For many fans and analysts, the team to follow in the last World Cup was not one of the predicted favorites but a less established member of the international scene: Chile. The tragedies of the earthquake and the trapped miners left observers in solidarity with the rebuilding nation, and the promise of a brilliant crop of young players gave Chileans a reason for cheer amidst harsh times.
Still, to pin the reasons for support as being purely on sympathetic grounds would be misleading. While Chilean football remains far in stature from that of other South American countries’, it bears a distinct history. When Chile hosted the 1962 World Cup, they reached third place with Leonel Sánchez earning honors as joint top-scorer. In 1998, the great partnership of Zamorano and Salas saw them reach the knock-out stages for the first time since the glory days of ’62. Chileans recall these achievements with great pride, but even times in the football world have not been so kind for the public.
In the 2007 Copa America scandal several players were left with lengthy international bans. After qualifying for the quarterfinals, players decided to celebrate with swigs of alcohol, destruction of hotel property, and general debauchery. The incident left a black mark on the nation, and it was only compounded when the side lost 6-1 to Brazil in the following game. To rectify such sheer indiscipline the Chilean Federation appointed the stern, ascetic coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Even as an Argentine, Bielsa felt an immediate connection with Chile and saw past the recent negative publicity of the national team. His brother Rafael observed that, “There are a number of Chilean values which match his. Where there was sullenness towards effort in Argentina, here there is industriousness. Where in Argentina many beheld the bombastic, here people prefer humility and a low profile.” The affection was requited by the public, and his beloved status became apparent on one instance when he went out to buy a car. In trademark fashion, Bielsa decided upon a simple, unornamented make driven mainly by taxi drivers, but within weeks the model became a best-seller across the nation. Further acts on Bielsa’s behalf would win the hearts of millions as he took control of the media circus, limiting contact to only press conferences in which he was noted to stay for hours if questions continued to be fielded. Ever the moralist, Bielsa refused personal interviews, maintaining that, “Every section of the media should get the same attention from me, from the capital’s most prominent TV channel to the smallest newspaper in the provinces.” The Chileans were taken by Bielsa’s earnest nature and believed it would lead to a better national team.
Indeed such was Bielsa’s dedication that he often failed to collect his paychecks from the Federation, eternally locked in his room with match videos and tactical projects. This isolation did create initial rifts with the players, but they came to understand Bielsa’s nature after his terse justification: “While you’re sleeping, I’m thinking of ways for the team to win.” Slowly, Bielsa’s stubborn and often bizarre training methods gained acceptance. Refusing to abandon his 3-3-1-3 from his days with Argentina, Bielsa repeatedly drilled moves and attacks until they were executed exactly as he envisioned or as they appeared in tapes. While the team would eventually be praised for its free flowing football, it had its base in pure method. Through clever planning, Bielsa sought to create 2 v 1 situations in every area of the pitch. Bielsa’s obsession for over-manning the opposition in every possible encounter was what led to his reclusive nature and endless self-deliberations.
But he was far from unreachable. Bielsa would often engage in lengthy talks about football with local children and anyone else who caught him on walks between work. Such was his propensity for sincere conversation that he advised his close friends to “lose his phone number” specifically so that he would not be distracted. Still, Bielsa was aware of concerns more pressing than football, and after Chile’s devastating earthquake he broke his media silence, being quoted as saying, “I’ve just been travelling around … and I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Every conversation I had was a glimmer of hope for all the people who are in pain right now. I hope these people can rebuild what they lost and keep on going.”
Bielsa’s compassion revealed the true meaning behind his extreme mannerisms. While he was often self-conflicting and intractable, his insistence upon achieving perfection in training sessions derived partly from a need to test his theories to their full extent. His relentless drive was fueled by his belief in the eternal, a level of exemplarity which he held could be achieved. These principles achieved a unity with the staid expression which befell the nation during its recent catastrophes. Oddly, it was at a time when basic necessities took precedence over all else, that full appreciation for Bielsa’s lofty ambitions was realized.
“Bielsa do it for us!”, rang the chants that accompanied the national team. Traits which were previously taken as evidence of his comical “absent-minded professor” archetype were seen in more serious light. His inattention to his own meals and appearance certainly stemmed from his obsessive nature, but the obsession which propelled him could not be more significant. Bielsa sought to undertake football as a means to affirm man’s dignity. Instead of accepting the notion that man’s main instincts were animalistic, Bielsa held that there was something purer to our conception.
