Just one year ago, a glance at the South American Zone standings in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying was less than reassuring for Chilean football followers. With over half of the preliminary competition played, a run of three consecutive defeats had put La Roja adrift of the four direct qualifying berths as well as fifth place– which would secure an intercontinental play-off spot.
Despite the presence of a generación dorada (golden generation) of players, stability eluded Chile both on and off the pitch, a situation that led the country’s FA to hand the reins to Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli. A self-professed admirer of iconic ex-Roja boss Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli had been racking up the silverware with Universidad de Chile. For all that, many wondered just how the 55-year-old would step out of the shadow of El Loco, whose successful tenure included taking Chile to the Round of 16 of South Africa 2010?
The answer came in the form of an ultra-attacking brand of football, with Chile rapidly getting their qualifying bid back on track and finishing in third place. Furthermore, in a FIFA.com survey, Sampaoli was even voted the best coach in South American Zone qualifying by his fellow supremos. Of this lofty feat and much more, La Roja’s boss spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: How did it feel when your peers voted you the best coach in CONMEBOL qualifying for Brazil 2014?
Jorge Sampaoli: I felt very grateful… As a coach, it’s one of the most valuable things that can happen to you. I was genuinely happy to receive that recognition from them and, as I wasn’t expecting it, it was a really pleasant surprise. It made me feel great to think how coaches of that calibre had chosen me as the best of that qualifying campaign.
What do you think was the most important of the measures you took to turn Chile’s campaign around?
The most important thing was picking up from where Marcelo Bielsa had left off in the previous qualifying campaign [for South Africa 2010]. The players still had their mindset from that period stored somewhere, and the fact they saw a World Cup place slipping away from them made things a touch easier. That level of need and urgency helped make them incredibly committed to the collective project we’d proposed.
And off the pitch?
Off the field we always endeavour to make today’s post-modern players feel the need to recover the amateurism, the playing for playing’s sake, that they had as children. It’s about translating that to the modern day and getting the better of the temptations that are out there. It’s a continuous process.
Your Chile side have been praised for playing attacking football, whoever the opponents. How much of a help was it that most of the squad had previously played under Bielsa?
It was important because the players already knew that methodology, that way of feeling the game. It was easier for me because I’ve been following Bielsa since the '90s, so it’s easier to get the ideas across of a coach whose way of expressing himself and whose feeling for football you identity with. So, there were loads of similar connotations that helped make it viable for the Chilean players to feel a match for anyone anywhere.
Are you a more flexible coach than Bielsa is?
I don’t know if I’m more flexible, but I do know that I’ve got different characteristics. I think that Marcelo is among the leading coaches in the history of world football. So, making comparisons or thinking that someone is similar is unfair, because he’s above all or at least the majority of coaches. I’m very thankful for having been able to hear Bielsa speak loads of times and for having learned so many things from him, but then you go about finding your own way, which makes you a coach with a similar way of thinking but different ideas.
With Brazil 2014 in mind, what aspect of Chile’s preparations are you most concerned about?
I think that our World Cup preparations are going to have to be tailored, basically because the players will join up with us in different states of fitness – some will have played a lot of games, others not many. So we’re going to have to use individualised training methods, so that we can see how to handle those who’ve played 80 games and those who’ve played very few competitive matches. With some of the players we’ll need to complement training with audiovisual aids, while using practical drills with others, so we can try and be in the best shape possible come the World Cup, without generalising our preparations.
On the subject of individual players, how much have you had to do with Alexis Sanchez’s great club form so far this season?
Not very much. Alexis has simply found a role under the new coach at Barcelona that has got him more involved. With Chile too he took the chance to stand out and change the image people had of him, which again is something that’s more down to him than me. He brought about a very significant change and took the lead in situations that make him a different kind of player, one with a lot of authority and someone who we really rely on.
Could Sanchez be a decisive player for Chile at Brazil 2014?
He has to be… He has to be one of the players who does that for us… We’re hopeful he can continue his current form, that Eduardo Vargas can build on his qualifying performances, that Arturo Vidal can carry his Juventus form [into the World Cup]… If those players don’t hit the standards they’re currently showing, Chile are going to have a hard time of it.
What’s the situation with Jorge Valdivia? Chile don’t seem to have another playmaker in his mould…
Jorge is an irreplaceable talent for us. The wait for him to recover from his injury problems unsettled things for the coaching staff, because we knew that the way he plays he could give us something that a lot of teams lack. Right now, he’s key to the kind of football that we play, because he’s a class apart – like [Lionel] Messi for Argentina, [Cristiano] Ronaldo for Portugal and [Franck] Ribery for France. We need him at his best.
Can Chile challenge for the World Cup Trophy?
I think that given the teams we’ll be up against, it's not logical to start thinking that we’re among the candidates to win the World Cup. Later on a lot of situations might come about that give you the opportunity to challenge and overcome situations that right now you don’t think you could. But history tells us that things always tend to fall into place, and the logical candidates are the usual suspects. Surprise results could possibly give Chile the chance to get in the mix, but when you look at what’s gone on at previous World Cups, very little seems to change.
Are you worried about how much pressure the team’s under to get through the group phase?
We need to treat the first phase of the World Cup like any other group phase, showing greatness in the face of the challenges we’ve been handed and working hard to overcome them. To do that we need players who are hungry, who yearn for glory and that will go after it at the World Cup.
Finally, does the excitement of the Chilean fans concern you at all, since the general feeling is that Chile are title hopefuls?
It does make me a bit uncomfortable in a way, because it’s not realistic. It’s like when someone wants something that, as it’s part of the competition, they feel they need, but which is sometimes unachievable. It makes me uncomfortable that they’re hoping I’m capable of making Chile win a World Cup, particularly when I think about how difficult that is and the difference between us and other national teams that are genuinely a cut above us. We need to be aware that difference exists and that it’s real but that we’re going to try, through hard work, to be a well-functioning team that’s ready to compete with anyone.