After Chile rubberstamped their ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup 2014™ in the final round of South American Zone qualifying matches, FIFA.com looks back on the path that led them to what will be a ninth World Cup participation.
Following a rocky start to proceedings, Chile improved as their qualifying campaign wore on. By its conclusion, La Roja’s results and playing style were such that they now harbour genuine hopes of emulating their country’s third-place finish at Chile 1962, their highest placing at a World Cup.
Sampaoli makes his mark
The outlook was not always so positive. In December 2012, after ten rounds of matches, Chile’s prospects of reaching Brazil 2014 appeared remote as they were sixth in the overall standings, behind Venezuela on goal difference. Under coach Claudio Borghi, the side were inconsistent and struggled to click into gear, winning four but losing six of their opening fixtures. Borghi was replaced by Jorge Sampaoli, a disciple of fan favourite Marcelo Bielsa, who had guided Chile to qualification for South Africa 2010.
Sampaoli, a fellow Argentinian, arrived with a proven track record after leading Universidad de Chile to four national titles as well as the Copa Sudamericana. The 53-year-old swiftly set about implementing his philosophy: using the wings, pressing high up the pitch and constant movement. He talked to the squad, sought to bring a sense of calm and assurance to under-fire players and motivated them to find the form that had helped Chile finish second in the previous qualifying campaign.
Sampaoli’s tenure began with a defeat to Peru in Lima, Chile’s fourth consecutive qualifying reverse. However, they soon turned a corner, both in terms of performances and results. Chile embarked on a four game winning streak in the qualifiers, three of which came on home soil. It represented the nation’s best-ever run of form and was something not even Bielsa had managed.
Golden generation comes good
In the wake of qualification for South Africa 2010, much was expected of the country’s exciting crop of players, including Claudio Bravo, Arturo Vidal, Mauricio Isla, Alexis Sanchez, Gary Medel, Gonzalo Jara and Carlos Carmona. All of them have youth on their side and the potential to improve, qualities that could help cement Chile’s place among the continent’s heavyweights.
Nevertheless, at the start of qualifying numerous players were not at their best and in some cases more involved in off-field issues than on their own performances levels. Sampaoli soon restored order and brought unity to the squad.
“Football gives you so much and not everybody can handle it,” Vidal said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com in 2012. “You need to grow up as a person and, because of the position you’re in, sometimes you have a duty to set an example. But that’s not an easy task because to do that you need certain qualities that only come with time.” As the months passed, the players, many of whom had finished third at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, found stability both on and off the pitch.
Key figures step up
The players’ increasing maturity, their development at their clubs, as well as under the guidance of the coaching staff with the national team, helped bring out the best in the side’s leading figures when it mattered most. In the last five matches Vidal hit the target four times, while Sanchez matched that tally in the last four outings.
The return of playmaker and key assist-provider Jorge Valdivia after almost two years of suspension has also been a factor in the side’s upswing. The No10 helped control the tempo of the games and his range of passing added variety to the team’s attacking dynamism.
Following a change in management, new coaches often tend to rely on tried and trusted players to do their on-field bidding. It was no different under Sampaoli, with Eduardo Vargas and Marcelo Diaz given leading roles.
At Universidad de Chile, Sampaoli had transformed Vargas from a midfielder into a right-sided forward, his more natural position. Their reunion in the national team proved the catalyst for Vargas to hit top form once more.
The 23-year-old has been sensational in 2013, with each of his four goals coming at crucial junctures. He opened the scoring in the victories over Paraguay, Bolivia and Venezuela and struck the decisive second goal to make it 2-0 against Uruguay, the first triumph of the side’s impressive run. Vargas unsettled opponents with his constant pressing, a basic requirement for a striker in Sampaoli’s philosophy. Such was Vargas’ impact that it negated the effects of the self-imposed absence of forward Humberto Suazo, who, despite being Chile’s top scorer in South Africa 2010 qualifying, did not feature much under Sampaoli.
Diaz rose to prominence with Universidad de Chile in 2011. Previously a winger, Sampaoli moved the 26-year-old into a more central position to provide balance to a team with as much attacking intent as La U. Diaz did not go to South Africa 2010 and, although he did play under Borghi, it was under Sampaoli that he became La Roja’s midfield anchor.
Belief in the philosophy
“In the final part of the process, the team found a style that made them better than any opponent they faced and that gave them the confidence you can see,” Sampaoli said after securing their place at Brazil 2014. “Together we developed a style that allowed us to feel we could compete with anybody anywhere, and to fight each match as if it were our last.”
Sampaoli’s faith in his ideas and his players’ desire to succeed was reflected in their results, with five of the next seven encounters ending in triumph. Furthermore, and somewhat paradoxically for such an attack-minded team, while they only scored one more goal than under Borghi (15 compared to 14), they conceded 11 fewer (seven as opposed to 18), three of which came playing with ten men away to Colombia in Chile’s only draw of the campaign.