The Lost Year of Chilean Football

This week Inter Milan duo Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal stepped onto Chilean soil to play for their country again for the first time in over a year. And they have returned to a very different Chile. 

But while the Chilean people continue to take steps towards political regeneration, its men’s national team is also in the midst of change.

Both players have been key for Chile for a decade now and both started in the controversial 2-1 defeat to Uruguay on Thursday, with Sanchez grabbing Chile’s only goal to cap a lively display for the once-prolific forward. What’s more, Vidal dominated the midfield for most of the 90 minutes with a typically all-action man of the match performance.

However, it was the Paraguayan referee and his VAR team that made the headlines after a series of debatable calls against Chile. The word “injusticia” trended on social media — not for the first time in the last year given the country’s social uprising that has made worldwide headlines since its inception in October 2019.  

Chile had fallen behind to a Luis Suarez penalty after a lengthy VAR review deemed that Sebastián Vegas had handled the ball in an unnatural position as he slid into block a cutback from MLS star Brian Rodriguez. The Chileans were outraged as the ball had deflected off the body of Vegas from close range, leaving him no time to move his hand out the way. 

Chile were then denied two penalties in the second half, the second of which was a much clearer offence than the one that led to Uruguay’s first-half penalty. Yet former Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates’s actions were deemed natural and the referee waved play on after a much shorter VAR review. It was then left to Maxi Gomez to hammer home an injury-time winner to rub salt in the wounds. 

Chile will be looking to bounce back against a Colombia side that enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 win over a woeful Venezuela on Friday, with Atalanta’s in-form strike pair Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata grabbing the goals. 

Meanwhile, La Roja will be hoping Vidal and Sanchez continue to spearhead their quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. However, they will do so in the midst of a chaotic period for Chilean football and society.

In October last year, a price hike on the Santiago metro system was the tip of the iceberg for thousands of Chileans who took the moment to protest against social inequality in the country by evading the metro barriers and gathering in Plaza Italia, an area in the centre of the city known as a meeting place for protests, but also for football celebrations. 

Yet as the social uprising escalated, football was the least of anyone’s concern as protesters were met with furious state repression from Chile’s police and army,  sparking millions more up and down the length of the country to come out and demand equality and justice in their society. 

Plaza Italia was soon renamed colloquially as Plaza Dignidad (Dignity Plaza) in appreciation of those demanding change and a reminder that their human rights should be respected. 

As such, since October last year, football, along with many other industries, has been forced to take a backseat in Chilean society. The ANFP (Chilean FA) decided to postpone the season last year because of the uprising. Players returned from Europe to play friendlies for Chile in November, but the force of public opinion in the country meant they effectively refused to play. 

The barra brava fan groups in Chile, who probably still wield more power than their ultra equivalents in Europe, made sure the 2019 league season would never be restarted and the rival factions from major Chilean clubs even went so far as to united on the streets of Santiago in protest in what were truly unprecedented scenes. 

That meant there was no domestic or international football in Chile from mid-October until the start of the new year. This has unfortunately stunted the development of the game at all levels for both men and women, with the impact of Covid-19 complicating things further, especially for those lower league professionals. 

The life of the average Chilean footballer is quite different from his European counterpart, with wages, playing conditions but also social expectation poles apart. 

Superstars Sánchez and Vidal, now club teammates for the first time since their spell together at Colo-Colo in 2006-07, received criticism in Europe last season for their on the pitch performances with Manchester United and Barcelona respectively. But in Chile it was a different story.

More people were bothered that the pair were not vocal enough in supporting the cause of their protesting compatriots and were accused in some quarters, often unfairly, of having too much money to understand the plight of their people. 

One player that did explicitly come out in favour of the protesters and maintained his connection with the fans in the process was the reliable and classy midfielder, Charles Aránguiz. 

He offered his solidarity with the protest movement and recognised that if it wasn’t for football he would be on the wrong end of social inequality in the country. 

The Bayer Leverkusen midfielder told Chilean station Radio Cooperativa last year that: “If I were at home, I would be marching and fighting alongside my people, with everyone.  My family and friends are protesting. I lived it and I lived it closely (growing up).  They have my full support.”

Many Chileans were already reeling from the social upheaval of 2019 when Covid-19 struck in March. The government’s response has been widely criticised, with Chile among one of the worst hit countries in the world for deaths per capita. This has resulted in long lockdowns and strict quarantine measures that have left millions in financial peril with little help from the government. 

