What words come to mind when thinking of the South American country of Chile? My geographic mind thinks of a long, skinny, mountainous nation that dominates the Pacific coast of Sudamerica. My historic side brings back the thoughts of a long dictatorship under General Agosto Pinochet.
Football wise, Chile’s been through a bit of a revolution over the past decade. Failing to qualify for the last two World Cup tournaments, La Roja finished second in CONMEBOL qualification for this month’s tournament, just one point behind Brazil.
The Fire gained a connection to Chile in January when Soccer Fitness Specialist Alvaro “El Profe” Briones joined the team with the hiring of Head Coach Carlos de los Cobos. Hailing from Iquique in the northern part of the country, Briones filled me in on his nation’s chances against Group H opponents, favorites Spain, upstarts Honduras and steadily improving Switzerland.
“Obviously when you talk about Spain in Chile’s group, it is by far the best team according to the FIFA rankings,” said Briones. “You have to realize Spain is having a tremendous run the last few years even though historically they haven’t done very well in the World Cup. After winning Euro 2008 and qualifying so easily out of their UEFA group, it shows at this moment they are the number one contender to win the World Cup.”
Number one indeed.
Holding an international record of 46-4-4 since falling to France in the Round of 16 at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, Spain went on to win their second European Cup in 2008, putting to rest the notion La Furia Roja couldn’t get over the hump in a major tournament.
The west European nation has been the most dominant country in world football over the last four years, having lost only one match since 2006, a 2-0 loss to the United States in last summer’s Confederations Cup semifinal. Before falling to the Yanks, the Spanish were on a 35-game unbeaten run, going 32-0-3 along the way. Vicente del Bosque’s men recovered following the defeat, running through UEFA qualification Group 5 with a perfect 10-0-0 record.
Luckily for Profe and Chile, their match against Spain comes in the Group H finale on June 25, allowing Chile the opportunity to clinch qualification before facing the country which once ruled them.
Chile’s opening match of the tournament comes Wednesday against Honduras (6:30 am CDT), judged to be one of the weaker teams in the tournament and a side that Briones has some familiarity with after coming up against the Catrachos in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying while serving as El Salvador’s Fitness Coach.
“The reality is that Honduras won’t pass into the second round. You have to understand the World Cup is divided into two parts: The first phase, where the teams are there based on certain circumstances and the second phase where the main teams are playing. Honduras may have moments where they are lucky and they certainly have some very good players, but the most they can hope for is a tie in this group. They should relax and enjoy everything they have accomplished. This will be the case for a number of teams in the World Cup.”
If some of the early results of this tournament have taught us anything, it would be not to take any side lightly. South Africa, Uruguay, the United States, New Zealand and Paraguay have all earned draws against opponents judged to be favorites, while tournament unknowns North Korea held Brazil scoreless for 55 minutes today.
If it’s to be the case for Honduras, who are appearing in only their second World Cup, the Central Americans may have to alter their normal attack-minded plan to a counter-attacking, wait-and-see style that has suited underdogs so far in this tournament.
Perhaps Chile’s most important game though is the middle match, to be played against Switzerland on June 21 in Port Elizabeth. Most would agree with Spain predicted to run through the group, the winner of that game, if there is one, will almost assuredly go through to the next round.
Briones points to both Chile and the Swiss’ recent success in youth competitions as reasons their match will be a competitive one.
“Switzerland is working for something very important and qualified very quickly for the World Cup. The most important thing is that they’re going through a phase where they’re experiencing a younger generation. In the recent past, they’ve done well in the U20 and U17 competitions. This is the same for Chile, qualifying more often than not for the U20 and U17 World Cups.”
Despite Switzerland’s quality, Profe points to a few factors to be difference makers in the June 21 clash.
“You have to remember, Chile has about 60 players playing overseas, so though Chile and Switzerland have similar characteristics, the advantage is that there are more Chilean players in bigger clubs overseas. Another important factor is our current manager, Marcelo Bielsa, who I consider to be one of the great tacticians and top three coaches in the world.”
Most important for a country with the size and football status that Chile possess is to play as a team. No player is more important than another and the 11 men on the field will be what take this side beyond the group phase.
“You can’t rely on one player because that’s not how we got to this World Cup. If you look at some of the players that aren’t in the team like Hector Mancilla of Toluca who was the top scorer in the Mexican league and Roma’s David Pizarro, it tells you that this team has a lot of good players already in it but they won’t accomplish anything if they don’t play together.”
Reaching the Round of 16 would be an accomplishment for the Chileans, but advancement beyond that point seems difficult as they’d almost assuredly have to face one of Brazil, Ivory Coast or Portugal in the first knockout phase. The chance of a knockout round matchup with continental rivals Brazil increased with that country’s 2-1 win over North Korea Tuesday, coupled with a 0-0 deadlock between the Ivory Coast and Portugal in Group G play. It’s a familiar opponent for the Chileans as Brazil has been the country to knock the side out in both their advancements past the group stage – the 1962 semifinals and 1998 Round of 16.
Before thinking about the next round, Chile has to get over their first and easiest hump in tomorrow’s early match against Honduras.