No sooner did Chile find out their first opponents in the South American qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ would be Brazil, than Mauricio Pinilla cast his mind back to 24 June 2014. Not even Chile’s intervening Copa America triumph has allowed the forward to block out the memories of that fateful night at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte when, with 119 minutes on the clock and the scores tied at 1-1, the width of the crossbar denied Pinilla a goal that would have put La Roja into the World Cup quarter-finals at the hosts’ expense.
The subsequent defeat in the penalty shootout, during which Pinilla had his effort saved, only gave greater resonance to his earlier shot – a thunderous right-foot strike from the edge of the area, following a slick one-two with Alexis Sanchez. Permanently etched in his memory, the Santiago native does not need reminding of the incident – not that it stops people from doing just that.
“I see it almost on a weekly basis as people are so kind as to refer to it on social media,” Pinilla told FIFA.com. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter… someone is always reminding me. In truth, however, it’s something I’ve accepted and got over. Football is like that – the goal frame has two posts and a crossbar, so it’s always possible you’re going to hit one of them.”
Perhaps being 31 and a full international now for 12 years has helped Pinilla come to terms with the matter. He has even learned to deal with the painful what-ifs when contemplating how different things might have been had the ball been just a centimetre or two lower.
He said: “We all know what would have happened: to eliminate Brazil from their tournament with a beautiful goal like that would have been historic for Chile, and for me. However, no sooner do you begin to envisage that than it vanishes, as it simply didn’t happen.”
Pinilla admits that, ever since that game, his shot has been a recurring theme of conversation. “Everyone asks me about that move, both in Chile and in Italy: my team-mates at Atalanta, the club president, the fans… As for Chile, even my grandmother has an opinion. What did she say to me? ‘Next time it’ll go in for you, my dear, though it was a really nice bit of play’.”
While admitting “it’s not a topic I tend to bring up”, Pinilla has helped immortalise the moment with a tattoo on his back depicting the ball hitting the crossbar above the words: *One centimetre from glory. *“I wanted to commemorate that World Cup by doing something different. It was such an important episode that it could have changed history. The move didn’t end the way I wanted, but for me it will always be significant.”
Pinigol, as he is known, came off the bench near the end of normal time in Belo Horizonte and admitted he would love to start and score against Brazil whey they come to Santiago this Thursday to kick off their bid to reach Russia 2018: "That said, my shot against the crossbar will never be forgotten. It’s will go down in history and can never be erased. Perhaps the only thing that might make us forget would be performing well, securing more victories and enhancing the history of Chilean football."
Chile took a big step in this direction with the country’s maiden Copa America title this year. The challenge now, though, is to build on that success in the qualifying competition for Russia 2018, where they will be among the favourites.
“Having never won anything or been considered among the world’s top teams, we go into this campaign as South American champions and among the top ten in the FIFA Ranking," Pinilla remarked. "The team have a style of play the fans like, purposeful and with a clear vision, which has even been acclaimed in Europe. In football, you need to show day in, day out that you’re on your game, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
For all the positivity, Pinilla knows Chile’s opening fixture against Brazil will be far from easy. As well as falling to them at the last World Cup, La Roja have now gone 15 games and 15 years without a win against A Seleção. Indeed you have to back to August 2000 and the qualifiers for Korea/Japan 2002 for their last win, a 3-0 triumph with goals from Fabian Estay, Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas.
“There’s always an added motivation when you play them, and victory this time would heal a few wounds – though nothing more," he said. "Taking all three points from the game in Santiago is what matters most because, unlike in previous editions, I believe World Cup qualification will be decided by home form. With so little between the teams and everyone very strong at home, we can’t afford to be the exception."
Above and beyond the clear objective, which is to reach the next World Cup, Pinilla knows the long-term importance of the qualifying process they are about to embark on. And just as with his famous effort against Brazil last year, he does not want to lose sight of the bigger picture.
“For us, it was key to win the continental title not just to get our hands on it, but also so that we could improve Chilean football and instil belief in youngsters, who have grown up hearing that Chile never win anything," he said. "Well now we’ve won something, so the next generations need to emulate that and arrive with the mentality of winners, not just participants. That way Chile can continue to win titles in the future."