like the elegant Matthias Vidangossy and free-scoring Nicolas Medina have also emerged in what is a coherent, professional and entertaining team. In fact, they are the only squad aside from Argentina and Nigeria to have not conceded a goal at these finals. And having tallied six times, they are sizzling in attack with an astounding average of three per game thus far.
When considering the air miles they've logged, one would not be too surprised if they came out flat in their matches. Arriving on the eve of their opener with the hosts, their flight from Santagio saw them up in the air for over 15 hours. Then, after thrashing Canada in Toronto on 1 July they boarded a plane for Edmonton in the country's interior, over 2000 miles away where they beat African champs Congo 3-0. Now, for their third match against Austria they have to get back up in the air and fly back to the Eastern venue of Toronto where they play on Sunday.
"We have to think about the time changes (two hours) and the jetlag they will have. I may switch players around (for the Austria game), but I will have to see. Travelling so much is not good. There are four hours on the plane (between Toronto and Edmonton) and you have to be at the airport one and a half hours before the flight departs, plus there's the travel to the airport," head coach Jose Sulantay said with an air of resignation. "The boys won't sleep well. Also, you don't always get very good food on airlines, so the players don't eat very well either."
Expected to arrive in Toronto on Saturday and have one training session before their last group game, the coach and the boys will be happy for a little rest after concluding the group stages. Unfortunately, they won't get any. Regardless of their result on Sunday they will be facing a round of sixteen contest back in Edmonton - another four-plus-hour flight.
All this travel doesn't seem to be taking much of a toll on the players though. Young and fit, they bounce back quickly and, judging by their performances so far, the Andean boys might just be benefiting from seeing the length and breadth of this huge country.
Ill-effects, not a one
Vidangossy, a cultured and wily creator, has been one of the revelations here in Canada, and he has combined well with the team's more established stars. He is hoping that Chile can keep on track and win their final group game against already-qualified Austria on Sunday...and then go a little farther than that.
"Hopefully we can keep playing well," the midfield maestro said. If we keep up this form we are hoping to go on to win the tournament."
A long run in and a possibly long flight back to a first-ever FIFA Final in Toronto will get no complaints from either the Chilean players or their coach.