Chile enters the Copa América with its best-ever generation of players—and the crushing weight of history on its shoulders
When British merchant ships arrived at Chile’s port towns in the middle of the 19th century, they brought with them an invasive species that would spread its vines and bury its roots deep in the country’s soil: football.
The sport quickly intertwined itself in the Chilean culture; it grew up alongside the nation’s people, enduring dictatorships, coup d’etats, and revolutions. It became as important to Chile as copper or wine. But a long history does not equal success—you can’t fill trophy cabinets with history books.
The Chilean Football Federation was founded in 1865, the second oldest football association on the continent, just two years younger than Argentina’s. Chile was one of the founding members of CONMEBOL in 1916, and helped to establish the South American Championship—what we now know as the Copa América. In 1930, Chile participated in the first-ever World Cup.
Despite this, Chile has nowhere near the international prowess of neighbors Argentina, Brazil or Uruguay. Until recently, they did not even have a national playing identity to speak of. They have never won a World Cup and—even more important, in the context of South American football—have never won the Copa América. That failing remains a mark of shame, considering Peru, their eternal rivals and usual footballing minnows, lay claim to two Copa América titles of their own.
With that kind of history, it is not hard to understand the importance of this summer’s Copa América for the Chilean people. They will play host to their continental neighbors with their best-ever generation of players and a manager who is one of the most forward-thinking in the game. Rather masochistically, they will be expecting nothing less than title celebrations in Santiago in mid-summer, despite no historical precedent to back up this belief. Jorge Sampaoli may try his best, but not many will listen to his attempts to temper expectations.
And why would they? Chile currently have two of the best players in the world in Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal—both capable of taking over games in their own unique ways. Alexis is a slippery pug of a player, darting all over the pitch with defenders chasing after him as if he’s playing a game of keep away all by himself. He has been outstanding since arriving at Arsenal in 2014, but the Alexis of Chile is a whole different beast. Playing as one of the ‘2’ in Sampaoli’s usual 3-4-1-2, Alexis has the license to roam the pitch and sniff out the ball wherever he sees fit. Whether it be central midfield, on the wing, or as a true number 9, Alexis will be there, sending defenders into dizzy spells. When Vidal was still recovering from a knee injury during last summer’s World Cup, Alexis pulled up his shorts, strapped Chile’s attack to his back and nearly guided them to a historic win over Brazil in the knockout stage. Despite Vidal’s return, Alexis will still be the main man on home soil.
Vidal, meanwhile, is arguably the most versatile player in the game. He’s played everything from sweeper to attacking midfielder, excelling in whatever position you point to on the pitch. He hasn’t been the same force he was before the knee injury, but to underestimate his ability or influence on the game is a fool’s errand. He will play in Sampaoli’s midfield three, whether as a central midfielder or just behind the strikers, and be charged with the task of running to and fro between defense and attack.
Vidal won’t be alone. His midfield partners, Charles Aranguiz and Marcelo Diaz, are excellent players in their own right. Diaz could be viewed as a bargain Pirlo—a diminutive player with great composure and the ability to pick out passes from a wide range of positions. Diaz is arguably the most important player in keeping Chile’s attack in operation. Without his intelligence and passing ability as the holding midfielder, Sampaoli’s system can easily fall apart.
Aranguiz may be most well-known outside of South America for his nonchalant sniper of a penalty into the top right corner of Julio Cesar’s net, but his box-to-box ability and calm composure under pressure made him a standout in Brazil and a likely move to Europe lies in wait. Meanwhile, Gary Medel, nicknamed “The Pitbull” for his short and stocky frame—as well as his easily-provoked temper—drops back from his usual defensive-midfield position to play as a center-back in Sampaoli’s system. What he lacks in height, he makes up for in positioning and relentless intensity. Chile’s attacks begin from the back, and Medel is a critical cog in the development of the team’s attacking moves.
And boy, do they attack. Sampaoli is a direct intellectual descendent of Marcelo Bielsa, and is a firm believer in ‘thinking about the opponent’s goal more than your own.’ His style style and ruthless mentality makes Sampaoli and Chile a neutral’s favorite and sends plenty of fingers typing away, analyzing every change in formation and characteristic of play you can imagine.
Sampaoli won four titles managing Chilean giants Universidad de Chile, including a Copa Sudamericana. But international football requires a certain defensive guile. Beauty wins many admirers, but discipline and stoutness often fill the trophy case. Even Spain and Germany, the two most dominant international teams of the past several years, who both play beautiful football, owe much of their success to the fact they just don’t let in goals. Getting into shootout after shootout is a good way to catch one in the lung, after all.
Chile showed some of this stoutness in matches against Spain and Brazil in the World Cup, despite the fact that they essentially lined up with a backline consisting of three players who are defensive midfielders. But Chile will not adjust their system for anyone. Sampaoli has instilled a confidence and belief into the players that was not always part of the Chilean footballers’ psyche. When Sampaoli says they will go mano-a-mano against anyone, he means it.
The problem, of course, is this means giving up goals, and giving up goals in international tournaments can be a death sentence. In front of their own countrymen, with the weight of the whole nation on their backs, do they tense up, become more conservative? Or do they feed off of the energy —a symbiotic relationship? Sampaoli will be praying for the latter.
One hundred and twenty years of frustration is underneath this tournament for Chile, desperate for a release of ecstasy that would dwarf even the largest of the ancient volcanic mountains that rule the landscape. The Estadio Nacional in Santiago turns into a sea of blood when Chile plays, red shirts filling every crevice, battle hymns ringing around the field Pinochet and his military dictatorship murdered and tortured thousands of his own countrymen decades ago. With that kind of history, with those kinds of feelings being sucked into the emotional cyclone of football, Chile will take the field. The whistle will blow, the ball will roll, and the world will stop.