*It has been an unforgettable year for Chile. In addition to winning a maiden Copa America title and getting off to a good start in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying – their recent defeat to Uruguay notwithstanding – this month they reached a new milestone by climbing to an all-time high of fifth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
La Roja’s road into the top five has been a long one. Indeed, after rising to sixth in April 1998 under the guidance of Uruguayan coach Nelson Acosta, they had to wait until July 2010 before featuring in the top ten again, reaching tenth under the Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa. They have grown accustomed to rubbing shoulders with the world’s elite since then, although it was not until recently that they managed to take next step.*
**In order to explain Chile’s historic ascent, the arrival of Jorge Sampaoli as national team head coach in December 2012 serves as a good starting point. Ranked 26th at the time, Chile were struggling to make any progress and their prospects of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were hanging in the balance.
Nevertheless, with a bold attacking philosophy the Argentinian coach showed what is arguably the best crop of Chilean players in history the path to take. In doing so, and relying on key figures such as Claudio Bravo, Gary Medel, Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas, he turned the team’s fortunes around in the tough South American qualifying campaign and comfortably sealed a place at Brazil 2014, where they had the tournament hosts on the ropes in the Round of 16.
Chile grew used to facing such opponents as equals and went on to secure a place in the top 15 in the world ranking. In August, September and October 2014 they sat 12th in the global standings and ended the year in 14th.
After beating Argentina on penalties in the 2015 Copa America final, La Roja moved up to 11th place in July and broke into the top ten again a month later. Victories in their first two qualifying matches for Russia 2018, at home to Brazil and away to Peru in Lima, catapulted Chile up to their current position.
*“The statistics are momentary,” said Sampaoli of their ranking in an effort to give it some perspective. “We should take advantage of this period the players are in because it’s very valuable. If we do that then others will continue to respect Chile the way they do now. The players have earned this.”
*Indeed, there is no doubting the development the team have made, even after drawing at home to Colombia and losing away to Uruguay in their two most recent qualifiers for Russia 2018.
The praise they drew from Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez stands as testament to that: “We’re happy because we beat the best side Chile have had for a number of years, given the way they play as a team. We didn’t just sit back but nor were we stupid enough to play with ten men in attack against a side that are good on the ball, who are able to launch dangerous long balls forward from defence and who have a lot of pace up front.”
In the wake of that defeat in Montevideo, Sampaoli looked to the future with the same composure he displayed in analysing his team’s rise to fifth. “We got carried away with our start. We played well against Colombia and we went into the match with Uruguay wanting to take the initiative but we got sucked into their game. You can learn something from every fixture and this one was no different. It’s a good lesson for what lies ahead because it will be a difficult and tricky qualifying campaign.”