Why Chile will continue to be the neutrals’ favorite in Brazil
Jorge Sampaoli was distraught. It was 2007, and his Sporting Cristal side had just been hammered 5–0 by Club America of Mexico in the Copa Libertadores. The Argentine coach was upset, not merely by the result, but by a fundamental failure to live up to his idol, Marcelo Bielsa. “I could not defend his style,” Sampaoli would say after the match. “I did not live up to his ideal.”
The 54-year-old head coach of Chile’s World Cup team has spent his entire professional life attempting to do just that. “For me [Bielsa] is the best coach in the world, but I prefer him as a myth and to follow him closely, but not bother him [personally],” he told El Grafico.
Sampaoli was forced to make his way in the game from the sidelines after he suffered a career-ending injury at his first club Newell’s Old Boys—just as Bielsa himself had broken into the first team. They never interacted. By the time Sampaoli’s big break arrived, more than 20 years later in the form of the head coaching position at Peruvian side Juan Aurich in 2002, Bielsa had already been crouching on the touchline for 12 years.
And he had made quite an impression on Sampaoli, who made trips to see him talk. He once peered through a chain-link fence with a pair of binoculars to watch his hero oversee Argentina training. He couldn’t get enough. “It got to the point where I was Bielsa-dependent,” he said to El Grafico. “I used to go jogging listening to tapes of his lectures.”
Bielsa had revolutionized Chilean football during his time in charge of La Roja from 2007 through to the end of World Cup 2010, implementing a high-pressing, high-tempo, attacking style in which his side sought to endlessly outnumber the opposition in every area of the field. Chile romped into South Africa, finishing second in CONMEBOL but with the most wins and second-most goals, with only group winner Brazil outscoring it—by just one goal.
Though he has never coached a Chilean club, Bielsa’s exhilarating philosophy has slowly spread throughout the nation. “That has been the main thing, the identity that he has given to Chilean football,” said defender Waldo Ponce in 2011. Bielsa had laid the foundations for his disciple. And nobody would be more faithful or intent on continuing his impact than Sampaoli.
After spells perfecting the Bielsan principles with Deportivo O’Higgins and Emelec, Sampaoli put them into practice with devastating effect when he arrived at Universidad de Chile in 2011. He led the club to three straight league titles and a 36-game unbeaten run that brought its first ever continental crown in the form of the Copa Sudamericana.
If not for the increasing globalization of the game, he may well have built a dynasty in Santiago. But success in South American football’s modern landscape inevitably leads to a team’s destruction. Star striker Eduardo Vargas was quickly off to Napoli. The heartbeat of the midfield, Marcelo Diaz, headed for Switzerland. Others followed. Successful replacements such as Junior Fernandes and Angelo Henriquez didn’t last long. Even so, “La U” made it all the way to the semifinals of the 2012 Copa Libertadores before falling to Julio Falcioni’s Boca Juniors.
Sampaoli succeeded another Argentinian, Claudio “Bichi” Borghi, in December that year after three straight defeats derailed La Roja’s charge to Brazil 2014. Borghi’s Chile were just as fun as Bielsa’s, but at times outright suicidal. A 4–1 defeat to Argentina in Buenos Aires in which the coach selected five attackers, including two playmaking number 10’s (only once in four years did Bielsa start both Mati Fernandez and Jorge Valdivia), was the height of Borghi’s naivety. His time would end in acrimony after spats with senior members of the squad.
There was only ever going to be one man to replace him. While Bielsa, always polite and undoubtedly a man of great principles—he refused to do one-on-one interviews with the largest media outlets, insisting every journalist should be entitled to exactly the same level of access—he was perceived as aloof and impersonal. He once joked that if football was played by robots, he would win everything. In that regard, Sampaoli is markedly different.
“He is much closer to us,” midfielder Pedro Fuenzalida told La Tercera. “Marcelo Bielsa was more distant and outside of training we had almost no relationship [with him]… Sampaoli talks with the players and tries to help.”
He certainly needed to after discipline in the squad had reached a low point under Borghi, culminating in the suspension of Jorge Valdivia, Arturo Vidal, Jean Beausejour, Gonzalo Jara, and Carlos Carmona, who were all handed bans for missing curfew after attending the baptism of Valdivia’s new-born. Upon his appointment, he immediately wiped the slate clean.
It was further proof that Sampaoli is his own man. He franticly hops around the touchline in his tracksuit and Tony Pulis-esque baseball cap, screaming at players and officials to the point where he’s spent many a game watching from the stands. But his on-pitch principles remain unashamedly Bielsan.
“We believe you have to play football thinking about the opponent’s goal more than your own,” he told Australia’s SBS TV. “You pick players to attack, you form them to defend.”
The former comes easier than the latter. The penultimate round of CONMEBOL qualification, a 3–3 draw with Colombia, presented Sampaoli’s high-risk approach in microcosm. During the first 30 minutes his team smothered its opponents in the sweltering heat of Barranquilla. Chile raced to a three-goal lead inside the first half hour, but collapsed in the final 20 minutes as energy dropped and it began to defend as frantically as it attacked.
But Sampaoli will never change. Ahead of his team’s 2–1 defeat to Brazil in November last year I asked him whether Brazil’s demolition of a stylistically-similar Spain side at the Confederations Cup final had encouraged him to make some minor alterations for the match against Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Seleção. Sampaoli was unequivocal: “We will not change our game for anybody.” He never does. And it will likely once again make Chile the neutrals’ favourites in Brazil, just as Bielsa’s were at South Africa 2010.
And Sampaoli remains confident: “We are contenders [for the World Cup]. We’ll go mano a mano against anyone.” A 2–2 draw with Spain in which it twice led, a 2–0 victory over England at Wembley, and a narrow 1–0 defeat to Germany in which it was much the better side have proved Sampaoli’s class of 2014 is indeed capable. Scolari certainly thinks so, he says he’d much rather face the Netherlands or Spain in the knockout stage.
If Sampaoli can escape the group and manage a second round win, he will go one better than Bielsa. And he will more than do his idol proud.