It is a conviction that is not so surprising given further inspection: After all, food only features in one’s thoughts when one is hungry. Water only comes to mind when one is thirsty. But what pure ambition never escapes our conscious, even as we rest?
For Bielsa that ambition manifested itself through football, but its implications were still vast. With youth in whom he could infuse his philosophy, Bielsa not only bred an exciting brand of football on the pitch but he also guided players upon which values to hold off it. Their development came a long way from the debacle of 2007. A natural confidence in the team which was previously draped in temerity matured into a strong form of gallantry. Even after Chile’s 3-0 defeat to Brazil, the team were given a hero’s welcome upon their return. Their bold play relied on every player taking equal responsibility in attack and defense, and it reflected a togetherness that many Chileans were embracing.
Unfortunately Bielsa did not remain to oversee the fulfillment of Chile’s potential. His tenure was ended by forces who were unmoved by the remarkable progress he had delivered to Chilean football. The presidential elections for the Chilean FA found Harold Mayne-Nicolls, who had greatly supported Bielsa in his ventures, ousted by Jorge Segovia. Segovia won mainly on the backing of Chilean football’s three biggest clubs: Colo-Colo, Universidad de Chile, and Universidad Catolica. While Nicolls was in favor of an equal distribution of the television profits among clubs, Segovia was hired to maintain the imbalance. Worse were Segovia and the “Big Three’s” increasingly meddling tendencies, with a player draft system being proposed amongst other lunacies. When Bielsa exited he left the charge that, “It was impossible to know who was exercising authority. It was never clear if the power was with the president of the Chilean FA, the big Chilean clubs or all 32 clubs.” As an idealogue, Bielsa knew that nothing could be achieved without clear vision and autonomy.
Afterwards, the Chilean FA appointed fellow Argentine coach Claudio Borghi. A clear candidate owing to his credentials with Colo-Colo and Argentinos Juniors, Borghi is a character in his own right although he differs greatly from Bielsa. Whereas Bielsa was painstakingly precise, Borghi is much more flippant in conversation. Upon being asked as to why contemporary coaches receive so much criticism Borghi retorted, “We’ve all got something to say about football and we all think we’re good. It’s the same with sex.” When asked to describe the merits of Juan Roman Riquelme he offered that, “Riquelme is a different kind of player, like a woman with three breasts.”
A godsend for journalists, it is still to be seen how effective his leadership will be compared to Bielsa’s. Thus far, he has remained respectful of his predecessor, stating that, “In Chilen football Bielsa exists before and after Borghi”. Still Borghi has made it a point to exert his own style upon squad, relaxing the strict rules Bielsa placed upon the players and the media. Recently this approach has backfired magnificently, with the press filling the pages with pictures of a ludicrous prank in which a Chilean player was stripped clean on the pitch by his team-mates. After the fiasco, Borghi has chosen to re-implement the old methods of Bielsa in dealing with the press. Perhaps with time Borghi will gain more appreciation for Bielsa’s prudence.
What is to be taken as comfort is that many of the core players Bielsa coached have retained his determination. Despite the outside factors and meddling from authorities, these young players have remained mindful of their duty towards their fans and their precious ability. Some have even taken an open stance against the negative influence from above.
Arturo Vidal was compelled to speak out after officials refused to authorize trips to Mexico and Europe for Borghi where he could observe Chilean players for selection. Instead, leaders from local clubs were invited to massive parties within the nation’s borders. At this hypocrisy, Vidal cried that, “If we start worrying about the money, we will not get anywhere. We must be fully committed to our effort… Other nations are great. They can travel anywhere. With Bielsa national team proceedings were made a priority, and resources were procured to do the job right.”
Vidal further asserted that, ”The players, after the World Cup have grown a lot, but do not go crazy with the notion that we will win easily. We have to fight every day to achieve the goal of being a champion.”
This much is certain that Chile have been gifted a generation of footballers with talent that comes only once or twice in a lifetime. Be it under Bielsa or Borghi, Chile must come to shine sooner rather than later.