Having burst on to the global footballing scene with a series of impressive displays on their way to third place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, it was clear that Chile had a fine crop of gifted if raw young starlets. Yet no longer can they be considered rough diamonds, with a host of players making a successful transition from U-20 level into key figures for La Roja’s senior side.
Indeed, Arturo Vidal (Bayer Leverkusen), Alexis Sanchez and Mauricio Isla (Udinese), Gary Medel (Boca Juniors), Carlos Carmona (Reggina), Hans Martinez and Cristopher Toselli (Universidad Catolica, Chile) are all virtual certainties to make coach Marcelo Bielsa’s final 23 for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. What is more, at least five of these up-and-coming performers are part of the well-respected Argentinian supremo’s first-choice line-up, a team with an average age of just 27.
Much of the credit must go to Bielsa for putting his faith in youth, though the contribution of experienced coach Jose Sulantay must not be overlooked. Sulantay it was who guided La Rojita to the podium at Canada 2007, as well as overseeing the country’s campaign at the same event in the Netherlands two years earlier.
“I feel like a primary school teacher who sees his pupils go on to become doctors or engineers. It’s a real pleasure to see these lads forming the backbone of the team that took us back to a senior World Cup,” said Sulantay after Chile qualified for their first FIFA World Cup finals since France 1998.
“Thank God that this generation of players fell into the hands of Bielsa, because I’d instilled in them a new mentality: that they should fear nobody and play modern, high-tempo football. Chile became a different team under me and the same thing has happened under Bielsa. This is a new face of the Chilean national team,” he added to daily newspaper El Mercurio.
Growing in stature
Though all seven players have been regulars in La Roja squad selections since former Argentina boss Bielsa took charge, Sanchez, Carmona and Medel have received more call-ups than their colleagues. The former, currently at Italian side Udinese, a club famous for unearthing talent from all corners of the globe, is considered the shining star of this generation.
Able to beat men at will and blessed with searing pace, El Niño Maravilla (The Boy Wonder) first rose to prominence for Cobreloa at 16 years of age before later spells at Colo Colo and River Plate. A reserved character, who avoids dealing with the media where possible, the 22 year old scored three times in qualifying for South Africa 2010 as well as creating a host of his team’s overall tally of 32 goals – performances that have caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Carmona, meanwhile, is a midfield grafter and a veteran of the last two FIFA U-20 World Cups. Tireless in his ball-winning duties and endowed with a fierce shot from distance, Carlitos often find himself joined in the centre of the park by Medel, another tough customer.
Known as El Pitbull, the Boca Juniors man has been earning rave reviews since joining the Buenos Aires giants, despite their current league travails, thanks to his strength, grit and quality on the ball. Born and raised in a tough neighbourhood of the Chilean capital Santiago, Medel is also a handy goalscorer, as illustrated by his vital brace in the 2-0 qualifying win against Bolivia at altitude in La Paz.
Less frequent names in Bielsa’s squad lists have been Vidal and Isla, with both youngsters spending a spell out of the national-team frame after disagreements with the Argentinian strategist during the early stages of qualifying. However, they have now battled their way back into the picture, thanks in the main to their talent and consistent performances in the Bundesliga and Serie A respectively.
Prone to hot-headedness earlier in his career, a more mature Vidal has shown his class both in midfield and at the back for club side Bayer Leverkusen, who are well in the frame for this season’s Bundesliga crown. “In 2010 I want to win the title with Bayer Leverkusen and be a world champion (with Chile),” said Vidal, a man clearly not short on confidence or ambition.
Isla, meanwhile, has made a virtually seamless transition from the playing fields of his hometown Buin to the Italian top flight with Udinese, via a period in the youth ranks at Chilean side Universidad Catolica. And just like he once did with Javier Mascherano during his tenure as Albiceleste supremo, Bielsa gave Isla his senior national-team debut even before he had turned professional.
Last but not least are Universidad Catolica duo of goalkeeper Toselli and defender Martinez, with the former going a record 492 minutes without conceding at Canada 2007. Martinez, for his part, helped Chile clinch third spot at the latter event with a fine goal against Austria.
“We’re not going to the World Cup just for the ride,” said Islas, who will no doubt be eagerly awaiting La Roja’s opening Group H encounter against Honduras on 16 June in Nelspruit. But with favourites Spain also drawn in their section, along with always solid Switzerland, will Bielsa’s tactical nous and Chile’s class of Canada 2007 be enough for a place in the Round of 16?