So here we are, again: Chile vs. Argentina in the final of the Copa América. Brazil and Colombia, the other favorites, faltered along the way. Mexico failed in spectacular fashion. In New Jersey, at the colossal but somewhat sterile MetLife Stadium, Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal will take on Lionel Messi and Argentina to decide who is the continent’s leading team for another three years.
Last year, Chile won the same final after a stalemate of 120 minutes from the penalty spot, but they had the advantage of home soil. Can La Marea Roja win on Sunday? At this tournament, Chile has indeed been a red wave, washing away any opposition in spite of a rather slow start.
In the semifinals and quarterfinals, the Chileans scored nine goals in the space of 100 minutes. They showed spine-tingling form and a dashing sense of purpose. Nagging fears that Chile was in a transitional phase after the 2014 World Cup have been assuaged.
Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa can be credited with much of Chile’s success. Back in 2007, the Chileans won a bronze medal in the U20 World Cup in Canada with a team that included Arturo Vidal, Alexis, Gary Medel, and Mauricio Isla. That same year, the Chilean FA hired Bielsa.
The eccentric manager gave La Roja an identity, because the Chileans had been trying to copycat Brazil, Argentina and several European countries in the past, but failed to develop any coherence to their game. Bielsa implemented his basic and favored tactical template, a 3-3-1-3 formation, with a central striker and overlapping wing backs. He instructed his team to mostly play in the opponent’s half. He guided Chile to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where La Roja excelled to become the neutral’s favorite with attacking soccer in a tournament of prudent play.
Jorge Sampaoli was a natural successor, a Bielsa disciple. He took Chile’s helm at the last World Cup when the team endeared itself to the public with its attacking style. They showed high pressing and vertigo, two key features of the Bielsa philosophy. Then, in 2015, with Sampaoli Chile’s steep rise, highlighted by the fact they were on equal footing with the traditional South American giants Brazil and Argentina, came to a climax with a first Copa América win on home soil.
That should have been the end of the golden generation of Medel, Vidal, Sánchez, and Isla. Instead, new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has gone further down the road of his predecessors. Chile got off to a slow start at the Copa, but then improved game by game. For both Mexico and Colombia, Chile’s rivals at knock out round, it was difficult to play toe-to-toe with La Roja, whose style is now so ingrained it gives Pizzi’s team an advantage over opponents.
This is indeed Chile’s golden generation, and for smaller nations – Iceland and Uruguay are the world champions in production of talent in relative terms – it’s always difficult to sustain a good level of youth development and keep producing new gifted players. International soccer often comes down to cycles.
Chile will want to defend its title against Argentina – and containing Messi will be key – but the Chileans have enough strengths of their own, as proven repeatedly at both this Copa América and previous tournaments, to win in their own right. They are after all the defending champions.