If you agree that participating regularly in world football's premier youth competition is a sign that things are being done properly, then the future of the Chilean game appears to be in safe hands. Thanks to an impressive fourth-place finish at January's South American U-20 Championship in Paraguay, the latest batch of Chile's gifted young players has sealed a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007.
Qualification means that La Rojita will be making their second consecutive appearance at the finals - they competed at Netherlands 2005 - and their third in four attempts, having also taken part in Argentina in 2001. It is widely felt that the current crop of youngsters being groomed by Jose Sulantay represents Chile's best chance to improve on their previous best showing in this competition - the fourth place they managed when hosting the finals in 1987.
Though led by their inspirational front man Alexis Sanchez, there is quality right throughout the side. With midfielder Arturo Vidal and striker Nicolas Medina sharing the attacking responsibilities - they were the second -and third-highest scorers respectively at the recent Sudamericano in Paraguay - and the dependable Nicolas Larrondo providing stability at the back, fans, officials and coaching staff will be hoping Chile can improve on their last-16 placing at Netherlands 2005.
At the group phase of the continental qualifying tournament, Chile got off to the worst possible start, suffering back-to-back defeats to Brazil (2-4) and hosts Paraguay (0-1). However, they bounced back strongly with emphatic wins over Bolivia (4-0) and Peru (4-2) to go through as the third-placed side in Group A. In the six-team final round, La Rojita began by sweeping aside defending champions Colombia (5-0), although it would turn out to be their only win of the stage. Instead, the youngsters kept their hopes alive with three consecutive draws: an incredible 2-2 against eventual champions Brazil while playing with just ten men; a battling 0-0 with neighbours Argentina; and finally an agonising 1-1 with Uruguay, who levelled deep in stoppage time to deny Chile all three points. And even though La Rojita wound up the qualifiers with a second defeat to Paraguay (2-3) to finish level on six points with the hosts, they secured the final berth for Canada 2007 by virtue of their superior goal difference (+4 to -1). It is also worth noting that, along with Brazil, Chile were the tournament's joint top-scorers with 20 goals.
A former professional striker, Jose Sulantay followed the well-worn path into coaching after hanging up his boots. During his long career he has led Chilean outfit Coquimbo Unido to two second-division league titles and steered compatriots La Serena and Cobreloa (top flight) to one apiece. Sulantay, 66, made an immediate impact on taking charge of the national youth team set-up in April 2004, steering the U-20 side to qualification for the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, where they went out in the Round of 16 to the hosts.
In the eyes of most Chilean fans, Alexis Sanchez is one of the most promising players to emerge in recent years. A product of the Cobreloa youth academy, this technically adroit midfielder with a keen eye for goal currently lines up for Chilean outfit Colo Colo, where he is on loan from Italian side Udinese. Born on 19 December 1988, Alexis is no stranger to international duty, the teenager having played at every level from U-16 to the seniors, with whom he has already won four caps. In addition to Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, a genuine utility man who can switch easily between midfield and defence, is also a player to watch. The 19-year-old, who also plays his football for Colo Colo, was the second highest goalscorer in January's Sudamericano with six strikes.