The curious case of Chile’s Mauricio Isla brings to mind another South American who found success abroad, namely Argentina’s Javier Mascherano, who also shares the distinction of being capped for his country before having played a single professional match at club level.
This unusual turn of events came about on the back of a fine performance by Isla at the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada, in which Chile would ultimately secure third place. National coach Marcelo Bielsa, seeing in the defender-cum-midfielder a future star, offered him his first cap in a friendly defeat by Switzerland a few months later.
Isla initially turned out for Universidad Catolica's youth sides as a forward, where he made a name for himself with his mazy dribbles and excellent link-up work. However, given his height and slight frame, his coaches at the time persuaded him to drop back into defence, where he still plays today, for Italian club Udinese.
While his appearances in Chile’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying matches were scarce, Isla has been able to count on the continued backing of Bielsa, who has always included him in his squads, and regards him as a wild card, using him at full-back, centre-back and even defensive midfielder.
His strong personality can be measured by the following statement: “Chile won’t be going to the World Cup as a surprise package. We fully realise that other countries are wary of us and that we are a match for any team. That is clear from the respect that we are now being shown.”