Multiple theories persist regarding the conception of football styles. Specific styles can sometimes be traced back to the coaches and players directly implicated in their promulgation. However, some propose that there are more holistic reasons behind a style. Circumstances of an environmental, cultural, political, religious and historical nature have been widely cited. Others suggest psychology and philosophy are involved.
The remarkable styles – remarkable in this sense meaning memorable but not necessarily aesthetically pleasing – often have profound roots. Brazil’s irrepressible individual flair throughout the 1970s and ’80s was viewed as a reaction to an oppressive military government. Totaalvoetbal has been linked to a Dutch obsession with space born out of a history of flooding and geographical misfortune. Catenaccio, as Gianni Brera would have it, was the result of a perceived physical inferiority that wrought internal anxiety over Italy’s ability to compete with other nations on a football field.
Chile have never been considered traditional footballing powerhouses but their style over the last eight years has infiltrated the global sport’s consciousness. Unlike those memorable styles of the past, however, its causality was one popular yet idealistic coach and one of his devoted disciples. In Chile’s case, a combination of two men, one group of players and good timing would enable the country to leave an immutable mark on football history.
Rather than growing from the bottom up as a subconscious or entirely conscious collective reaction to some local event or as an artistic representation of the Chilean working class, this style was implemented from the top down. It was an idea from an ideologue that became ingrained and soon became associated. Infiltrating the Chilean national team, the idea flourished and became a beautiful reality. Brazilian football, Dutch football and Italian football have their own historic connotations; now so too does Chilean football.
I. The roots of success
Chilean football became acquainted with heartbreak in early 1955 when the national team finished runners-up in the South American Championship, a tournament that preceded the Copa América. Months later, in July of that same year, Marcelo Bielsa was born across the Andes in Rosario, a city in the province of Santa Fe, Argentina.
In his formative years, Bielsa showcased a single-mindedness that would eventually come to characterise him as one of football’s more zealous thinkers. He cheered for Newell’s Old Boys, not their rivals Rosario Central, the team his father supported. His choice of profession also went against family tradition; he followed the path of football player and coach, while siblings pursued political vocations.
Bielsa’s playing career was a short one; he turned out for his beloved Newell’s as well as Instituto and Argentino de Rosario between 1977 and 1980 before retiring at 25. He nevertheless still saw his future in the sport, deciding to obtain a qualification as a physical education teacher before returning to Newell’s as a coach. He would have more success there as a coach than he ever came close to as a player, so much so that since 2009 the club’s stadium has been known as Estadio Marcelo Bielsa in his honour.
Guiding Newell’s to the Torneo Apertura in 1990 and the Clausura in 1992, as well as a Copa Libertadores final, was a promising start to his coaching career, but stints in Mexico with Club Atlas and Club América wielded little of note. A return to Argentina with Vélez Sarsfield saw Bielsa pick up winning ways again with the 1998 Clausura title. From there Bielsa spent a few months in Spain with Espanyol before a great opportunity presented itself.
Daniel Passarella’s time as Argentina national team coach had come to an end and it was believed that José Pékerman would step into the role. Instead Pékerman took up a position as director of football and appointed Bielsa. It was a daring move, with one of international football’s most enviable positions taken up by a visionary so hell-bent on perfecting his ideas in praxis that he had earned the nickname El Loco.
The nickname also stemmed from idiosyncrasies beyond the pitch. Bielsa, upon accepting the Argentine national post, told his friends to delete his mobile phone number. He refused to give one-on-one interviews and instead granted license for all questions from all comers during long press conferences. He meticulously studied Argentine players through endless amounts of stored videotapes. He was obsessed.
Despite the obsession, Bielsa’s Argentina underwhelmed, falling at the group stage in the 2002 World Cup. An Olympic win in 2004 and a Copa América runners-up medal were not insignificant, but they hardly paid tribute to what was a fine collection of players. The early World Cup exit was seen as an underachievement in the circumstances and Bielsa left his post in 2004 to be replaced by Pékerman, citing a lack of energy.
