Wednesday 14 June 2017

Chi-Chi-Chi: Don't ignore the free gift on ITV this summer

Chile are coming to our televisions, and we'd be fools to miss out.

It’s not a big tournament summer. The domestic season is long finished, the international break is over, and the fixtures for the next Premier League campaign were announced today, allowing football fans the opportunity to dream of what might be, come May 2018. That’s it. No senior, elite level football to be watched for weeks, it seems. Maybe bored lovers of the beautiful game will want to dip their toe in the Lions tour of New Zealand, catch the end of the ICC Champions Trophy or simply wait until it’s time for those annual cries of “come on Tim”. However, they’d be foolish to detach from football, just yet.

That jam-jar of a competition, forced on to the calendar so tightly by FIFA, with seemingly no likelihood of being removed for the sake of players hoping for a summer off, is ready to go. The Confederations Cup will kick off in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, as hosts Russia take on 2016 OFC Nations Cup winners New Zealand. This tournament rarely catches the media spotlight, despite some rather open and exciting tournaments in recent years, and is ignored by many British football fans. This is both a plea and recommendation, however, to do the opposite this summer, and lap up the coming terrestrial television gift that is the Chile national team.

One day, I’ll write an elongated love letter about this side. Ever since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I’ve been captivated by them. Their style is no doubt one for the footballing romantics. Goals, goals, goals, Gegenpressen on steroids, a leaky defence, world class superstars and the tummy-tingly suspense of never knowing what might happen when they play. They have a unique identity, that rare thing in modern-day international football. And they’ll be desperate to lift the trophy this summer.

The seeds of this side were first planted at the 2007 under-20 World Cup in Canada, when a team containing Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal finished in 3rd place. Those two are no doubt the stars of the current side, but there are essential players throughout, not least Claudio Bravo, Eduardo Vargas and Gary Medel, all players somewhat maligned in England. The core of this under-20 team broke a 12 year absence from the World Cup when they made it to South Africa in 2010, but after progressing out of Group H, they were comfortably beaten by Brazil in the last-16. They had 3 key men suspended that disappointing day, but the style was well in place for the future. And whose style was it? Marcelo Bielsa, no less, and it’s he who must take a serious amount of credit for what came after his 3 year tenure ended in 2010.

Not an easy job to walk into, Jorge Sampaoli secured 3rd place in the CONMEBOL qualifiers for Brazil 2014, and a second successive finals appearance for this generation. They were, however, drawn in the Group of Death, with invincible holders Spain, the Netherlands and Australia. I remember the excitement the evening of their opener, against the Socceroos, vividly. The first half-hour was a relentless gush of super-Chile, and they raced into a 2-0 lead. A big score looked likely, but perhaps their biggest defensive frailty, height (or lack of), was highlighted when Tim Cahill pulled one back via a headed goal. Chile went on to win 3-1, but it was the next match against Spain that really caught the eye, as classy goals from Carles Aranguiz and Vargas saw the world champions dumped out the competition.

They should have secured top spot, and a date with Mexico, but defeat to the Dutch left a mouth-watering showdown against the hosts in what turned out to be a gripping contest. Sadly, and typically heart-breaking, it was penalties that saw Chile exit, but it could have been so different had Mauricio Pinilla not agonisingly crashed a shot against the bar in extra time. There would be little time to lick wounds, though. In a years time, the Copa America was coming to Chile, and they had a date with destiny, in a competition that they'd remarkably never won.

Of course, the tournament had all the rollercoasters that associate with this team, from Vidal crashing his car in controversial circumstances, to a defensive horror-show in a 3-3 draw with Mexico. However, ultimately, the side held their nerve in the knockout stages, and the late 1-0 win over a dogged Uruguay side was key. An edgy win over Peru in the last 4 meant a date with Lionel Messi and co in the final in Santiago. It was penalties again, but this time Chile won, claiming their first ever silverware and fulfilling surely the ultimate goal of this generation. The penalty that clinched it epitomised this team - Sanchez, under all the pressure in the world, dinking a Panenka past Sergio Romero.

The Copa Centenario in 2016 again had the mix of good, bad and ugly, in the excessive Chile ways. Only a penalty in the 10th minute of stoppage time against Panama helped them out the group, before a simply astonishing 7-0 demolition of a solid Mexico team in the last 8. Colombia were seen off inside the first 15 minutes of the semis, and then history repeated itself in New Jersey in the final, when penalties again clinched the gold medal over Argentina. Famously, Messi retired from the international game after this loss, but is now back in the fold. His current manager? Sampaoli, who’d left Chile before the 2016 Copa, initially for Sevilla.

He was replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi, the latest man who to be set the task of maintaining this special team and their style. A second successive continental crown wasn’t a bad way to start, but a mixed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign sees them in the 4th, and final, automatic berth at present. Of course, it’s Argentina and Sampaoli who sit one place behind them, and a fascinating end to the qualification awaits.

Before that, though, is the Confederations Cup. For a nation so overjoyed to win that first continental crown in 2015, there'll be little need for motivation to reach for more gold in Russia. Their last warm-up game against Romania was a microcosm of this team; two sumptuous goals giving the South Americans a two-goal lead, before a rearguard collapse ended in a 3-2 defeat. The defensive importance of Medel was evident - Chile were ahead before his first-half dismissal.

In Russia this month, Europe will offer the main threat. Germany will always be contenders, and there’s no doubt a certain Mr Ronaldo will be keen to claim yet another career medal. The Germans and Chile are together in group B, along with Australia and a weak Cameroon, who the Chileans meet in their opener on Sunday. Entertainment is almost guaranteed - the averages for the 16 matches they've played over the course of the 2014 World Cup, and 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas read as 3 goals per game, and over 2 scored by Chile.

This side needs more dedicated to them than this all-to-brief assessment of the past decade There’s no doubt others have told this story, or parts of it, and in better ways. What I’m trying to get across is that this side are a pure pleasure to watch, gripping, and unpredictable. And you’d be foolish to miss out on the free offerings on your TV this summer.