SANTIAGO, Chile — Who is Arturo Vidal? The image of the Juventus midfielder’s mangled Ferrari will remain one of the defining images of this Copa América regardless of what happens in Saturday’s final between Chile and Argentina. Having drank two whiskeys at a local casino, Vidal had crashed his car into that of a 38-year-old Santiago resident. Chile’s decision to keep him in the squad divided a country that was supposed to be united behind a team pursuing its first Copa title.
Vidal’s critics were disgusted by his behavior, made worse by him telling a policeman “go ahead and handcuff me, but you will shit on the entire country.” They saw a man of high status who considered himself above the law, and the Chilean Football Federation’s permissiveness was likened to the political establishment’s blasé attitude to corruption.
But on the other side are those who see Vidal as one of them, a boy born into poverty but now leading the country to glory on the field. They value his sacrifice, the love he has for playing for his country which saw him risk long-term damage by going to last summer’s World Cup despite only just recovering from a knee injury. Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli pointed to this very sacrifice when defending the decision to keep him in the team, insisting he deserved different treatment.
So is Vidal a flagrant example of the modern super rich player who lives by his own laws? Or is he a talented and hard-working boy from the slums who made it good and never forgot his roots? The logical answer is he is both.
It is no cliché to say Arturo Vidal was born to play soccer. The house where he spent his infancy looks onto a soccer field, and it was on this dusty gravel patch in El Huasco in the district of San Joaquín, Santiago where Vidal got his first taste of fútbol.
“He was always playing with the ball, he liked it so much,” recalls his uncle Víctor. “He slept with it, he woke up with it, he played with it before school, when he came home for lunch, and after school.”
But it was far from an idyllic upbringing. One of six children, he and his extended family were crammed into a small house with just two bedrooms. Arturo’s father, Erasmo, stocked vegetable stalls in the La Vega market in Santiago living off only tips, and his infamous battles with alcoholism have severely affected his relationship with Arturo. Any mention of his father in these parts is usually preceded by the work “drunkard”, but his alcoholism was no laughing matter, leading to depression. He separated from Arturo’s mother Jacqueline and was thrown out of the family house after reportedly setting fire to a bed. In June 2008, he tried to take his own life, reportedly distraught after Arturo had not spoken to him on Father’s Day.
“The history of him when he was a child is really bad, he was a poor guy,” says neighbour Ramón Henriquez, who has known the family since, in his own words “Arturo was in the womb”.
With his relationship with his father strained, Vidal’s tie with his mother grew stronger.
“His mother always worked hard to make sure he had everything,” Henriquez explains. “She sacrificed a lot. She was the pillar. There was never a lack of food, but they didn’t have money for anything else.”
That included not having enough money for the bus to training once a 12-year-old Vidal joined Santiago giants Colo Colo. Instead, he would run the three kilometer journey there and back. When Vidal’s slight frame initially left Colo Colo reluctant to offer him a professional contract, it was youth coach Hugo González’s belief that won out. The player now sees González as a father figure, and the two remain close, with Vidal inviting his old coach to Juventus on numerous occasions.
Before Colo Colo, Vidal’s only taste of soccer was with Rodelindo Roman FC, whose headquarters were 20 yards from his house. According to the men who run the club, Vidal played in every position and with every age group. Vidal can still be spotted in the photos that adorn the walls of the club house, with one capturing him as the odd one out in a team of 30 year-olds. He continued to play for his local team even after signing for Colo Colo, flouting rules that forbade him from playing amateur soccer. To this day, a huge signed picture of Vidal in his Colo Colo kit hangs on in Rodelindo’s club house, with the message “To Rodelindo, the club I love and which saw me grow up.”
“If the team was losing and he arrived at halftime, he would come on and we would always end up winning,” chuckles Henríquez. “He has never forgotten us. When he comes back to Chile, he always comes back here.”
Vidal has given the club 20 tickets for each of Chile’s Copa América games and has flown his old neighbours to Turin for Juventus games. He also a brought a contingent to Berlin for this year’s Champions League final.
It was because of Rodelindo that Vidal got his big break. Former Chilean footballer Raúl Toro saw him play for the club when invited to watch a game by his mechanic, another of Vidal’s uncles.
Once Vidal signed for Colo Colo, it was time to reward his mother. “When he got his first professional pay check he went to the supermarket with his mother and bought everything in the shop,” says Henríquez. His mother was also the first person he told when he signed for Bayer Leverkusen in 2007. “Mother, now we are millionaires,” was his way of announcing the news.
Coming from a humble background before being catapulted to fame and fortune is a natural explanation for Vidal’s occasional misdemeanours. The people of El Huasco are not keen to discuss the drink driving episode in great detail, but Henríquez offers: “When you have money you have access to certain things, certain toys you never dreamed of having.”
Yet this most recent regrettable episode is far from the first time Vidal’s been in trouble. In 2007, he was arrested in Canada for being drunk and disorderly along with other members of Chile’s U-20 World Cup squad. Four years later, he and four other Chile players reported back for training with the national team hideously drunk after attending the baptism of the daughter of midfielder Jorge Valdivia. He was initially given a 10-game ban by coach Carlos Borghi, his former trainer at Colo Colo, but he only missed five matches. In 2013, he was again found drunk while on international duty with Chile, engaged in a video chat alongside Gary Medel with a Colombian model, and last year he was pictured getting in a fight outside a Turin nightclub.
“He was always very naughty,” says Henríquez, but quickly adds “he was always a great guy.” The members of Rodelindo tell stories of Vidal stealing balls from other teams who used the pitch and recall Vidal skipping school to go and bet on horses. Racing is another passion of Vidal, who owns several horses and is often seen at the Club Hípico track in Santiago to watch them in action.
“He always wanted to have fun,” says Henríquez He was always saying to everyone ‘I’m going to be a professional.’ He knew he was touched by the magic wand.
“Now he’s a millionaire having fun with (Andrea) Pirlo and (Gianluigi) Buffon. But he deserves everything he has achieved. Whenever he goes to different cities, everybody from here goes with him.”
Vidal’s strong tie with his roots explains why he is so loved, and why he is forgiven more easily than others. He has used his wealth to buy houses for his mother and father, now a recovering alcoholic, and has also paid for his mother to study. He is also the symbol of this humble area of El Huasco, which has witnessed increasing gang violence and drug use in recent years. Shootings have taken place on the very patch he used to play on.
He is involved in a local government plan to renovate the area, which will see the gravel patch where he used to play converted into a grass pitch. The wider neighborhood of San Joaquín is also proud of its association with Vidal, whose picture adorns the entrance of one of its parks. The municipal stadium was recently renamed the Arturo Vidal Stadium. Many children in San Joaquín sport Vidal’s skunk like crop. “They all want to be like him,” says Henríquez.
“He’s the same person,” adds uncle Víctor. “He is always helping his family, his people his friends. He also helps out his club and buys us beers. He invites us to the games and always says hello.”
El Huasco will come together for Saturday’s final, hoping to see their Arturo lead Chile to a first ever Copa América title. Some will be in the stadium, the rest will be watching in the club house.
“He has to lift that Copa América trophy,” adds Víctor. “We have a lot of faith that he will. He has all the support of us. He comes from our great club (Rodelindo) and he has everything going his way to do that. Arturo will be lifting that trophy on Saturday.”