Roy Hodgson was in no doubt as to who was Chile’s star performer when they beat his England side 2-0 at Wembley in November 2013. Though Alexis Sanchez picked up the official man of the match award for his two-goal performance, the home coach had nothing but praise for Claudio Bravo, La Roja’s man between the posts: “I think it was the best demonstration of footwork and passing I’ve ever seen from a keeper,” he declared.
It came as no surprise, then, when the Chilean custodian left Real Sociedad at the end of the season to join Barcelona, where cultured footwork is an essential asset for any player looking to hold down a first-team place.
Two years on and Bravo and his club-mates find themselves in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 courtesy of a 3-0 semi-final defeat of Guangzhou Evergrande, all the goals coming from Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez. Just as in Chile’s Wembley triumph, however, there was more to the victory than some silky finishing.
An illustration of that came just before the break, when, with Barça leading 1-0, Guangzhou’s Brazilian forward Elkeson flashed a dangerous header towards the inside of Bravo’s far post. Diving full stretch, the Chilean keeper met the ball on the half volley and tipped it away to prevent the Chinese outfit from pulling level and making life harder for the Spanish giants.
“It’s hard to explain, but you have to ready at any moment,” Bravo told FIFA.com when asked how he manages to stay focused and be in the right place at the right time. “There was that chance, when I had to really concentrate to make what was a very tough save.
“A situation like that can happen at any time. Though I hardly had anything to do in the first half, it was in my mind the whole time. You always have to be focused and communicate with your team-mates and read the game. That’s something that comes with time and experience.”
It’s definitely going to be spicier.
Now 32, Bravo is not short of experience, having made a record 99 appearances in a Chile career that includes appearances at two FIFA World Cup™ finals and four Copa America competitions, and having also won five titles in 2015.
“I take it all in my stride, with a sense of calm. I never think I’ve got a trophy won until it’s won,” said the keeper, who could add the Japan 2015 crown to the Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and Copa America titles he has lifted this year. “I always try to think of the next match, on us being professional about it and focused and playing in our usual efficient way. That’s the only way you achieve objectives.”
Something in the air
The objective in this particular case is to lift the trophy in Sunday’s final against Argentina’s River Plate, opponents who stir up some vivid memories for the Barça custodian. “Playing against a South American club is a whole different ball game,” said Bravo, whose nickname, Condor Chico, recalls that of his predecessor at Colo-Colo, Roberto “El Condor” Rojas.
“There’s a totally different atmosphere at South American grounds,” he added with a smile. “It’s more festive, and there’s more edge to it, more tension. There’s a bit more spice in the air behind the goals. It is more tense and when you get to the stadium you usually keep the curtains drawn on the bus.”
With 15,000 Argentinian supporters expected at the Yokohama Stadium on Sunday, Bravo may need to draw the curtains again when he and his team-mates pitch up. “It’s definitely going to be spicier,” said the Chilean, who savoured the rarefied atmosphere of South American club football at first hand in the Chilean league and the Copa Libertadores.
“I’m happy, though, because people are really looking forward to the match. For us it’s great to see the fans come and support their team. That’s what makes football a party, which is what you see in South America.
“It’s great to experience something like that. As a player you want games to be played in an atmosphere like that, with all the folklore of football and the supporters. And we’ll be up against a team with a great history and some fantastic players. It’s going to be a really good match.”
Earlier this year, Bravo came up against another team with an illustrious past and packed with leading players: Argentina, in the Copa America final. The keeper had a night to remember on that occasion, excelling himself in the penalty shootout and hoisting the trophy aloft, an outcome he would be only too happy to repeat on Sunday.