ForzaItalianFootball.com spoke to Joseph Hinchliffe, editor of the leading English-language Chile news source The Santiago Times to see what people in Chile think of La Roja’s chances at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Ahead of the competition in Brazil, many pundits have tipped Chile to cause problems for the bigger teams with their exciting brand of football and many feel they are capable of qualifying from Group B ahead of The Netherlands.
FIF: In Europe there is a sense that Chile are an exciting side and many are labelling them as possible dark horses for the tournament. Is this sense of excitement matched by people in Chile?
Joe Hinchliffe: There is certainly the belief now that this Chilean team can take on anyone and, on their day, beat any side.
People are very excited about this team, about these players, this manager and the way this side plays football.
However, the draw, which pits Chile against Spain and the Netherlands in the group stages and most likely Brazil inn the next round, has taken some of the weight of expectations off.
Few people are talking about Chile being a possibility to win the cup.
Perhaps this is a good thing.
There is also something of a sense of desperation — this is World Cup in which Chile’s golden generation will be at its peak.
Given recent performances from the youth teams, most recently a terrible showing from the U20 team in Toulon, Chileans have pinned their hopes on this Cup as Chile’s best chance to achieve something big on the world stage for the foreseeable future.
FIF: What player are people in Chile pinning their hopes on? Juventus’s Arturo Vidal is on the way back from injury, do Chileans regard him as the team’s key player?
Joe Hinchliffe: [Barcelona and ex-Udinese forward] Alexis Sanchez has long been the poster boy of Chilean football, but over the course of this qualifying campaign Chileans increasingly began to regard Arturo Vidal as the team’s most important player.
However, in the last two friendlies against Egypt and Northern Ireland, while Vidal was recovering from knee surgery, Sanchez set up all five of Chile’s goals.
The feeling at the moment is that Sanchez is carrying the team and there are probably more expectations on him now than anyone else.
Still, the whole country is praying fervently that Vidal is fully fit for the cup.
Jorge Valdivia is another player who people believe may be decisive.
He is notoriously hit or miss, but he is not called ‘El Mago’ for nothing.
The feeling is that if he can turn on the magic then anything is possible.
FIF: How is coach Jorge Sampaoli regarded as a successor to fellow Argentine coaches Claudio Borghi and more famously the very popular and internationally well-regarded Marcelo Bielsa?
Chileans know him very well, as he managed Universidad de Chile to three consecutive league titles and the Copa Sudamericana — with many of the players now in the national team — before taking the country’s top job.
He is credited with turning the team around after it was in danger of not even qualifying for Brazil under Borghi.
He injected both energy and discipline into the side and has given the country the belief that it can take on anyone.
In Chile, Sampaoli is seen as the natural successor to Bielsa, who to this day is revered as the man who made Chile a force in world football and gave the team a distinctive way of playing, an identity.
Borghi, while respected for what he did as coach at the country’s biggest club, Colo Colo, is seen as a blip in that journey onto the world stage.
FIF: Does playing in Brazil hold any significance for Chileans and are many expected to make the trip to support the team?
Joe Hinchliffe: I think it is significant for many Chileans, in the sense that it is a country which they know and love, a place where many of the great Chilean footballers have played, such as Elias Figueroa, and also the site of the notorious ‘Maracanazo’ incident, which saw the country effectively banned from two World Cups.
(The ‘Maracanazo’ incident occurred in 1989 when Chile goalkeeper Roberto Rojas deliberately cut his own forehead open to force a vital qualifier against Brazil to be abandoned and as punishment Chile were banned from the 1990 World Cup finals and the 1994 World Cup qualifiers.)
Joe Hinchliffe: More importantly, perhaps, is that some of the current team plies their trade in Brazil: midfielder playmaker Valdivia and former Sampaoli club players Charles Aranguiz and Eugenio Mena.
Tens of thousands are expected to go and Chile is expected to be among the most well represented countries at the World Cup, in terms of fans.
So I think it will be important in the sense that Chile will enjoy some of the benefits of a home side without the phenomenal pressure which Brazil will feel.
Finally, it could be decisive in the sense that if Chile progress through the group stages they are likely to face Brazil at home.
Chile hasn’t won in Brazil in their last 27 outings there.
However, the last match, a friendly in April, was a 2-2 draw.
Also, Brazil will have to deal with enormous expectations whereas Chile will have nothing to lose should they face the World Cup hosts.
FIF: How far do people in Chile feel their side can go?
Joe Hinchliffe: I think Chileans are being fairly realistic about this, they recognize that there is a strong possibility that they will knocked out at the group stage, given the class of their opponents.
But I think many are also quietly confident.
Historically, Chile has had a deferential attitude toward the great footballing nations, an inferiority complex that would normally have seen them give up on the team already.
I think that that mentality is changing with this squad, which is perhaps the best side Chile has ever fielded, and because of the leadership of Sampaoli now and Bielsa before him.
After beating England comfortably in England and outplaying Germany in Germany, there is a growing sense that Chile can take on the best in the world and win.
However, Brazil still holds a special grip over the Chilean imagination.
There is a joke in Brazil that whenever the team is in poor form they arrange a friendly against Chile and four years ago they easily defeated Chile 3-0 at the Round of 16.
People know that if Chile comes second in the group they will most likely face Brazil in the same stage of the tournament and no one will really expect them to win if that scenario plays out.
But if Chile were to top their group, I guess people would start to believe that anything is possible.
Chile’s World Cup kicks off against Australia on June 13 in Cuiaba.
Thanks to Joe Hinchliffe and The Santiago Times, you can check them out for English language news on Chile here: http://santiagotimes.cl/
Follow the Santiago Times on Twitter: @SantiagoTimes