Chile look to recreate past magic

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

SANTIAGO - The last time the Andean nation of Chile made an appearance at a World Cup finals was back in 1998.

Since then their golden generation of players most notably Ivan ‘Bam Bam’ Zamorano and Marcelo Salas have hung up their boots, opening the door for a talented and ambitious gang of young guns.

The core of the new Chilean side made their first mark on the international arena back in 2007, where the youth national team roared to the semi-finals of the U-20 World Cup in Canada.

Among the ranks that have made the jump from that team up to the full senior side are no fewer than seven players, including, most importantly, Arturo Vidal of Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen.

An elegant playmaker, the 22 year-old Vidal is looking likely to live up to the mantle held by any previous Chilean stars past.

Helming a team with a lucky blend of youth and experience, coach Marcelo Bielsa, who guided his native Argentina at the 2002 World Cup finals, led his new charges on an imperious run through the marathon South American qualifiers for this Junes World Cup, very nearly edging mighty five-time world champions Brazil to top spot.

With the coachs emphasis on attack and his young players willingness to throw caution to the wind, Chile finished just one slim point behind the Brazilians in the qualifying table.

The campaign marked a remarkable revival on the international scene following over a decade in the wilderness, and the team impressively won 16 of their 33 points away from Santiago.

Their hopes of achieving something past a group-stage exit at South Africa 2010, their eighth world finals, will not be dampened, either, since the official draw has seen them slotted into a manageable Group H.

While European Champions Spain will doubtless be the favourites to take the group’s top spot, Switzerland and Honduras should be teams that Chile will fancy their chances against.

Chiles best-ever finish at a World Cup came back in 1962 when they ended up third as hosts. This time around, the ambitious and optimistic side are hoping for more.

“Pre-tournament favourites dont always finish first, let alone top their group,” says attacking midfielder Jorge Valdivia of Al Ain in UAE. On the pitch, its 11 versus 11 and any side could end your tournament. You may have the best individual players in the world but not have a real team, so anything can happen. Chile are a good side and well capable of causing a few shocks.”

Led by the ever-rising Vidal, Chiles current campaigners also include the powerful defender Gary Medel of Boca Juniors, the experienced Valdivia as well as Udineses Alexis Sanchez. Goal machine Humberto Suazo finished ahead of such superstars as Robinho and Lionel Messi to finish top scorer in the South American section of qualifying for South Africa 2010.

The coach: Known as El Loco, Marcelo Bielsa is widely considered to be a football fanatic of the highest order. He stalks up and down the touchline and crouches in despair with a look of total anguish spread across his face.

After an unremarkable playing career, the Argentinian began coaching in 1990. After stints in Mexico, Spain and Argentina, he coached his native national team from 1998 to 2004, when he surprisingly resigned despite the team finishing second in the Copa America and winning the Olympic gold medal that year. He took up the Chilean reins in 2007 where he immediately charmed the nations fans with results and demeanour both.

The star: Despite the emergence of a number of fine young things in the Chilean senior team, veteran striker Humberto Suazo, 28, still rules the roost when it comes to banging in the goals. Powerful, speedy and full of guile and a poacher’s instincts, the bald-headed Real Zaragoza marksman scored no fewer than 10 times in the South American qualifiers to help La Roja finish second, just one point off the pace set by Brazil.

The penalty taker for the team, he converted a spot kick in the second minute of second half injury time to win 3-2 at Venezuela. He played in every one of Chiles 18 qualifiers, scoring in eight different matches.

Filed under: Football

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