Read | Marcelo Bielsa: the Mexico diaries
For the following three years Bielsa spent his time out in the countryside, topping up on football videos and continuing to study the game, only this time from afar. That was until 2007, when Chile came calling. It was here that Bielsa’s ideals would obtain greater global prominence. For the first time there was a clear indicator of what his methods could do for a team that resounded worldwide.
Since hosting the World Cup in 1962, Chile had qualified for the tournament on just four of the proceeding 11 occasions prior to Bielsa’s appointment as national team coach. Even those four occasions were barely worth celebrating; the appearances wrought not a single win, six draws and seven defeats in all. Chile had missed out on the 2002 and 2006 editions and, with that in mind, Bielsa’s remit was to return the national side to the World Cup for the first time in the post-Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas era.
Results are of little consequence to the purist and Chile’s initial displays under Bielsa produced a veritable mixed bag. His Chile made history for all the wrong reasons, losing 3-0 at home to Paraguay in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, their heaviest home qualifying defeat. They also lost a home qualifier to Brazil for the first time by the same score line. However there were also signs of promise, as Chile put in notable shifts to gain a point away to Uruguay and beat Argentina 1-0 at home. Eventually La Roja gained momentum under Bielsa and finished second in the Conmebol qualifying section, automatically reaching the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Bielsa’s off-pitch peculiarities continued to garner considerable attention. Although he and his staff were being paid US$1.5m per annum by the Chilean football federation, he reportedly lived on his own in a few rooms at a national team training ground. Despite this, his vision was becoming all the more reputable thanks to the Chilean national team’s success. Under his tutelage, this Chile had become a known force in international football.
Part of the interest was down to Bielsa’s tactics; the system and style with which he had begun to indoctrinate a generation of Chilean players. As there had been during his time as Argentine national coach, there were teething problems in its implementation. One particular niggle provoked a sense of déjà vu: his unwillingness to alter formation to allow for high-quality individual players. Just as he had left out either Gabriel Batistuta or Hernán Crespo in opting to use one centre-forward with Argentina, he decided against playing both Matías Fernández and Jorge Valdívia in the Chilean attacking midfield area.
Bielsa was uncompromising in his ideals and individual talent frequently gave way as he instituted ‘un enganche y tres puntas’ in attack as part of his favoured 3-3-1-3 system. This meant that one playmaker would play behind three strikers, a significant departure from the more defensive Chilean sides that had gone before. Bielsa also proselytized specific stylistic tendencies to go hand-in-hand with his proactive line-up, such as an intense pressing game, the application of pressure in opposition territory and utilising the flanks as key sources of attacking opportunity. To undertake Bielsa’s methods successfully required extreme levels of fitness and unitary coherence. In short, it could only work if the players completely bought into his vision. That’s exactly what Chilean players did, creating football that was at times overwhelming, at others naive and open, but was always dazzling on the eye.
The summer of 2010 was not a summer for attractive football as the World Cup in South Africa generally disappointed. Defensive tactics were prevalent but the Adidas ball took plenty of blame for the lack of spectacle. The Jabulani, as it was named, disobeyed orders from even the most gifted of players, rolling through each match with a startling propensity for frustratingly unpredictable movements.
Spain ended up as deserving champions that summer, proceeding from dominating their own continent in 2008 to dominating world football through tiki-taka, the Uruguayans surprised and the Germans showed youthful promise, but Chile also left a mark with their exciting brand of football in spite of a relatively early exit.
They met the eventual champions in their final group game with a win enough to avoid Brazil in the round of 16. In the early moments of the match, Chile stretched and even tantalised the Spanish defence as they created but failed to finish scoring chances. Goals from David Villa and Andrés Iniesta gave Spain an insurmountable lead, while in the build-up to the second an accidental trip on Fernando Torres by Marco Estrada led to a controversial second yellow card and the Chilean’s sending off. Chile continued on as they had done – playing feisty, attacking football – and pulled one back just after half-time, but it was not enough.
