Tired of Losing, Chile is Putting Up the Fight of Their Lives

Noooooo no te da vergüenza ooooohhhh oooohhh Nooooooo no te da vergüenza oooooohh oooooohhhh ni una Copa ni una vuelta!!

A dark shadow follows the Chilean team to all the South American stadiums where they play. They are the mockery of all hinchas, who always remind them that they have never won a Cup or run an Olympic victory lap.

Chile’s losing streak is no secret – and this Saturday, in the Nacional Stadium of Santiago, they will try to change their luck and win a Copa América against Argentina.

It’s kind of hard to believe a nation where soccer fever runs through streets and coffee shops, offices and living rooms, has never won anything. They were also one of the first countries on the continent to play soccer, which is reflected in the large number of players who have had successful careers in Europe – from Elías Figueroa and Carlos Caszeli, to Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano. And then there’s the new generation of players, including stars like Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, and Valdivia.

But despite all the great players and the experience they’ve built from playing soccer superpowers Brazil and Argentina, Chile was never able to define a football identity that demanded respect. They never had the jogo bonito of Brazil, the creole style of the Argentineans, or the feistiness of Uruguay.

Chile has been, for lack of a better word, beige.

The best World Cup result the country ever got was as the host team in 1962, where it placed 3rd. Before that, they had participated in two World Cups (1930 and 1950), where they were far from being protagonists. In the 1974 and 1982 World Cups they didn’t get past the first round, and in between those two tournaments, they lost a Copa América final against Paraguay in 1979.

Eight years later they would lose yet another Copa América final, this time against Argentina. This would be the beginning of an even greater tragedy; two years later, they’d go on to get eliminated from the 1990 World Cup in Italy when Chilean goalkeeper Condor Rojas deliberately cut himself and claimed he was hit by a firework in order to end the game early and avoid losing a World Cup Qualifying match against Brazil.

After a video review, FIFA awarded Brazil a 2-0 win, knocking Chile out of the tournament and banning them from the subsequent World Cup as punishment. This meant that Chile wouldn’t be back to the most important tournament of the world until 1998, where their second round, 4-1 loss to Brazil would mark the start of another disappearance from world soccer. (They didn’t qualify for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups).

In 2007, Chile put their faith in Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, whose methodical training style had led Argentina to an Olympic gold in 2004. Bielsa, who currently coaches French team Marseille and is known as el Loco, is still remembered by many to this day, especially as Chile gets close to their first Copa América title.

“Bielsa changed the mentality of the Chilean soccer player,” radio narrator Ernesto Díaz tells me as we walk to the press stands in the National Stadium during the semifinal game between Chile and Peru.

“How?” I ask. “I’m not sure, but now Chile play their own game, they have their style. Before, we used to improvise, with courage, but without a plan or strategy. Bielsa gave our soccer a personality.” He added, “Before, we would wait for the opponent, but when Bielsa came in, Chile took the initiative and began taking control of the game, we attacked.”

At press conferences, Bielsa is a common topic. He was the man who qualified Chile for the 2010 World Cup, where Chile finally got international attention and left a great impression even after losing to Brazil in the second round.

Alexis Sánchez, a player that made his debut with Bielsa, is now a star player for La Roja and Arsenal in the English premier league. “I learned a lot from him, and what I have become is thanks to him,” Alexis said during an interview in the mixed zone of the stadium.

Defender Gary Medel agrees with Sánchez regarding Bielsa’s impact on Chile’s current national team.

“Marcelo changed the thinking chip of the Chilean football player, he made us think more positively, made us go out with the idea of winning, seek the victory in the game. Bielsa has not only been an essential coach for myself, but for soccer in the whole country,” he stated.

The Bielsa factor is reflected in Chile’s current national coach, Argentinean Jorge Sampaoli, who also looks up to him. “He is the best manager in the world. I have a great attachment to that style and at some point I would like to have the same managerial capacity as Bielsa,” Sampaoli once stated.

Bielsa left Chile’s national team in 2011 – despite having a contract until 2015 – due to differences with the Chilean Football Federation.

The legacy he left in Chile can be felt; the team is always on the offensive, perpetually going for the win.

Bielsa’s work can be compared to what Luis Aragonés did for the Spanish national team, laying the ground work for Vicente del Bosque to lead Spain to a World Cup win in 2010 and a Euro cup win (again) in 2012.

Sampaoli now wants to do the same for Chile by building on Bielsa’s groundwork and taking the Chilean squad to their first Cup title, so they can finally run victory lap around a soccer field.