Known across the world for its excellent wines and stunning Pacific coastline, to name but two of its many attractions, Chile has also produced a host of fine footballers in recent decades - with Marcelo Salas arguably the pick of the bunch. After a lengthy spell away, El Matador is back and aiming to fire La Roja to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
For many observers, Salas is the last of a golden generation of South American goalscorers left at the very highest level, with Ecuador's Agustin Delgado, Argentinian poacher extraordinaire Gabriel Batistuta, Paraguay's Jose Cardozo and Brazilian phenomenon Ronaldo all either retired or out of the international picture. Salas himself had called time on his Chile career, only changing his mind a few short months ago. La Roja fans are grateful that he did, as the veteran marksman grabbed a brace in the recent 2-2 draw against Uruguay, the Chileans' first ever point in Montevideo.
Golden touch still intact
Having been plagued by injury ever since his return from European football, the former River Plate and current Universidad de Chile striker has endured more lows than highs in recent years. One of these low points even led to him abandoning the game for six long months, after a fall-out with the previous management at Universidad.
However, the appointment of Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa as Chile supremo appears to have turned the situation on its head. After more than two years away from the national team, the Temuco-born front-runner has returned to lend much-needed experience to a youthful squad.
"I'm not the one who's going to unearth the footballing ability of a player like Marcelo. We're hoping he's able to bring all his quality to bear on the pitch as well as his leadership skills off it," said El Loco Bielsa when announcing Salas' original call-up.
The gamble has certainly paid off. Chilean fans had all but given up hope of seeing Salas' trademark celebration again in their red jersey, yet five games into his comeback there he was, kneeling on the turf of Montevideo's Estadio Centenario, his finger raised in triumph towards the heavens. His first goal against Uruguay ended an international drought that went all the way back to 4 June 2005 and a 3-1 win over Bolivia in Germany 2006 qualifying.
"You never know what the future will hold, what matters at the moment is that Chile have picked up a point where they'd never done so before. On a personal note I'm very pleased to have contributed and to have scored again in these colours," said the 32-year-old shortly after finding the net with a full-length diving header and a coolly taken spot-kick. La Roja were unable to build on that performance in their next game, however, slumping to a comprehensive 3-0 home defeat by Paraguay in Santiago's Estadio Nacional.
South Africa 2010 may still be a long way off, but many Chilean fans remain hopeful that Salas can guide them safely through the pitfalls of South American qualifying. If proof were needed, a quick look at the messages of support received by FIFA.com from every corner of the Andean nation should dispel any doubts.
" El Matador, you're the greatest, we never lost faith in you!" roared SEBACHILE after the Uruguay match, jmarquez adding that Salas is "sharper than ever. Keep it going Chile!"
The country's media was also quick to heap praise on the
highest goalscorer in the history of the national team.
La Tercera led with the claim that Salas "rewrote the
history books", while
El Mercurio dubbed him a "first-class veteran".
And what does the man himself make of all this? "I always felt very close to the public, even though that's not why I did my job. I'm always grateful for the support and I hope to continue to give more reasons for celebration in order to help this team grow and make all us Chileans happy."
In the case of Marcelo Salas, it seems the old saying is true: form is temporary, class is permanent.