Read | The obsession of Marcelo Bielsa
Just as they had done in 1998, Chile lost to Brazil at the second round stage of a World Cup by three goals, but in qualifying, winning two group games, competing with Spain and reaching the knockout stages, Bielsa had restored pride to the Chilean national team. Not only that, but few had a higher ratio for nobility of principle to effectiveness in practise than Chile. The way they played was more significant than their results, and Bielsa’s ideas were behind the entertainment.
II. Reinforcing the foundations
“I’m often asked by journalists to choose between winning or playing well. I disagree with that separation. It should be a statement instead: we play well in order to win. It’s not a dilemma between two options. There is no shorter and more pleasant path to success than increasing the beauty of play.” Marcelo Bielsa
As there are those who believe that one person’s vision is too mundane or simplistic a source for any style of football, it’s worth inspecting the conditions in which Bielsa began his coaching career. The true authenticity of ideas are debatable and a determinist analysis of the history of football tactics would likely point to a great debate that has hung over Argentine football for decades; a philosophical divide that must have influenced Bielsa in some way as he moulded his own views.
César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo had a few things in common. Both were Argentine, both were born in the late 1930s and both were given nicknames based on their physical characteristics; El Flaco or ‘Thin One’ and El Narigon or ‘Big Nose’, respectively. As football coaches, however, they were entirely dissimilar.
Like Bielsa, Menotti was born in Rosario, and like Bielsa he started his coaching career with Newell’s Old Boys, although it was with Huracán that he first made a tangible impact, leading the club to a league title in 1973. That was enough for him to be given the job of Argentina national team coach on the back of an underwhelming 1974 World Cup performance. In 1978, under the watchful eye of Jorge Rafael Videla’s dictatorship, Menotti would lead Argentina to their first ever World Cup victory while on home soil.
That triumph enshrined Menotti in domestic football folklore, though his 1978 national side was arguably not the greatest exponent of his own philosophy, which was rooted in the search for an attractive style of playing. Nonetheless, Menotti’s Argentina were celebrated for bucking a pragmatic trend which had taken over the country’s football ever since a tormenting 6-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia and subsequent first-round exit at the 1958 World Cup. As Jonathan Wilson points out in his book, Inverting the Pyramid, in the wake of that humiliation: “[Argentine] football became less about the spectacle than about winning, or at least, not losing.”
The low point of this stylistic shift came in the 1969 Intercontinental Cup between Estudiantes and AC Milan. Milan, the European champions, won 3-0 at home but lost the second leg 2-1in Buenos Aires amid scenes of violence. Milan striker Néstor Combin was kicked and had his cheekbone broken, while the Italians’ star playmaker Gianni Rivera was punched. That Estudiantes team, coached by Osvaldo Zubeldía, were a brutal portrayal of Argentine football, or anti-futbol, prevalent at the time. With those recent events in mind, the romantic Menotti, with his shaggy hair, perma-cigarette and predilection for fan-friendly football, was a welcome change.
Ultimately, Menotti’s cycle would end following a second round exit at the 1982 World Cup. His replacement, Carlos Bilardo, had been an instrumental player for Zubeldía’s infamous Estudiantes side. Once again reacting to bad results, the Argentine FA turned to a man who prioritised the final score above all else. Bilardo once argued: “Football is about winning and nothing else.”
Considered a Zubeldía protégé, Bilardo began coaching with Estudiantes, though it was only during his third spell in charge of the club that he finally achieved notable success and caught the eye of the Argentine football hierarchy. Known for being an astute tactician even as a player, Bilardo was – with a nod to Zubeldía’s influence – a tactical reactionary in that, as far as he was concerned, the end justified the means; whatever was needed to win was the correct course of action. Despite being unappreciative of the spectacle, Bilardo did lead Argentina to their second World Cup win in 1986, inspired by the magical Diego Maradona.
