Mere days prior to the crucial South American Zone qualifier for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ between Chile and Uruguay, Esteban Paredes was busy working up a sweat in training with his Mexican club side Atlante. The Chilean international had missed out on the latest squad picked by national coach Jorge Sampaoli, and had watched from afar as La Roja suffered a painful 1-0 reverse in Peru on 22 March – a result that sent his nation tumbling out of the qualifying spots for Brazil 2014.
However, fate threw Paredes a lifeline after a yellow card in Peru for star man Alexis Sanchez ruled the Barcelona forward out of the 26 March clash with La Celeste in Santiago. Paredes received a phone call and the rest is history: the striker starting for Chile and notching his country’s first in a 2-0 success against Uruguay.
Seizing his chance
Days after helping revive Chile’s hopes of securing direct passage to Brazil 2014, Paredes was more than happy to recall the events that put him in the right place at the right time. “I was surprised to get the call, it didn’t seem like there was time for me to get there... Everything happened very fast,” he said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“The bosses at Atlante gave me permission to go, so off I went, trained with the squad, started and scored a goal. My team-mates and I have helped put Chile back where they belong: in the qualifying spots,” added the front-man on La Roja’s leap into the fourth and final direct qualifying berth, though they remain level on 15 points with fifth-placed Venezuela.
“I managed to rise to the occasion for the Chilean national team,” continued Paredes, clearly delighted by his tenth minute opener. “It’d been a long time since we beat Uruguay in qualifying. We’ve done it now though, and it’s done the squad a lot of good.”
That is something of an understatement, with the win providing much-needed relief for a team that had lost their four previous South American Zone qualifiers. “There’d been talk in the press that the dressing room had been divided since Jorge Sampaoli’s appointment, but I think against Uruguay we proved that’s not the case,” said 32-year-old Paredes.
I was given a chance this time, but that doesn’t mean anything. I can’t afford to relax, I need to keep working hard and scoring goals at Atlante so I get more [national-team] opportunities.
“You could see that in the way that [the squad’s three keepers] Claudio Bravo, Nestor Pinto and Jhonny Herrera all hugged each other. I think that we’re all really pulling together for the national squad right now.”
Tough times, bright future?
Such good sensations in La Roja camp contrast sharply with the rollercoaster ride endured in recent years. On the back of an impressive showing at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Chile have seemingly been unable to build on the potential shown on South African soil.
As someone with first-hand experience of much of these travails, Paredes is ideally placed to give his verdict: “A lot of things went on, too many in fact,” he said. “[Marcelo] Bielsa left, then came Claudio [Borghi], who started very well. But then later came a significant slump, due to a lot of factors, which I’d rather not go into here. There have been too many changes – of coach, of playing system – but that’s behind us. We’ve got to look to the future now.”
And the immediate future, in Brazil 2014 preliminary terms, takes the form of meetings on 7 and 11 June with the two teams currently in last and second-to-last spot in the standings. “The games against Paraguay [away] and Bolivia [at home] are going to be decisive,” said Paredes.
“We know that we’ve got some very good players turning out for some of the world’s best clubs, so we’re very confident in our chances. But we also know that if we take our foot off the pedal, we could be in trouble. It’s vital we win, as if we take all six points we won’t be far off qualifying.”
So, finally, after his sparkling display against Uruguay, does Paredes expect to be involved in those matches? “I don’t know,” admitted the forward, as the interview concluded.
“I was given a chance this time, but that doesn’t mean anything. I can’t afford to relax, I need to keep working hard and scoring goals at Atlante so I get more [national-team] opportunities. I don’t see myself as a definite starter, but I do think I’m a player who can really help the team. And, if and when I’m needed, I’ll be ready to do just that.”