Chile climbing mountains
© AFP

Chile have enjoyed a remarkable upturn in fortunes since Marcelo Bielsa took over as national coach in August 2007. Absent from the big stage since France 1998, La Roja qualified in fine style for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, finishing second in the South American Zone, just a point behind Brazil.

Not surprisingly, that achievement has resulted in a steady climb of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where the Chileans now stand 14th, their highest position in nearly 12 years.

The last time Chile stood so close to the top ten was in September 1998, when they rose to 12th. And it was in April that year that the South Americans achieved their all-time high of sixth. Since then, however, it has been mostly downhill, with the Chileans dropping as low as 84th in December 2002.

Although signs of a recovery came under Bielsa’s predecessor Nelson Acosta, it was the appointment of man they call El Loco that proved the catalyst for Chile’s emergence from the doldrums.

The figures add up
The Argentinian took over only a month after a calamitous 6-1 defeat to Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2007 Copa America, with his new side still only 47th in the Ranking. Bielsa’s immediate brief was to make a good start in the upcoming qualifying competition for South Africa 2010, and although results were mixed at first, his side managed to scale 12 places over the following year.

It was then that his influence began to show. Recording a notable home win over neighbours Argentina and away triumphs in Peru and Paraguay, his charges surged towards qualification, a feat that translated into a much-improved Ranking of 26th in August 2009. By the end of the year, the Chileans had risen to 15th, their loftiest position since October 1998.

Prior to the January friendly with Panama, Chile had notched up 18 wins in 35 qualifying matches and official friendlies under Bielsa, recording six draws and only 11 defeats in that time. It is those figures explain their 35-place Ranking rise during El Loco’s tenure to date.

Knock-on effect
There is much more to Chile’s resurgence than mere figures and statistics, however. Not only have La Roja recovered their self-esteem, the country’s players are also reaping the rewards of the recent turnaround. Since Bielsa’s appointment a clutch of players have been snapped up by foreign clubs. Mauricio Isla and Fabian Orellana were both signed by Serie A side Udinese, with Orellana since going on loan to Spanish outfit Xerez, while Carlos Carmona is now at Reggina.

Other notable moves include Gary Medel to Boca Juniors, Jean Beausejour to Mexico’s America and Carlos Villanueva to Blackburn Rovers, though he has since to departed to UAE club Al-Shabab.

Some of the players already plying their trade abroad have furthered their careers since, with Matias Fernandez switching from Villarreal to Sporting Lisbon, and goalscorer-in-chief Humberto Suazo joining Real Zaragoza from Monterrey. Udinese’s Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal of Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow’s Mark Gonzalez are also enjoying productive spells, while holding midfielder Marco Estrada is widely rumoured to be close to a move to Europe.

And with this talented pack about to set sail for South Africa 2010, it would come as no surprise to see Chile continue their steady ascent up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.