As of today Menotti and Bilardo are the only men to have led Argentina to World Cup victory. With that in mind, it’s no wonder the duality of their ideals has become a point of interest within Argentine football. It is this stylistic divergence, between Menottismo and Bilardismo, that Marcelo Bielsa would have experienced first-hand and been unable to ignore as he navigated his way from playing to coaching in Argentina from the late ’70s through to the early ’90s.
In viewing his Chilean side at the 2010 World Cup some may see Bielsa as a Menotti advocate, but that is at best simplistic and at worst wrong. His philosophy combines technical skill with tactical risk-taking, though Chile also sought to play vertically, and it cannot be denied that their aggressive pressing and at times uncompromising defending added a rough hue that not only increased their entertainment factor, but also their effectiveness. With players such as Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel, there lurked beneath a passion that bordered on volatility.
Read | Jorge Valdívia: the Chilean magician who Europe barely saw
It is reasonable then, to suggest that Bielsa’s ideology offers a sort of third way; a halfway house somewhere between Bilardismo and Menottismo. As Marcela Mora y Araujo wrote in 2007, “Bielsa, I believe, could have opened a third school. An obsessive tactician like Bilardo, he shares many of the traits Menotti displayed and likes an attacking game.” The idea that Bielsa has his own distinct philosophy is given further credence by his having his own disciples; coaches who have, if not verbally extolled his ideals, very evidently practised them.
Bielsa resigned from his post as coach of the Chilean national team in 2011 having left a prominent mark on the nation’s football. The fans mourned his departure but soon enough their craving for a Bielsista style would be satisfied. El Loco had lit a spark, now one of his disciples would fan the flames, taking the Chilean national team to a new high in the process.
III. Evolution, not revolution
Bielsa’s replacement as Chilean national coach came in the form of another Argentine, Claudio Borghi. During his time with Colo-Colo, Borghi had worked with many of the players that would come to form the backbone of Bielsa’s Chile, such as goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, defender Gonzalo Jara, the multi-positional Vidal, playmakers Valdívia and Fernández as well as forwards Alexis Sánchez and Humberto Suazo.
With the experience of coaching the aforementioned players and having led Colo-Colo to four consecutive Chilean Primera titles, Borghi was a perfectly rational appointment as coach of the Chilean national team. Not only that, he had a preference for attacking football and often lined up with a back three. Borghi wasn’t, however, a Bielsista. His deeper defensive line and inclination not to press high didn’t quite work and, consequently, his time with Chile came to a close after six successive defeats – three of which came in World Cup qualifiers – that eroded the momentum gained through Bielsa’s leadership and left Chile’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil open to doubt with five losses from nine games.
While Borghi’s national side faltered both in results and ideological continuity, Chilean domestic football was still very much under the influence of Bielsa. His impact was particularly evident in Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile outfit; a team who, as well as dominating domestically, were tearing through South American football and drawing appreciative glances from further afield.
During this period, La U won three straight Chilean Primera titles, at one stage going 35 matches unbeaten, and also added the Copa Sudamericana to their trophy cabinet for the first time in their history, dismantling the likes of Flamengo (5-0 on aggregate) and Arsenal de Sarandi (5-1 on aggregate) on their way to a final with LDU Quito, whom they dispatched 4-0 over two legs to claim the prestige of being the first Chilean club to triumph in continental competition for two decades.
Sampaoli, the man at the helm of this great era in the club’s history, was born in Casilda, Argentina, less than 30 miles from Bielsa’s birthplace. He too turned to coaching at a relatively young age after his playing career was cut short through injury and meandered through Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Chile before landing at La U. His Universidad de Chile side were principally set up with a back three and pressed high, taking the game to their opponents and attacking at every opportunity. Because of these stylistic principles, as well as his obsession for detail in spending much of his time either coaching or studying football, Sampaoli was earmarked as one of Bielsa’s most devout disciples.
