On Friday, Chile will face Bolivia in their third and final group game of this year’s Copa America. La Roja currently sit atop Group A on four points after defeating Ecuador and drawing against Mexico.
Unfortunately, the host nation will have to clinch their place in the knockout rounds amidst a bit of controversy as midfielder Arturo Vidal was arrested on Tuesday night after wrecking his Ferrari while driving intoxicated. The Juventus stalwart somehow managed to evade suspension from the national team, though his status for the Bolivia match is still uncertain.
While Vidal’s carelessness, stupidity and subsequent remorse deserves lengthy dissertations of their own, there’s a matter of the once-in-a-lifetime major football tournament going on that Vidal’s home country would still fancy to win. Doing so without arguably their best player in-tow seems unthinkable. But deeply emerged into the universe of Jorge Sampaoli, Chile have become uniquely fit to cope with losses, even ones that would debilitate other teams.
The fact that Chile are considered one of the tournament favorites isn’t too shocking. After all, they’re serving as the host nation, playing nothing but home games from their first game to their last despite what the schedule says. They only narrowly lost out to Brazil via penalties in the Round of 16 of last summer’s World Cup, the same tournament in which they ousted the then-reigning champs Spain.
Throw in two of world football’s premier superstars in Vidal and Alexis Sanchez, and the cover of the book starts to look pretty appealing. But once you get that stuff — most of it being theoretical — out of the way, Chile hardly resemble champions. Or at least what we think champions look like.
Take a gander through Chile’s squad and you’ll find some peculiar names; many of them having previously played for Sampaoli at Universidad de Chile, and many of them simply odd commodities. There’s Napoli forward Eduardo Vargas, whose alluring flair has yet to be substantial enough for the Italian club to keep him around. Vargas has spent the last two seasons on loan at Gremio, Valencia, and most recently Queens Park Rangers. He was relegated from the Premier League with the latter club in May.
Then there’s old dog Mauricio Pinilla, whose recent claim-to-fame involves a crossbar-smashing near-goal against Brazil last summer, a “feat” resulting in him getting a tattoo commemorating the strike.
And who could forget Gary “Pitbull” Medel? The Inter destroyer who’s just one season off of being relegated from the Premier League with Cardiff City. Or Jean Beausejour, the Colo-Colo wingback who bettered Medel’s EPL relegation tally by tasting the drop on two separate occasions with Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic. Or Gonzalo Jara, who recently signed for Mainz after years of toiling in the English Championship with Nottingham Forest and Brighton Hove and Albion. Or the is-he-or-isn’t-he-any-good Manchester United youngster Angelo Henriquez. And on and on and on. You get the point. This isn’t a team of gems. It’s more like an island of misfit toys.
Yet, Chile remain one of international football’s most captivating teams, a distinction that almost entirely comes down to managing. Sampaoli is everything to Chile’s set-up, much like Marcelo Bielsa was before him. The motivational qualities are clearly there; one look at the 55-year-old puffy-coated boss in a tense situation and it’s plain-as-day how his actions and emotions rally his troops. He shouts at his players to wake up when they’re lagging, he shouts at the officials to wake up when they’re bugging, he shouts at the soccer Gods to forgive him when they’re graceful. He’s wholly compelling to watch in these non-football ways. Luckily, the football, too, is something else.
Sampaoli is one of the game’s outstanding and more underrated tacticians. Seriously, just type “Jorge Sampaoli” into Google; the first auto-finish is “Jorge Sampaoli tactics.” The Argentine’s systematic foundation, built on a 3-4-3 (some would call it more of a 3-4-1-2) formation, is tailor-made for exciting, attacking football, sometimes even bordering on the suicidal. He doesn’t deploy central defenders, but rather makeshift midfielders and wingbacks. In fact, of Sampaoli’s entire defensive staff, only one (Jose Rojas) can be defined as a natural center-half. The two linchpins of Chile’s backline, Medel and Jara, perform for their clubs as a holding midfielder and right-back, respectively. This jury-rigged method might explain why only one Chilean outfield player (Pinilla) measures taller than six foot. Aerial attacks are mostly last resorts. Everything is played on the floor at breakneck speed.
Chile’s style can all be traced back to former coach and tactical madman Bielsa, the man from whom Sampaoli claims he learned his trade. Bielsa helped La Roja develop a genuine identity with a particular and distinguishable look and feel. Sampaoli may appear more Jurgen Klopp on the surface, but take a deep cut and you’ll find pure Bielsa DNA. Together, albeit indirectly, they’ve undeniably transformed the state of Chilean soccer. Not bad for a couple of eccentric Argentines.
Let’s get this straight: there are still fine players in this Chilean squad. Beyond the obvious Sanchez and Vidal, Medel, Charles Aranguiz, Marcelo Diaz, and Claudio Bravo are quality talents who’ve managed various levels of success through their careers. But Sampaoli’s Chile, at its core, is built for collective warfare. The individual ceases to exist as an end and is rather a tool for cooperative success. This is why Sanchez can have a relatively poor game against Mexico and Chile can still score three goals with two others wrongly disallowed. It’s why a Vidal-less Roja feels less forlorn for Chile than if Brazil, Argentina, or Colombia were missing their best player.
Prior to last summer’s World Cup, Sampaoli concisely echoed his stoneclad ethos: “I believe that the only way to succeed is by uniting players with a love of playing.”
“When you succeed in this individualistic society, it is by committing to something tangible, with humility. That allows everybody to come together.”
Put many of these Chileans in an unfamiliar club setting surrounding by disagreeable teammates and foreign systems, and they’re likely to fail again. The Roja camp has proven to be a haven for them, however. It’s where their language of football clicks into gear, and they’re able to trust each other. It’s the same-looking soccer they recognized from their countrymen when Bielsa was the one barking the calls, and now they’re the ones producing it behind the direction of Sampaoli. It entertains, inspires, and works. And though it was spawned by two Argies, it’s 100 percent Chilean.