Chile will go to Copa America Centenario, to be played in the U.S. in June, as the 5th best national team in FIFA’s ranking, and as the defending champions of Copa America. But how did a country with a history of failures finally ended a flunk of nearly 100 years without a major trophy?It all started in 2007. On the last days of June, Chile went to Copa America, which was going to be played in Venezuela. Nelson Acosta, who had been the last manager to take Chile to a World Cup (France, 1998), had come back for a second stint as manager, a decision that wasn’t very popular at the time, but everyone agreed that he was safe in the helm, unless something catastrophic happened.
In the meantime, the U-20 World Cup was being held in Canada. Manager José Sulantay had been in charge of Chile’s U-20 squads since 2004, and helped them qualify for the 2005 World Cup in the Netherlands. Surprisingly, Chile reached the semifinals unbeaten and without conceding a goal. In semis, though, Argentina proved to be too much, and beat Chile 3-0. In the consolation match, Chile defeated Czech Republic 1-0, and finished third in the tournament. As it usually happens in Chilean sports, catastrophe struck.
In Copa America, Chile struggled to qualify to the quarterfinals, defeating Ecuador 3-2, losing to Brazil 3-0, and drawing to Mexico 0-0. A few days before the quarterfinals match against Brazil, the squad asked for permission to go partying. Nelson Acosta was hesitant, but in the end he allowed his players to do so. Six players, including Jorge Valdivia, arguably the most talented player in Chile’s history, kept the party going on during breakfast. As they were quite drunk, they started playing with knives, marmalade, ham; they were a bit too loud, and one of them allegedly asked a maid if she performed oral sex.
At the time, it became quite a scandal, compounded with the loss to Brazil 6-1. Acosta had to resign, and then-FA president Harold Mayne-Nicholls moved quickly to hire Marcelo Bielsa, when some were claiming that Sulantay deserved a chance, which was somewhat preposterous, as he was 67 at the time, and his last successful season was in 1992, when he led Cobreloa to win the National Championship.
Bielsa had been unemployed since 2004, when he resigned from the bench of Argentina’s national team, claiming he lacked the energy to be the team’s manager. He had become a household name in the ‘90s, when he led Newell’s Old Boys to an Argentinean championship with an attacking brand of soccer, and a tactical revolution. He went on to coach in Mexico and Spain, before taking the reins of Argentina after the 1998 World Cup. Argentina breezed through the South American qualification stages for the 2002 World Cup and were considered huge favorites to win the tournament, but were surprisingly eliminated in the group stage, which they shared with England, Nigeria and Sweden. He then led Argentina to a gold medal in the 2004 Olympic Games, but a few months later he quit his post for the aforementioned reason. Before Bielsa, Chile fans were used to teams parking the bus when playing abroad. With Bielsa, 5 or 6 players were routinely in the opponents’ penalty box. Suffocating pressing was another of the squad’s main strengths.
It’s safe to say that Bielsa introduced a revolution in Chilean soccer, both in attitude and in tactics. It had been a long time since fans had last seen a formation with 3 forwards. Bielsa’s main formation was a flexible 3-3-1-3, which, depending on the opponent, morphed into a 4-2-1-3, which was actually more of a 2-4-1-3, when opponents fielded only one forward. Playing attractive soccer, Chile achieved some important results.
They defeated Argentina for the first time ever in an official match. They won against Peru and Paraguay as visitors after more than 20 years. Chile qualified second for the 2010 World Cup, ahead of Argentina and Uruguay. The most important squad members were goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, defender Mauricio Isla, midfielders Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel, and forwards Humberto Suazo and Alexis Sánchez. Isla, Vidal, Medel and Sánchez were instrumental in the third place achieved in the 2007 U-20 World Cup. In South Africa, Chile was eliminated in the round of 16 by Brazil, losing 3-0, after progressing from the group stage by virtue of defeating Honduras and Switzerland, and losing to eventual champions Spain.
A few months after the World Cup, Bielsa resigned as Chile manager, due to a contentious election in the FA that saw Mayne-Nicholls ousted. Mayne-Nicholls was Bielsa’s main supporter, and Bielsa had decided not to work with the new board of directors, whom he regarded as more focused on the business side of soccer, rather than in the success of the national team. Following his departure, Chile was due for a setback, which would materialise during Claudio Borghi’s reign.