La Roja back in the big time
© AFP

Saturday 10 October 2009 is a day that will long be remembered in the history of Chilean football. For the fans, officials and players of La Roja it was the day when the nation could finally celebrate an achievement that had eluded for over a decade: qualification for the FIFA World Cup finals.

To make the celebrations even sweeter, the Chileans did it in style, coming from a goal down away to Colombia to secure a stylish and ultimately resounding 4-2 win.

"It's a very emotional moment, but it's also a reward for all the hard work this magnificent squad of players have put it," commented Chile's Argentinian tactician Marcelo Bielsa, the architect of their stunning renaissance.

As the statistics show, La Roja's campaign has been an impressive one. With one game remaining, Chile have collected 30 points from 17 qualifiers, winning nine and drawing three of them. And perhaps most encouragingly of all, 16 of those points have come away from home, a clear indication that the man they call El Loco has instilled his players with some much-needed belief.

That belief had waned following the disappointments of the Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 qualification campaigns, when the Chileans finished ninth and seventh respectively in the ten-team South American group.

But as Bielsa explained after Saturday's win in Medellin, his side have refused to let the failures of the past hold them back. "The team have shown a lot of defiance and that was the key to our deserved win here and to reaching the finals without having to depend on anyone. That makes me very happy, more than anything else because the players have been completely faithful to what we've been trying to do."

The team have shown a lot of defiance and that was the key to our deserved win here and to reaching the finals without having to depend on anyone.
Marcelo Bielsa, Chile coach.

Bielsa's success-hungry side includes a crop of youngsters who have made their name in the national youth teams in recent years. Along with the improbably gifted Alexis Sanchez, the likes of Carlos Carmona, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Fabian Orellana have provided valuable support for more seasoned performers such as rampaging goalscorer Humberto Suazo, captain Claudio Bravo, centre-half Waldo Ponce and the talented twosome of Jorge Valdivia and Matias Fernandez. Thanks to that fine blend of youth and experience, the immediate future looks very bright.

"This achievement isn't just due to the ones that are here today," explained the coach, anxious to express his gratitude to all the players he has called on over the last two years. "It's also down to the ones who aren't and who have formed part of this process. There are lots I could mention, like Marcelo Salas for example."

Bielsa's words of recognition for El Matador are well chosen. Now retired from the game, Salas played a vital part in the historic draw against Uruguay in Montevideo back in November 2007, a result that set Chile on their way.

The legendary former Lazio striker scored four goals when the men in red made their last appearance at the finals at France 1998. Several members of the class of 2009 were only ten or 11 at the time, but as they have shown through the course of the campaign, they have proved worthy successors to Salas and his team-mates of yesteryear.

And with the wily Bielsa at the helm, there is every reason to believe their efforts in South Africa will inspire another generation of Chilean youngsters to emulate them when the time comes.