Chile has the fifth largest population in South America with 17m people. The country possesses 32 professional football teams, however, their domestic league has been going through some problems of late. As with many South American clubs, teams rely on selling players to make any money, but making things even worse is the fact that a decent contract for television rights has never been made in Chile, meaning that the majority of income comes from ticket sales for each game. TV rights, along with merchandising, season tickets and player sales bring in £17m each year to Chilean clubs. Broken down, that translates to £1000 per player. Take into consideration also that the two major clubs, Colo Colo and Universitad de Chile, generate half of that revenue, and it means the clubs are having to rely extremely heavily on pushing people through turnstiles. Club attendances average between 3 000 and 10 000 with gates of 35 000 or 40 000 only coming when the two big teams are playing or for the Cup final. The fact that Chilean teams have never performed well in the South American tournaments has not helped these figures – Colo Colo’s 1991 victory in the Copa Libertadores the only real success.
That said, the Football Association has recently turned its attentions to improving revenue from TV rights, and this has seen an increase over the last two years as a result. They have also invested around £600 000 in Project Goal, an initiative to improve training facilities through Chile, and there are current talks of a Chilean Foundation for Football Development. This should offer some encouragement, as improving infrastructure for young players is vital in producing better youngsters and exporting more to Europe. Currently, many Chileans end up playing in Mexico, Brazil and the other South American countries. The optimism generated from a good World Cup performance can only galvanise these projects and get the nation watching the football en masse.
Despite being one of the four original South American football nations, success has, for the most part, eluded Chile. Aside from their third place finish in 1962, when they were the hosts, they have only ever registered three victories in the World Cup, coming in the 1930 and 1950 tournaments. It is astonishing to think that their classic 90s team of Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamarano never managed to win a game in the tournament, but there are extenuating circumstances for this. In qualifying for Italia ’90, their goalkeeper inexplicably pretended to be hit by a firework in order to get their game with Brazil suspended, but when FIFA saw the footage, they were banned from that and the following World Cup. The fact the team failed to qualify in 2002 and 2006 seemed to have more to do with ill-discipline with stories of some players arriving to training drunk. It was no surprise then that they finished bottom of the qualifying group in 2006.
Which makes the recent turn in fortunes seem so much more drastic. Chile finished second in the South American group for the 2010 tournament, behind Brazil. Almost total credit for the transformation has gone to former Argentina Head Coach Marcelo Bielsa. His preference for attacking and high-energy play has brought the best out of a squad of decent, but not extraordinary, players. Key to finishing so high was their superb away form, with their only big defeats coming at home to Paraguay and Brazil, both 3-0. They play in a flexible 3-3-1-3 formation. One of three midfielders covers the defence with the other two pushing down the flanks, backing up the two wingers, who along with the centre-forward make up the front three. The idea is to play completely in the opposition half, creating 2-on-1 situations by doubling up on the wings, thereby creating opportunities to cross as well as stretching the opposition to create more space in the middle.
Tactically the team are very dogmatic, and perhaps the reason they have been so successful is because the team lack any genuine stars. This has given them a willingness to adopt these tactics wholeheartedly, perhaps in a way that the Argentine team of 2002, also managed by Bielsa and using a similar system, were unable to do. Humberto Suazo – a bulldozer of an attacker, both great in the box and from the edge of the area – has been extremely effective as the figurehead of the attack, scoring 10 goals in qualification, and he has struck up a great relationship with their playmaker, Matias Fernandez, just behind him, with the two very often switching positions. Mark Gonzalez, previously of Liverpool, and Alexis Sanchez of Udinese, have provided the pace and trickery on the left and right wings respectively.
After such an impressive record in qualifiers and a group that shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate – the second game against Switzerland will be crucial, before then facing Honduras – there is a feeling that Chile could be one of the surprises of the tournaments and that anything less than the last 16 will be a failure. If there is one area that could cause problems it will be from the players getting tired, especially with such a high-energy style of playing. Altitude should not be a problem as the national team plays at 1700ft and there are very few of their players who will be burned-out from playing in the Champions League and long European seasons so a lot could depend on the weather. If the winter climates in Port Elizabeth and Pretoria are as mild as normal they should have no problems.