By almost universal consensus, Universidad de Chile were the team of the year in South America in 2011. Between June and December, La U won two Chilean league championships and stayed unbeaten en route to their first international title, the Copa Sudamericana.
Along the way the team racked up some hugely impressive stats, including a 36-game unbeaten run and a record-breaking start to the Clausura of nine straight wins. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, was the team’s unwavering commitment to attacking football, a style that allowed them to exert a marked superiority over the vast majority of their opponents.
A case in point is that of fellow Santiago heavyweights Universidad Catolica, who after prevailing 2-0 in the first leg of the Apertura final last June were turned over 4-1 in the second. The aggregate win not only handed the title to Los Azules, but marked the start of an unforgettable six months that would culminate in their claiming the Apertura/Clausura double in December.
Nor were their domestic rivals the only ones to suffer during this spell. Continental powerhouses like Nacional of Uruguay, Brazil’s Flamengo and Ecuador’s Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito were all comprehensively beaten on their own turf by the Chileans during their all-conquering Sudamericana campaign.
Such was their dominance that the Brazilian media dubbed them the ‘South American Barcelona’. “In general, it’s an impossible comparison; I know that and so does everyone else,” said the coach Jorge Sampaoli, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. “However, as I said last month, in certain games, the sheer volume of our attacks surpassed even that of Barcelona at their best.”
The Argentinian strategist, who took up the reins at La U in late 2010, then offered a further explanation, saying. “There is no real comparison because Barcelona have been doing this for a long time. For three years now they’ve been the best and they continue to win titles.
"We’ve been doing something vaguely similar here, but for just for a year," he continued. "I recognise, however, that with players worth a fraction [of Barça’s], we’ve been able to perform in a way that has made us popular even with fans of other clubs. That’s something we have in common with Barcelona.”
Much of the credit for this has to go to Sampaoli. The 51-year-old is the brains behind a team that has won a multitude of admirers both at home and abroad. Born in Casilda, Santa Fe, on 13 March 1960, Sampaoli went on to play youth football for Newell’s Old Boys. It was there, as a hard-running defensive midfielder, that he earned the nickname Zurdo (Lefty) because of a right foot that he himself says was “only useful for walking on."
However, as fate would have it, a serious knee injury put paid to his hopes of playing first team football for the club. “It was then I decided to try my luck in another aspect of the professional game,” he recalled.
Sampaoli wasted no time in selecting Marcelo Bielsa as his coaching role model. “My relationship with Bielsa is almost mythical,” he admitted. “Through his excellence, he justifies an attacking style that I have always identified with, and I subscribe to his philosophy and ideas. Although Marcelo is constantly evolving, he has never lost the ability to convince his charges that they are as good as anyone, which makes him a central figure even when results go against him. That’s an admirable trait.”
Unlike many of Bielsa’s other disciples, Sampaoli has never worked directly under him. “That has never been an issue,” he explained. “Casilda is not far from Rosario and I spent a lot of time with him, collaborating extensively with his [coaching] work groups, even when he was in charge of the [Argentina] national team. I even used to listen to recordings of his talks on my headphones when I went walking.”
A chip off the old block
As well as sharing a coaching vernacular, dress sense and penchant for theatrics with Bielsa, Sampaoli also possesses a little of the former’s craziness. Take, for example, the story of how he landed his first paid coaching job thanks to a picture of him in a Rosario newspaper.
“That’s true actually,” he said. “It was 1995 and I was coaching an amateur side in Casilda. I’d picked up a red card the previous game and, as we had no stand at our ground, I had to climb a nearby tree to give instructions. The president of Newell’s [Old Boys] saw a photo of it and decided to offer me a coaching position at a third-division club he owned.”
Sampaoli established himself as a top coach in Peru, where he took charge of four clubs between 2002 and 2007. He got his first taste of Chilean football in 2008, steering modest outfit O’Higgins to a lofty third-place finish in the Apertura regular season standings. The following year he took up the reins at Ecuador’s Emelec, who he led to a runners-up spot in the league, before returning to Chile in 2010 and his current position at La U.
Asked for the secrets of his success, the Argentinian had this to say: “It’s about being able to work with players who firmly believe that attack is the principal argument. You cannot empower what doesn’t exist, but here there were players who didn’t conform to what others said.
"We tried to instil in them the habit of questioning precepts like, ‘you can’t play the same both home and away; ‘you can’t go out and attack Brazilian teams’; ‘you shouldn’t set out to play an offensive game at altitude’… I think that’s what made us almost unbeatable, at least during 2011.”
Heading into 2012, the Copa Libertadores would appear to be the main target for Universidad de Chile, although Sampaoli would not be drawn on specifics. Asked for his wish for the coming year, he replied simply: “To enjoy working with this team as much as 2011, both in terms of results and our play.”