One of the biggest names in the Chile squad preparing to bid for glory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Mark Gonzalez will be doubly determined to rise to the occasion. Why you may ask? Well, the CSKA Moscow winger was born in the host nation of this year’s finals, before moving back to his parents’ homeland Chile as a child.

“The memories I have are mainly of school and my home, but I did get to see quite a lot of the country when we went on holidays,” he said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “I played a bit of rugby and cricket at school, which are really popular over there. But I was always football-crazy and I think I ended up picking the right sport!”

Moreover, this will be a first finals for Gonzalez and his fellow La Roja squad-mates, given Chile’s absence from world football’s top table since France 1998. The former Liverpool flyer firmly believes that Argentinian coach Marcelo Bielsa deserves a large share of the credit for their return: “At first we struggled a bit to adapt to the tempo and system of play that coach Bielsa was trying to get across.”

“But by the end of [South American Zone] qualifying we were playing on instinct, with a well-structured system. What matters most is that we proved we’re a tough team to play and we always go out to try and win,” added Gonzalez, with obvious pride. “He [Bielsa] came to Chile to change how we played the game. What we're doing now is totally different to before. There’s no other coach like him: he’s a perfectionist.”

“He’s very respectful, is a very good guy and is always approachable. When it comes to work he’s very strict, very disciplined. And everything he does is reflected in our play,” continued Gonzalez on former Argentina boss Bielsa, who took over the Chilean helm in August 2007.

I played a bit of rugby and cricket at school, which are really popular over there. But I was always football-crazy and I think I ended up picking the right sport!

Mark Gonzalez on growing up in South Africa

The conversation then turned to Chile’s Group H rivals at South Africa 2010 - Honduras, Switzerland and Spain - with Gonzalez singling out the UEFA EURO 2008 winners as the team to beat. “I think that Spain are the toughest team in the group, no disrespect to the other sides. To be honest, it’s going to be very hard to compete for first place but we’ll be looking to finish at least second and qualify for the next round. Obviously the games against Honduras and Switzerland will be crucial.”

“The quality of players they [Spain] have is incredible, but I think that they’ll be aware of us too,” said a man with inside knowledge of the Spanish game thanks to spells in La Liga with Albacete, Real Sociedad and Real Betis. “They know that we’ve got quality too, that we run a lot and that we could easily make life difficult for them. It’s going to be a great challenge.”

Change of scenery
However, after Betis’ relegation from the Primera Division at the end of 2008/09, the midfielder felt a change of scenery was in order with a view to the FIFA World Cup finals. “I was motivated by the chance to play in the Champions League and to fight for the league title, an opportunity I wouldn’t have at Betis,” said Gonzalez on the reasoning behind his summer 2009 switch to CSKA.

“The climate and the adaptation process is something else entirely. My English is ok, though to be honest not many people speak it here either. I wanted to play at a competitive standard and find my best form ahead of the World Cup.”

“What I’m really after is to be satisfied with our performance [at South Africa 2010], and for the fans to be happy too,” said Gonzalez as the interview drew to a close. “Aside from that, of course I’m aiming to go as far as possible. We can’t be ready to settle for something before we’ve even played a match.”

And with players of the calibre of Gonzalez, Humberto Suazo, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, allied to the coaching nous of 'El Loco' Bielsa, what price Chile snagging the dark horses’ tag come South Africa 2010?