If ever an international football team merited the tag of perennial bridesmaids, it’s Chile.
The country’s football federation was founded in 1895 and Chile were one of the four founding members of the South American federation CONMEBOL in 1916, but they have never won a major international honour.
Chile have appeared at 35 Copa Americas, six times as hosts, but have nothing more than four runners-up finishes to show for their efforts, while their best World Cup showing occurred when, as hosts, they reached the semi-finals in 1962.
La Roja have not graced the sport’s greatest tournament since 1998, but recent developments suggest the nation’s footballing fortunes may be about to change.
In June, the Chilean under-20 team won the prestigious Toulon Tournament in France, beating the hosts 1-0 in the final, having lost to Italy by the same scoreline in the 2008 decider.
Their successes in Toulon followed on from a third-place finish at the 2007 Under-20 World Cup in Canada, where a scuffle with local police after their semi-final exit to Argentina was not enough to over-shadow an eye-catching showing in the tournament.
Indeed, 2007 marked a turning point in the national set-up, with enigmatic former Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa taking the reins of the senior side after a 6-1 thrashing at the hands of eventual winners Brazil had ended Chile’s participation in that year’s Copa America.
The 53-year-old Argentine, who led his home nation to Olympic gold in 2004, inherited an ageing squad and quickly set about injecting some youth but the results, to begin with, were mixed.
In their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign Chile earned their first ever point against Uruguay in Montevideo and recorded their first ever win over Argentina in a World Cup qualifier, but 3-0 home defeats to Paraguay and then Brazil were the heaviest in their history.
Gradually, though, Bielsa’s attacking philosophy has taken hold.
Back-to-back wins in Paraguay (2-1) and at home to Bolivia (4-0) at the beginning of June have lifted them to second in the South American standings, one point behind group leaders Brazil with just four matches remaining.
Taxing trips to Brazil and Colombia await, but with the top four teams qualifying automatically, the finals in South Africa are in sight.
“This a cycle that is producing some very promising results and on top of that we are starting to mature as a team,” said Bielsa.
“We’re excited but we haven’t qualified yet. That’s why we remain cautious.”
The last Chilean side to reach the World Cup finals in 1998 boasted the talents of iconic strikers Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas, and Salas came out of international retirement to score both goals in the 2-2 draw in Uruguay.
The 34-year-old’s return, though, was a short-lived affair, as Bielsa began to place increasing faith in his young tyros, led by 21-year-old centre-back Gary Medel, classy Villarreal midfielder Matias Fernandez and 20-year-old Udinese forward Alexis Sanchez.
“He’s a striker capable of weaving past three of four defenders and winning you games,” said defender Arturo Vidal of his team-mate Sanchez.
“Single-handedly, he can unlock any defensive formation.”
The average age of the starting XI that took to the field in the 4-0 victory over Bolivia in Santiago was a mere 24, with diminutive striker Humberto Suazo of Mexican side Monterrey the grandfather of the side at just 28 years old.
Sanchez dedicated the second of his two goals that night to Salas, who announced his retirement from the game in November and played his farewell match in front of 60,000 fans at the beginning of June.
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