After Claudio Borghi’s sacking in November 2012, Sampaoli was hired as Chilean national coach within the month. This decision was seen as an expression of desire to continue the themes laid down by Bielsa prior to the Borghi divergence, as well as to get Chile back on track for World Cup qualification. Sampaoli implemented his 3-4-3 system and immediately brought back the principles that had served Chile so well under Bielsa.
One characteristic that distinguishes Sampaoli from Bielsa, and subsequently marked out the difference between their two Chile sides, is the former’s variation. Sampaoli’s Chile is, just as his Universidad de Chile had been at club level, adaptable; capable of playing in a multitude of formations. Despite a preference for 3-4-3, Sampaoli is known to switch to a 3-4-1-2 or a 4-3-1-2 depending on the situation. His versatility in systems necessitated versatile players and in this sense timing was key as he happened to take charge at a time when many Chilean players happened to possess universalist qualities. These included the aforementioned Jara, Vidal and Sánchez, who can play anywhere across defence, midfield and attack, as well as Medel, a midfield enforcer-cum-central defender.
Timing was also key for Sampaoli in other ways. The likes of Medel, Vidal, Sánchez and rampaging right-wing-back Mauricio Isla were graduates of the Chilean team that had finished third at the 2007 under-20 World Cup. They were also the core of Bielsa’s side and were, upon Sampaoli’s appointment, on the cusp of their prime playing years. This group was supplemented by players that had already worked with Sampaoli at Universidad de Chile, such as striker Eduardo Vargas, midfield dynamo Charles Aránguiz, deep-lying playmaker Marcelo Díaz and left-wing-back Eugenio Mena, amongst others.
Results almost immediately picked up following Sampaoli’s hiring. Chile lost 1-0 away to Peru in March 2013 in Sampaoli’s first competitive game in charge but in their next six qualifiers the only points they would drop came via an astonishing turnaround away to Colombia in Barranquilla, where the hosts came back from a 3-0 half-time deficit to draw 3-3 courtesy of two Falcao penalties. World Cup qualification was eventually assured with a win over Ecuador in the final round of matches, with Chile finishing third in the standings behind Argentina and Colombia. Meanwhile, friendly draws away against Brazil and Spain, and a 2-0 Wembley win over England, boosted confidence.
Read | The story of Jorge Sampaoli’s early managerial years in Peru
Improvements in results and a return to Bielsista methods meant that Sampaoli’s Chile entered the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as dark horses and the neutrals’ favourites, but in order to go deep in the tournament they would have to negotiate an extremely testing group stage draw that pitted them against reigning world champions Spain, traditional giants the Netherlands and a confident, youthful Australian side.
In the shadow of the Netherlands’ stunning 5-1 destruction of the Spanish, Chile began by assertively beating Australia 3-1, a result that arguably flattered the Australians slightly given the amount of possession the Chileans enjoyed. The football had flowed as Chile took a two-goal lead in the opening 15 minutes and there was a suspicion that they could perhaps have scored more had they needed to.
The second match would prove to define Chile’s tournament as they took on Spain. Over the years comparisons had been made between the Chilean style of play and Spanish tiki-taka, though the comparison did neither any favours. Tiki-taka is far more risk-averse, more controlled and at times serene; lusting after possession. The Chilean way was, and is, frenzied, unflinchingly aggressive and far more open. Each style contains beauty but the contrasts are clear. One is delicate elegance, the other frenetic and constant.
Against the wounded Spanish, who in all likelihood needed a win to remain in the competition, Chile were mercilessly relentless. In a showcase of his aforementioned variation, Sampaoli switched to a 3-4-1-2 formation with arguably the most important tactical change being the lining up of Vidal in a more advanced midfield position, acting as an oppressive force as Chile looked to win the ball in Spanish territory.
