The scariest part of watching Chile play is that it always seems that they’re willing to die on the field. Gary Medel especially. He’s either immune to pain or it doesn’t affect him on the same base level as it does other human beings. He might even take satisfaction in it. That’s one of the two explanations of why he would throw his body into the post in order to stop a Gonzalo Higuaín shot that seemed headed for goal. And then get up to continue in the game. As if he didn’t just throw his body into the post at full speed.
The only other reasoning is that he exemplifies the attitude of Chile and what makes them special. Giving up their bodies for the greater good is a required part of their greatness.
That’s why they were going to win the Copa América Centenario. It’s what their fans outside of MetLife stadium before the Copa América Centenario believed. They beat Argentina in last year’s final and they would do it again. Not by a slight margin either, the fans were so confident that the suggested scoreline was as over the top as Chile’s pressing. 3-0. 5-0. Because they’re fighters.
And they did win. It was a messy game, littered with careless turnovers, red cards and consistent fouling. Lionel Messi was booked for diving, that’s how absurd it got. It was even more disappointing given that the world had been spoiled on the backs of Argentina and Chile’s respective last two games before it. They gave hope for something better than the final in 2015, but this edition turned out to be just like the last. Penalties and a Chile victory included.
As Messi broke down in tears after the last penalty and his story with Argentina seemingly came to an end, Chile celebrated their golden generation. A team of players who came in as bright-eyed youngsters almost 10 years ago and were guided and nurtured by one central philosophy.
The trophy, their second in two years, served as validation for their long journey out of the wilderness of footballing irrelevancy. For their counter-culture footballing identity and for the long wait, the belief and patience needed to see their hard work rewarded.
Chile were never supposed to be there defeating one of, if not the best team in the world. Less even for a second time. They had no right. Not that long ago they were still afterthoughts in world football, constantly failing to qualify for the World Cup by some ways off. They had featured in the Copa América 38 times and had never won it before 2015, and next year will be their first time ever in a Confederations Cup.
Their rise to the top of the world is coincidentally a story of three Argentines, and is less meteoric than a lesson in continuity and belief. It was Marcelo Bielsa, a former Argentina manager, genius and madman in one, El Loco, who laid the foundation after Chile were embarrassed 6-1 by Brazil in the 2007 Copa América semifinal.
He gave them many firsts: their first win over Argentina in an official match (a 1-0 victory in October of 2008 that forced the resignation of Argentina’s manager Alfio Basile) and their first away win against a Colombian team in a 4-2 goal fest that saw Chile qualify for the 2010 World Cup. They had missed the previous two tournaments.
More importantly, Bielsa gave Chile a true identity. An aggro, exhaustive style that starkly stood out in a time when Spain were wooing the world with tiki-taka. He also believed in the kids, bringing in players who eventually would see the reward of his ideals: Alexis Sánchez, Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal, Mauricio Isla, Gonzalo Jara, Matías Fernández and Jean Beausejour.
There’s a saying that goes "he who makes the wine is not he who drinks it." Bielsa, in typical fashion, resigned after the tournament because of some disagreements with the higher-ups. He would not see a trophy, but he had laid the foundations for the future triumphs.
We will not talk of Claudio Borghi, who almost brought the Chilean revolution to an end after Bielsa. Only to mention that he stripped the team of their heart, their high back line and persistent pressing, but after five losses in nine games, was relieved of his post.
Jorge Sampaoli, a student of Bielsa’s and a maniac in his own right, returned the team to the ways of his teacher. He continued with the same core of youngsters, who were now fully developed and had mostly gone to Europe to ply their trades. Where Bielsa withheld individuality for the greater good of the team, Sampaoli allowed his players versatility to dictate his ideas. He won 10 and drew three out of a possible 15 games as the manager, and masterminded a 2-0 victory against Spain in the group stages of the 2014 World Cup.
He gave them many firsts as well, not least their first Copa América title in 2015, which was won on their home soil.
Sampaoli’s Chile beat Argentina the same way Juan Antonio Pizzi’s, Sampaoli’s successor, would do so: by outworking and outlasting them. They stopped the best player in the world. They denied him and a ridiculously talented generation of Argentines their own validation. They matched them skill for skill and ran them ragged for 120 minutes. When penalties came, the Chileans were still as vibrant as they were in the first half. Argentina missed two after Messi’s initial make, Chile scored all four of theirs.
Pizzi came after with an air of doubt and anxiety. He had never managed an international side and his club career had been less than stellar. Even worse, he was coming in after Sampaoli and Bielsa, who had become icons for Chile.
After an initial four losses in six games, he looked more Borghi than anything. Though he didn’t try to change Chile’s style, he took it to the extreme. They became reckless under him, turning their tenacious nature that saw their rise into a suicidal tactic that threatened to destroy them. It was still Chile, but a very demented version of the ones of his predecessors.
A lackluster start to the Copa América Centenario that saw a loss to Argentina and two uninspiring performances against Bolivia and Panama seemed to justify the criticisms against Pizzi.
Then his Chile destroyed Mexico, who were coming into the quarterfinal on the back of a 23-match unbeaten streak, 7-0. They were stronger, more spirited and willing to sacrifice more than their opponents. Their attacks were lightning quick and they won the ball back at the same immediate rate. They were themselves again. Mexico was stunned and the watching world was put back on alert. Chile had returned at just the right time.
An easy win against Colombia in the semifinal and they were faced with the task of beating Argentina again. Argentina was much more determined this time, they had to be, their championship window was closing. It was one golden generation against another.
They didn’t win 3-0 or 5-0 as the fans had predicted, but they won in the way that best represented their story. They covered every blade of grass, pressed anyone who wasn’t in Chilean colors and threw their bodies in harm’s way to deny Argentina. And at the end, they showed more resolve. They were fighters. The team of Bielsa and of Sampaoli, and now, of Pizzi. It was the same players that had routinely suffered embarrassment at the international stage that now lifted their second consecutive trophy.
Medel, Vidal, Beausejour and Claudio Bravo were there in 2008 when Chile defeated Argentina 1-0 for their first ever victory over them. They were nothing coming into that game and had been less before that. But that victory marked a new life for them, one based on talent mixed with a level of sacrifice that borders on masochism. They would win because they would always give more.
A lifetime in football later and with the help of three instrumental Argentines and their dreams were realized. Lowly Chile are champions of America for the second year in a row. They had done the impossible twice. All because players like Medel are willing to throw their bodies into the post without hesitation, for the greater good of the team.