26 June 2015
Football is not an easy sport to master. The bobbling aspect of ball handling in football in relation to other sports, where the hands are able to better manipulate the ball, mean that it is rather difficult to be coherent at the highest level.
Because of this, attacking play is able to be shutout far more easily in football than in other sports like rugby league and basketball, to the extent that defending is the major focus and non-negotiable of football and any scoring is a bonus, a godsend.
Attempts to revolutionise this status quo are few, far between and generally doomed. There are two sets of players recently who have tried changing the game, really shaking up the defensive mindset of the sport.
One was the Barcelona-Spain generation of 2009-12 who opted for pure possession and successfully influenced the trends with Germany and in the club game.
The lesser-known revolution began in Chile around 2009. While other South American countries had definite historical styles to uphold – Uruguay and Paraguay battled, Colombia and Argentina played a pure passing game (but the Argentines did it with more snarl) – Chile had always just sort of pottered around and did their best without having an identity or achieving very noticeable results.
An Argentine named Marcelo Bielsa took over as coach of Chile in 2007. He has always been left of centre. His philosophy of football involves playing few defenders, having the whole team pushing high to pressure on defence and quickly recover the ball, lots of fast passing and use of the wings.
It is invigorating to watch and exhausting to actually do, and results can seemingly only go so far before the entire squad drops dead halfway through a season. The failure of Bielsa’s Argentina at the 2002 World Cup is one of football’s great hidden tragedies.
Bielsa’s philosophy became the new philosophy of the entire Chilean national team and new identity of the nation itself. Chile have made waves at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and now play this style exclusively.
This current generation of Chilean players, featuring but not limited to forward Alexis Sanchez, gifted attacking midfielder Jorge Valdivia (both of whom scored against Australia in 2014), central midfielder Arturo Vidal and regular Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, is an extremely rich vein of talent.
They are a rare example of a national team who link up with each other and have worked out coherency. Their style of play backs up the overly optimistic description of football being ‘The Beautiful Game’.
Currently the South American championship, called the Copa America, is being contested in Chile. Chile have never won an international title in 100 years of trying, so with home venue and this current generation all purring, it’s now or never. They have now reached the semi-final of ‘their’ tournament and their semi-final opponent Peru or Bolivia should be a pushover.
The rest of the field in this Copa America are teams whose names are more famous but whose playing styles have shockingly deteriorated to the extent that their entire gameplan is to pray their one or two skilful forwards pull a goal out of thin air.
Brazil lost their former ability to play the ball around a long time ago, though losing Neymar for the tournament at least obliges them to take a bit more collective responsibility.
The same cannot be said for Argentina. Their forward line is a who’s who of international football stardom: Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria. But Argentina have completely lost the passing, dynamic cohesion they exhibited in their exciting but futile decade of the 2000s.
This has been disguised by Argentina’s breezy draw in the World Cup, all but guaranteeing them a place in the final no matter how badly they played.
So that’s the state of the Copa America, we have a team, Chile, who have tried to play this team sport as if an entire team of eleven players is involved, who against the odds have worked out incredible and speedy passing and running, dynamically altering the potential of football and how it could be played.
Their main opponents, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay (already eliminated by Chile, thankfully), will trade off on one moment of genius from Messi or Robinho but can otherwise barely string three passes together and will disrupt the gameplay as is usual in soccer.
For their attempts at excellence unmatched by the main countries of Brazil and Argentina, and for the justice of this admittedly very fickle sport of football, Chile simply must win the 2015 Copa America.
Chile did win a fraught 2015 Copa America at home, defeating Argentina 0-0, 4-1 on penalties. At the following year’s Copa America Centenario, Chile looked out of form early but rebounded to defeat Mexico 7-0, and then once again outlasted Argentina in the final, winning 0-0 and 4-2 on penalties to become the double South American champion.