On 19 minutes a sloppy giveaway by Xabi Alonso gifted the ball to Sánchez, who played a one-two with Vidal before playing in Aránguiz; who had made one of his trademark late runs, with a perfectly-placed through ball. Aránguiz squared it for Vargas who rounded Iker Casillas to slot home. Before the end of the first-half Chile doubled their advantage with Aránguiz toe-poking in after a deflected Sánchez free-kick had fallen to his feet. With that Spain were out and Chile, gaining revenge for their defeat in 2010, were through.
Defeat to the Netherlands meant that Chile would play hosts Brazil in the second round. It was another tough task, but the Chileans put in a Herculean effort in what turned out to be one of the games of the tournament. The early signs were ominous as David Luiz latched onto a Neymar corner to give Brazil the lead on 18 minutes, but Chile didn’t lose heart. Their closing down high up the pitch would reap its reward in the 32nd minute as Vargas stole onto a casual Brazilian throw-in routine to play in Sánchez, who found the bottom-left corner with an unerringly accurate passed finish.
Fuelled by the energetic presence of coach Sampaoli – practically frothing as he stormed back-and-forth on the touchline, barking and orchestrating – Chile traded blows with Brazil in a dogged quest to upset the odds. In the end, fine margins were the difference as Mauricio Pinilla, on as a substitute, hit the crossbar with seconds left in extra-time as the match finished 1-1 and descended to penalties. The woodwork not only denied Chile, but actively sent them out, as Jara, unattached following his release by Nottingham Forest, hit the post with his penalty.
For the third time in a row, Chile had been seen off by Brazil at the second round stage of a World Cup, but their vivacious performances earned them yet more respect. Medel’s post-match tears were an enduring image of the tournament; the hard man having broken down with a defeat he found hard to take considering the spirit he and his team-mates had put into the game.
Sampaoli had carried forth the principles laid down by Bielsa and came within a whisker of taking Chile to the quarter-finals of a World Cup for only the second time in the nation’s history. Now they had one year to plan for a tournament of their own.
IV. The end justified the means
The 2015 Copa América was set for Chile and, with what many deemed the country’s finest ever generation of players and a clearly defined method of playing, the timing felt perfect. Nevertheless, the burden of playing host has in the past proved difficult for even the best of teams to shoulder, as Brazil’s 7-1 World Cup semi-final capitulation to Germany in the summer of 2014 portrayed.
Read | How Marcelo Salas became Chile’s greatest goalscorer
Chile struggled in the lead-up to the Copa and took time to settle into the tournament. They required a 66th minute Vidal penalty to kick-start their opening game against Ecuador before Vargas sealed the win late on. Then, in their next game, they drew 3-3 with a second-string Mexico side. These results came against a backdrop of controversy, with Vidal arrested for crashing his car while drunk. It was hardly the beginning of champions and Chile’s long wait for a Copa victory looked like it might just continue. Then, in their final group game, the Chileans sprang to life, annihilating Bolivia 5-0 with consummate ease, storming into the quarter-finals by topping their group and setting up a clash with Uruguay.
Difficult to beat at the best of times, Óscar Tabárez’s side somehow kept a vibrant Chile, a flurry of movement and attacking interchanges, at bay with an organised, deep-lying defence. The tie was overshadowed by yet more controversy as Jara’s rectal examination of Edinson Cavani provoked the Uruguayan striker to slap him and work himself into a frenzy while being instructed to leave the field. It was sly, crude and cheap; another example of the underlying spite laced through the Chilean style, but it gave Sampaoli’s men a one-man advantage to play with. Uruguay continued to hold out but were undone in the 81st minute as Isla slammed home to send the crowd into delirious fits of joy.
