For many years, the role of captain in the Chilean national team was synonymous with goals. The skipper's armband was the exclusive property of striker Ivan Zamorano during his heyday, and the job fell to Marcelo Salas after him. But with the legendary Za-Sa striker partnership now consigned to memory, the responsibility is presently being shouldered by with the man who looks after La Roja's interest at the opposite end of the field: Claudio Bravo.
And it is a job he is doing exceptionally well. Currently with Spain's Real Sociedad, having made his name at Chile's Colo Colo, Bravo is the only member of La Roja to have played every minute in the current South American qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Who better, then, to analyse the state of the national team as they prepare for their crunch meetings with Peru and Uruguay in the coming weeks?
"Many people are saying this has been a good qualifying campaign for us just because we're currently in fourth, but I don't share their opinion," he told FIFA.com. " While it's true we've been playing well and have our fate in our own hands, we need to wait before assessing our overall performance. We've won nothing yet and there is still a long way to go."
His prudence might surprise some people given that, with more than half the tournament played, Chile are holding down one of the four direct qualifying berths allocated to the ten-team group. However, Bravo insists his position is well founded: "In these qualifiers things can change in a flash, which is why I prefer to be cautious. Hopefully we'll be able to look back positively on the campaign when it's all behind us."
Despite being selected by his team-mates to inherit the armband from Salas, the 25-year-old keeper insists he is not the only one providing leadership in the squad. "There are a lot of young players in this group, so I try to look out for them and offer them a little advice. But I'm not policing anyone; that's not the idea. In this set-up, we all have our jobs to do and a shared responsibly. I don't have some sort of exclusivity on leadership or more rights than anyone else in this respect. All of us have to be involved in the formation of this team."
That said, the skipper is well qualified to speak about the challenges ahead, specifically his side's next game: the ever-piquant clásico del pacífico against Peru. "There's a very special rivalry between us," he explained. "The country grinds to a halt for this game and everyone is glued to a TV screen. As a player you know it's not just your own interests that are at stake, but those of all your compatriots. It's a beautiful thing and very motivating, but we mustn't forget it's only worth three points, just like all the other games."
Four days later La Roja host Uruguay, the highest-scoring side in the current campaign, and it is a fixture that will bring the keeper face to face with Real Sociedad team-mate Sebastian El Loco Abreu.
"El Loco and I have been winding each other up a lot about this game," he said with a laugh. "He says he's going to put one past me, but I've told him he'll find that hard to do from the sub's bench, and that I'll nobble him anyway in our last training session before we head off!" Joking aside, Bravo knows full well that the Celeste are a dangerous side and a direct rival for a qualification berth. "So far they have been the team that have created the most chances against us," he admitted. "They have deadly front men and are a fast and explosive side, so we'll need to be on our guard."
Bielsa, Spain and a cherished dream
Asked for his take on the marked improvement shown by his side during these qualifiers, Bravo is unequivocal. "[The coach Marcelo] Bielsa has brought an air of seriousness and discipline to the set-up and instilled maturity into a very young group. He's a perfectionist who overlooks nothing and is capable of getting the most out of his players and coaching staff." Bravo clearly has great respect for the Argentinian tactician, who has kept faith in him despite his having been in the Spanish second division for two seasons now.
"Not long ago there were reports claiming I wasn't happy in Spain, but I was quoted out of context," he says. "I spoke about the down side that had been our poor results, but that was all. I'm happy here and don't regret having come for one moment." Spain is also home to his wife and two young daughters, and he says having a young boy to pass on his love of football and goalkeeping remains a possibility as well.
"I hope to stay on here, secure promotion to the Primera and continue to develop my career. I'd like it to go on forever." We finish by asking about other dreams on the horizon and get an unsurprising response. "Of course, there is qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa. We were there for a friendly not long ago and I really believe it's going to be a great tournament. For now, we're on the right road to get there."