Chilean international Jorge Valdivia is no stranger to success, having won his national league title in 2006 with hometown club Colo Colo and then the Sao Paulo State Championship in 2008 following his move to Brazilian giants Palmeiras.
With his star firmly on the rise, most experts tipped him to follow the well-worn path from South America to the Old Continent, but the attacking midfielder surprised everyone by signing for United Arab Emirates side Al Ain in August 2008. It was to prove an inspired move for the 26-year-old, who helped the club to three domestic trophies – the Federation Cup, the President’s Cup and UAE Supercup – in his first season there.
Valdivia also played a leading role in Chile’s qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and his hopes and dreams for this year’s showpiece event were among the topics under discussion in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Jorge, such has been your success with Al Ain that you’ve been made team captain. How significant is this for you?
Jorge Valdivia: The captain’s armband is important to me. I was captain when I played for Palmeiras and I’ve also led my country. It’s a source of great pride but at the same time it brings a lot of responsibility. For me, being captain means I have to set an example for the rest of the team and be a good role model for the youth players.
You must have been delighted to be named 2009 Player of the Year in the Emirati league?
To be named best player is always a significant achievement, as it means that the work you’ve done has not gone unrecognised. That award has given me a great incentive to achieve further goals and continue to play well.
You previously had loan spells in Spain and Switzerland. Is it your ambition to one day play for a top European club?
Of course I’d like to play in Europe again, but what I want more than anything now is to take part in the World Cup. My plan is to work hard to ensure I make the squad for South Africa. If I’m in the squad then I’ll fight for a starting place, but if I don’t play, I’ll still do all I can to help my team go as far as possible. How well I play at the World Cup, if selected, could be a factor in a move to Europe.
On the subject of South Africa 2010, do you think the draw was a good one for Chile?
The World Cup brings the best players from every continent together so there are no easy groups. Each section has a number of teams with ambitions of winning the cup. As far as Chile’s group is concerned, the draw is what it is – it’s impossible to say whether it’s a good or bad one. We’ll see after the tournament whether it was kind to us or not, but what I would say is that the other three teams in the group are all tough as well as being worthy contenders.
Spain are most people’s favourites to qualify from the group. Do you see it as a battle between Chile, Switzerland and Honduras for second?
Pre-tournament favourites don’t always finish first, let alone top their group. On the pitch it’s 11 versus 11 and any side could end your tournament. You may have the best individual players in the world but not have a real team, so anything can happen. Chile are a good side and well capable of causing a few shocks.
Your first group game is against Honduras. How important will it be to get off to a good start?
The first match will determine a lot. If we win it we’ll go into the second game with our morale high and within sight of the next round. If we lose though, then we’re immediately looking at other results.
Did you expect to finish second in the South American qualifiers after such a poor start?
We wanted to qualify for the World Cup – that’s what really mattered to us. Finishing second was a good result after all the effort we put in.
The game that took you to South Africa was the penultimate one away to Colombia, where you scored one goal and had a hand in the other three. How important was that for you?
It was very important not just for me, but for everyone. Chile were in desperate need of a win and we got it with a 4-2 scoreline. It was a dream game for all the players.
Chile have a potent front line led by Humberto Suazo, the top scorer in the qualifiers. Can we expect to see a similarly attack-minded formation in South Africa?
We’ll play in the same style as we did in qualifying, as coach [Marcelo] Bielsa always plays to win. Hopefully Suazo continues to score goals and can play as significant a role as he did in the qualifiers.
On the subject of Bielsa, what changes has he made since taking over as coach in 2007?
There have been many changes. He’s made us a more professional outfit and we work even harder at training. He’s also brought a different style of play to the team, which was evident during qualifying.
And how would you assess his role in getting Chile to this year’s FIFA World Cup?
Bielsa is the ultimate professional. He analyses our opponents down to the smallest detail. It’s impossible to define the specific role he played, but he has been pivotal to our qualifying and has brought a different mentality to the squad.
Finally, who are you tipping for success in South Africa?
Chile, of course! (Laughs) There is always the likes of Brazil, Italy, Germany, Spain and Argentina, but every tournament has a surprise team, so why not Chile?