After nearly a century…

It’s jubilation in the Chile camp.-PICS:AP

There were some nerves in the semifinal versus Peru but Chile won the mental battle versus Argentina in the final, notes Priyansh.

The Estadio Nacional in Santiago is a monument to Chile’s history and its football. It was here that some of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history were written during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. On July 4, though, the venue was host to Chile’s greatest football triumph when it beat Argentina in the Copa America final. After 99 years of failure, the national side had finally won a major football trophy.

Following the final, left-back Jean Beausejour spoke about a conversation that took place before the match. “A few days ago, a teacher called me, saying ‘I hope in a stadium where so many suffered, there can be happiness.’”

There was not only happiness. Elation and unbridled joy came to the party as well. In 1973, when Pinochet came to power, the stadium was used to imprison the autocrat’s detractors. In memory of those killed at the venue during those dark years, a block behind the goal has been left indefinitely empty. Above the block, one can read the legendary line that commemorates the ones who succumbed to the cruelties of the dictatorship — Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro (a people without a memory is a people without a future).

After this triumph, the stadium will not only evoke memories of pain. It will also hold recollections of that night in July when years of structured planning finally bore fruit. It obviously helped that Chile had a bunch of talented footballers who had made their name in club football already. Now, it was their turn to provide joy to their compatriots.

As modern society has veered towards individualism, there are fewer collective goals that bring people together. However, Marcelo Bielsa has little time for players who can’t devote themselves to the collective. His system has room for individual talent to shine through, but no initiative is encouraged if it could harm the overall plan.

The amount of running and effort demanded by Bielsa has almost ensured that he will never garner trophies at the highest level. Yet, it’s a system that can be devastatingly effective over a shorter period of time. The pressing is nothing short of intense and the players change or exchange positions constantly.

These are the ideas Jorge Sampaoli has forever appreciated and propagated. The Argentinean coach stayed true to Bielsa’s beliefs as he ensured Chile rejuvenated from the stupor induced by his predecessor Claudio Borghi. After Bielsa had quit, Borghi had overseen a slight shift away from this pressing style but Sampaoli’s appointment corrected the course.

Chile's goalkeeper Claudio Bravo stops a penalty kick from Argentina's Ever Banega in the shoot-out. Bravo later won the Golden Glove for his performance in the tournament.-

There remained some problems, though. Sampaoli never addressed the lack of height of his backline. Consequently, Chile’s vulnerability at set pieces has been as pronounced as it has been when he was appointed. However, the doubts over the side’s mental strength posed even tougher questions.

Last year, Chile fought hard but eventually succumbed to Brazil on penalties in the World Cup round of 16. The defeat couldn’t be attributed to mental fragility alone but it extended a long list of failures that had seen the Chileans fail to cross the line. Quite often, the side would threaten to upset a fancied opponent but would fail to achieve the desired result.

Something changed this year. Even in adversity, Chile looked strong enough to cast self-doubt and the opposition’s challenge away. There were some nerves in the semifinal versus Peru but Sampaoli’s men won the mental battle versus Argentina in the final.

After harrying the opposition for the opening 20 minutes, they retained a control over the proceedings for the rest of the match. It was particularly impressive how Lionel Messi was isolated by the Chilean players. Although the tactics weren’t always within permissible limits, the intensity with which they succeeded in haranguing Messi was worthy of anyone’s admiration.

Consequently, Argentina retreated into a shell and it was Chile that looked likely to grab a winner. However, the latter could win only on penalties. In fact, the 4-1 scoreline in the shootout was representative of the mental makeup of both sides as they approached the spot-kicks. An unsure Argentina was swept aside by Chile. Just like Chile had suffered many times in the past. For once, though, the shoe was on the other foot.

Sampaoli deserves immense credit for the change in mental approach. There was a glimpse of this fearlessness in the way Chile played Spain at the World Cup last year. Not for a moment did it seem that it would be overawed at the prospect of defeating the defending champion. The task was carried out with cool composure.

The Argentininas are crestfallen even as the Chileans savour the moment after the final.-

For the Copa America success, though, Sampaoli also had to make a major compromise. Very few players would remain in their team after being involved in an accident forced by drunken driving. However, as he only suffered minor injuries, Arturo Vidal was back for the next game after issuing an apology. Football’s convenient morality reared its ugly head and no action was taken against the Juventus midfielder.

A lesser player would probably have been suspended. But Vidal was vital to Chile’s cause and Sampaoli recognised that. A compromise was made to ensure history could be made. Convenience trumped everything else.

With the incident behind the side, Chile went on to accomplish its greatest triumph. This was symbolic of the surroundings in which the trophy was won. The Estadio Nacional carried memories of a vile past but never did it bear heavily on the Chilean team. With composure and calmness, Chile gained the victory it had sought for nearly a century.

When the South American nation successfully bid to host the 1962 FIFA World Cup, the national football federation’s President Carlos Dittborn had delivered a passionate plea to the sport’s governing body. “You must give us the World Cup, for we have nothing else,” he had said.

Now, though, Chile has something. Not only success, but a chance to build a positive legacy.