Unlikely marriage reaps rewards for Chile

ZILINA, Slovakia - It hardly seemed to be a marriage made in heaven when Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa tied the knot with Chile's national team two years ago.

Chile were a rudderless team riddled with indiscipline, while Bielsa had shut himself away at his farm with his vast collection of football books and videos since quitting his post as coach of his native Argentina.

Two years on and Chile are among the 32 finalists for the World Cup in South Africa, having completed an impressive qualifying campaign under Bielsa.

In 2007 the picture looked very different.

Chile, who had made only one World Cup appearance since 1982, had reached a low point with a 6-1 Copa America defeat to Brazil and six players being banned by the national federation for an incident in the breakfast room at the team hotel, when local media said food was thrown.

Bielsa had disappeared from public view since quitting as coach of Argentina in 2004.

Although he had led the under-23 side to victory at the Athens Olympics, the coach had been living under the shadow of Argentina's spectacular failure at the 2002 World Cup and the pressure from vested interests in Argentine football eventually proved too much.

His name was invariably mentioned when major coaching jobs cropped up but Bielsa could not be coaxed out of his solitary existence and Chile, with their poor record, disciplinary problems and lack of big-name players, seemed to have little to offer.

Yet Bielsa accepted Chile's approach and the unlikeliest of marriages was formed.

Subsequent successes have included a 1-0 win over Argentina, their first in a competitive game, 4-0 and 4-2 thrashings of Colombia and away wins over bitter rivals Peru and World Cup regulars Paraguay.

On Tuesday, Chile showed their potential on the European stage, beating fellow World Cup qualifiers Slovakia 2-1 away with a performance that had rival coaching Vladimir Weiss drooling. BARCELONA COMPARISON

"I hope that we don't meet them at the World Cup because they are an excellent team," said Weiss, who compared Chile's intricate passing to European champions Barcelona and described them as "a magnificent team with a magnificent coach".

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Chile's revival is that it has been achieved without any heavyweight players.

A glance at the Chilean squad which travelled to Europe this week is hardly likely to have scared their potential World Cup opponents.

Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo plays in the Spanish second division, defender Gonzalo Jara in the English second tier and playmaker Jorge Valdivia in the United Arab Emirates.

Most of the other players are scattered around Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Greece and Turkey.

Perhaps the only Chilean playing regularly for a top European club is Roma's David Pizarro and he has refused to play for his country for several years.

Bielsa, however, saw potential in the natural talent of the Chilean players, was impressed by the working conditions offered by the federation and hand-picked players he felt could fit into his system - and understand his explanations.

Bielsa often has the air of a tortured intellectual and talks like an academic rather than a football coach.

Unruffled by the plaudits from Slovakia's coach, he said of his team's performance on Tuesday: "It seemed to me to be a satisfactory performance and the players reached the approved standard for most of the game.

ECCENTRIC STREAK

"There were situations where I imagined that we were going to end up creating more danger to the opposition than we eventually did.

"Maybe, at the end of the day, our attacks were not as penetrating as the approach work we had produced had led us to believe they would be.

"I insist in saying that we had nearly an hour-and-a-quarter in which we dominated the possession of the ball, but in the closing 15 minutes of the game our opponents created almost the same quantity of goal situations which we had done in the previous 75 minutes."

His assessment of the fringe players who were given an outing in Zilina went down the same long and winding road.

"In this particular analysis, it seems to me that the structure of the team was not altered, in that the players who have played less time during the qualifying competition made a collective contribution such that it enabled us to maintain our harmony," replied Bielsa, to the clear despair of the official translator.

Bielsa's eccentric streak is never far from the surface.

He refuses to give exclusive interviews and the only time he ever commented on a referee's performance was to say that the official was right to send him off.

In the goalless draw against Uruguay, he brought on Manuel Iturra as a substitute for an injured player in the 38th minute, replaced him at halftime and later admitted he had been wrong to do so.

Sometimes his controversial decisions have paid off. In October's game away to Colombia, he replaced playmaker Matias Fernandez after only half an hour with his team losing 1-0.

Within five minutes, Chile had taken a 2-1 lead and went on to record a 4-2 win which guaranteed their place in South Africa.


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