A creditable showing at France 1998 and a third-placed finish at
the 2000 Sydney Olympics suggested that Chilean football had
finally turned the corner. And yet the South Americans have been
unable to build on those achievements, slipping out of the
international limelight almost immediately afterwards, with two
failed qualifications bids for Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006
underlining their lack of progress.
That outing in France saw the Chileans claim draws against Italy, Austria and Cameroon in the group phase, enough to take them through to a second-round meeting with Brazil. Yet despite their much-vaunted strike partnership of Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas, the mighty Seleçao had too much in the tank for the men in red and romped to a 4-1 win. Few could have guessed then that it would be Chile's last appearance in the greatest footballing show on Earth for some considerable time.
Their luck was most definitely out in the qualifiers for Korea/Japan 2002, where they came bottom of the ten-team group with a sorry return of 12 points from 18 games. Although their fortunes improved a little next time round, when they went into the final rounds of games with a chance of making the play-off against Australia, it was not to be, and the Chileans were forced to watch the drama of Germany 2006 unfold on their television sets.
Those two fruitless qualification campaigns have been followed a host of changes at the country's National Professional Football Association (ANFP). Veteran coach Nelson Acosta resigned following Chile's quarter-final exit at the Copa America in Venezuela, prompting new president Harold Mayne-Nicholls to initiate a new project under the Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa, who guided the Albiceleste to gold in the Olympic Football Tournament at Athens 2004.
Bielsa knows all about the ins and outs of FIFA World Cup qualifying in South America, having steered Argentina to Korea/Japan 2002 and leaving them on the brink of Germany 2006 before relinquishing his post. And with his experience and the combination of a new breed led by Humberto Suazo and the youngsters who took third place at the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, a return to the world elite could well be in the offing. Only time and results on the pitch will reveal the scope of Chile's ambitions.