Subsequently, La Roja will return to the field amidst a very tense and taut political climate. On Sunday 25 October, Chileans will also go to vote on whether or not the country requires a new constitution. 

As Chileans sat glued to the opening World Cup qualifier against Uruguay, the propaganda on both sides of the plebiscite dominated much of the advertising spots before the match. 

Bringing about this referendum was one of the aims of the protests last year and its significance cannot be underestimated, especially with it coming twelve months on from the beginning of the protest movement. 

Returning home to play for their country is something Chilean players usually look forward to and the international break is something of a highlight in the South American calendar. It gives fans and players the chance to reconnect.But with Covid restrictions and the political climate, this time it feels different. 

Former player and goalkeeping coach Daniel Campos, who now runs Chilean Football News, concurs with this idea: “It will affect the country’s sense of pride and unity, for such a polarised society as Chile, the one bridge is its national team”

After the crushing failure of missing out on the World Cup in Russia, many outsiders suggest Chile need to freshen the side up, but the current lack of suitable top level alternatives means their head coach Reinaldo Rueda has little choice but to persevere with the majority of the old guard especially in midfield and attack. 

The legs and lungs that made that side great, that notably led the intense pressing style of recent years, are tired now. Chile look a much slower team and are likely to miss their supporters who helped to generate the tempo to their play through their consistently passionate backing. 

Campos added, “Playing without a crowd may affect the player’s morale during matches as Chile heavily depends on its home fixtures for qualification”.

Chile are now slight underdogs to qualify rather than a favourite, a position they haven’t been in since the qualifiers for Germany 2006 where they missed out by five points.

They qualified for the World Cup in 2010 under the genius of Marcelo Bielsa who helped Chile earn much of that iconic identity of the past decade. 

In 2014, they made it to Brazil with Bielsa’s disciple, Jorge Sampaoli, in charge. Sampaoli arguably made the most of their golden generation, leading them to the 2015 Copa America on home soil, but with a slightly more pragmatic approach at times. 

That was Chile’s first piece of silverware after a 99-year-long wait and immortalised that group of players forever, especially when they repeated the trick a year later under Juan Antonio Pizzi in the USA in the Copa America Centenario. 

A sound beating by fierce rivals Peru in the semi-finals of the 2019 Copa America in Brazil signalled the end of their reign as South American champions and was also expected to be an end of an era for many.

However, aside from ex-Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City star Jean Beausejour, who has retired from international duty, the rest remain available for selection. 

For the start of these qualifiers Chile are currently without four starters from what many would consider their strongest XI. Serie A star and defensive midfield lynchpin, Erick Pulgar, who was arguably Chile’s best player in the Copa America last year, misses out due to the midfielder contracting Covid-19. The virus caused him to miss Fiorentina’s pre-season and the first two matches of the season, leaving Rueda with little choice.

Former Manchester City goalkeeper, Claudio Bravo, along with central defenders Guillermo Maripan (Monaco) and Gary Medel (Bologna) all picked up injuries in the past two weeks to miss these opening two qualifiers. And their experience was arguably missed in the latter stages against Uruguay. 

In their place, young Watford centre-back Francisco Sierralta impressed with his marking of Luis Suarez while the Diaz brothers, Paulo and Nico, also gave respectable showings with the latter making his competitive debut on the right of the defence. Goalkeeper, Gabriel Arias ,had little to do in his deputising of Bravo, but a better keeper may have kept out Gomez’s late strike. 

If Chile are to make it to Qatar 2022 then they will probably need their old stars to be fit and firing, while the youngsters need to step up to the challenge as Sierralta did against Suarez last Thursday. Despite defeat to Uruguay, there promising signs that Chile’s football regeneration might just be underway. 

As Campos noted, the national team matches are usually the catalyst for much of the country to unite. Yet this month it is expected that a “yes” vote for a new constitution will provide that for the majority of the Chilean public. 

Nevertheless, when the Chile players pull on that red shirt again this week on home soil, they will have the chance to lift the spirits of a nation that has been enervated by the relentlessness of the past year. 

Millions hope La Roja can help spark times of celebrations in Plaza Dignidad again as this passionate nation looks for renewed hope on and off the pitch. 

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