With Jara retrospectively banned for his behaviour, Chile entered their semi-final with Peru filled with confidence but without an important member of their defence. However within 21 minutes the hosts once again had a one-man advantage with Peruvian centre-back Carlos Zambrano sent off for two bookable offences. Despite the extra man, Chile looked open and Peru hit the woodwork before falling behind through a Vargas finish. Peru’s star man, the striker Paolo Guerrero, continuously caused problems with his physicality, movement and pace, and it was he that teed up Peru’s equaliser, dropping deep to set Luis Advíncula free down the right. Advíncula’s tantalising cross was poked into the Chilean net by Medel.
Gutted to be level having dominated possession, Chile regrouped and resumed their position on the front foot. Four minutes later, Vargas collected the ball and shuffled towards the Peruvian penalty box before unleashing a dipping right-footed shot from the Gods that flew beyond opposition ‘keeper Pedro Gallese and nestled in the bottom-left corner of the net. It was a moment of pure inspiration from a player who has only ever looked truly at home when playing for Sampaoli.
It was Sampaoli that brought him through at Universidad de Chile and it was under him that Vargas has sparkled in the red shirt of his national team. On the back of a poor season on loan at Queens Park Rangers in the basement of the English Premier League, Vargas was once again performing wonders for his country, with this latest goal his fourth of the tournament.
Vargas’s strike settled the tie. It wasn’t perfect, but Chile were through to a Copa América final for the first time in nearly 30 years. There they would meet Argentina, the country in which their key influences, Bielsa and Sampaoli, were born and raised.
With Lionel Messi augmenting the best set of attacking options in international football and Javier Mascherano cajoling their defence, Argentina looked strong and were out to erase memories of one year previously, where they had lost out to Germany in the World Cup final. Suppressing Messi’s creative instincts, Chile started as they meant to go on, swarming and harassing Argentina to win possession and constantly looking to attack; their industrious ethic channelling the drive of a hopeful Chilean crowd, some of whom had purportedly paid $25,000 for tickets. Sampaoli had studied countless hours of Barcelona footage in order to assess how best to stifle Messi, aware that cutting off the little genius would remove much of the threat to his defence. His efforts were not in vain.
The match was untidy and 120 minutes passed without either net bulging. Penalties would decide this most significant of games. Chile converted all of their opening three while Gonzalo Higuaín blazed over the bar and Éver Banega’s placed finish was pushed away by Bravo. That meant the spotlight shone on Alexis Sánchez, the star of this glorious generation, an individual microcosm of the Chilean style, to gain glory.
In that cauldron of baited breath, with desperate eyes peeking through trembling fingers, Sánchez strode up and softly lulled the ball into the back of the net with a deft touch. His celebration juxtaposed the calmness of the finish as the importance of the moment dawned on him. He removed his shirt and his team-mates ran to rejoice with him; relief, satisfaction and incalculable ecstasy surrounding their very beings. History had been re-written.
A slow caress, the finish hardly encapsulated the Chilean style of play, but the moment itself was a culmination of sorts. It was the apex of a team’s work, the validation of a method implanted by Bielsa and exalted by Sampaoli. The Chilean way now had more than plaudits for company, it had silverware too. Chile were finally kings of their continent and Vidal summarised the emotion: “We left our life on the field. Chilean people needed this joy … we gave it to them.”
For the Chilean football fan, the victory broke a long-standing curse, though in a more holistic sense, this Chilean generation has achieved so much more than that. Theirs is an outstandingly distinctive way of playing that deserves its own chapter in the definitive history of football styles. Tracing it back, the Chilean way was conceptualised by two men from the province of Santa Fe, Argentina. In this sense, the style had to cross borders, even mountain ranges, to find home in Chile.
From the visionary endeavour of Bielsa to the fanatical Sampaoli, via the collective efforts of the iconic Sánchez, Vidal and Medel, it has exhilarated the watching world. Fast and flowing with an electric intensity, always attractive and occasionally dark, the Chilean way will leave behind its own unique imprint.
By Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman