How an Unconventional Chile Team Became the World Cup’s Surprise Package

Chile was all smiles and fulfilled their potential when they defeated Spain 2-0 at the Estadio Maracanã on Wednesday.  For them it was a reconfirmation of the potential that the team had individually as well as collectively.

Many looked at Chile as a team always playing on the edge. Their frenetic pressure in all sectors, where wave after wave come after the player with the ball, always put them on the edge of greatness or disaster.  It was tiki taka meets speed metal when you saw them against Spain as they all flew around the pitch with reckless abandon and flustered the reigning champions. Some might say it was the best interpretation of “Bielsism.”

Their style has been hailed as one of the most exciting ones in the World Cup and those that looked forward to seeing them in this tournament have not been disappointed one bit. Yet for Chile it was a return to the roots that were established by Marcelo Bielsa when he arrived on Chilean soil and left something greater than success. It left an identity.  This is why Jorge Sampaoli’s arrival was one of the most important moves in Chilean soccer history. It wasn’t just him getting the team back on track. It was a continuation of a project interrupted.

Less than 18 months ago, Chile found itself “on the edge” but for a completely different set of reasons. Claudio Borghi was sacked after his disastrous tenure as coach of La Roja after several embarrassing incidents off the pitch and on it. The team was on the outside looking in when it came to World Cup qualification. Under Borghi, the team lost three consecutive matches and dropped out of World Cup qualifying positions.

What was more important was not that they lost those matches; it was that Borghi lost the team. The infamous “Bautizazo” incident where many of the leaders of the Chilean squad, including Arturo Vidal, were caught drinking late at night at a baptism was unfortunate. Borghi’s erratic management of the squad was what caused a great division within the squad and saw the team go downhill after he removed several players involved in that incident.

Borghi also changed some things tactically and the squad was a far cry from that they were when Bielsa was coach. Due to their disposition, Chile did not press as much as they once did and were vulnerable giving up more spaces than they did before. It was evident in some of their losses in qualifying to teams like Colombia and Argentina at home. The match that really was the final straw was the match against Peru in Lima.

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