With two football powers like Brazil and Argentina and four-and-a-half slots (the fifth-place team plays a defining match against the fourth place team from Central America) available to participate in the FIFA World Cup, the South American qualifying round is known to the be the most difficult one in the world. If not, just ask Argentina, a team plagued with stars that suffered down to the last match to obtain an agonic qualification to the event, which will be held in Africa for the first time.
For this same reason, ranking among the first four teams and clinching a direct slot to the World Cup is a real achievement, especially when you do so in the brilliant way that Chile did, coming in second, behind only the five-time champion Brazil.
It was a long and complicated process with 18 fixtures that began with a 2-0 defeat against Argentina on 13 October 2007, when Chile was overwhelmed at all times and Argentina’s dominance was confirmed. The lack of work and the brief duration of the project led by the Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, who had only signed a three-year contract that August, was clear.
Concern reigned in Chile, which came in seventh in the previous qualifying round for Germany. Once again they started off poorly, so a swift recovery was needed. Ant that was the way it was. In the next match the national team beat the always-complicated Peruvian team, a classic rival whose figures included the powerful forward Claudio Pizarro, Werden Bremen’s top goal scorer.
The game was played in the National Stadium with over 60,000 fans, who arrived to cheer on the team despite the fact that only four days had passed since its defeat in the debut. “La Roja” (The Reds), as the Chilean national team is known, finally won 2-0 with goals from Humberto «Chupete» Suazoand Matías Fernández, a victory that allowed fans and players to regain their confidence, while for Bielsa it meant confirmation that his offensive proposal could also be successful with a Chilean national team that was not as powerful as the Argentine team he coached in the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup.
A month later Chile faced the mythical Uruguayan team in the legendary Centenario Stadium in Montevideo, a match that ended in a 2-2 draw with goals scored by the “Matador” Marcelo Salas, the Chilean team’s top goal scorer. Bielsa and his team began to write a brilliant chapter in the history of Chilean football after coming away with a point: until that moment Chile had only suffered defeats against the Uruguayans in qualifying matches played in Montevideo. They were even on the verge of coming away with three points, but Sebastián Abreuscored the final tying goal with a powerful shot 10 minutes before the end of the game.
It seemed that the team and its main figures, Humberto Suazo, Alexis Sánchez and Matías Fernández, plus a solid Claudio Bravo in the goal, were starting along a positive path, but then came the game against Paraguay in Santiago, where the Chilean team was crushed 3-0. The criticism was not long in coming after the defeat against a direct rival in such a categorical way and playing at home, where teams are supposed to be unbeatable if they want to go to the World Cup. In fact, the specialized press recalled the great campaign that Chile waged at home during the qualifiers for France ’98, when it won all home games except the one against Argentina to win a berth to play in the World Cup in the Old Continent.
It was the lowest moment of the campaign, but Bielsa and his boys bowed their heads and ignored the complaints, obtaining two revitalizing victories in away games against Bolivia in the altitude of La Paz (2-0) and against Venezuela in Puerto La Cruz, where a goal by Suazo in extra time put Chile ahead by 3-2. In addition, these games helped to activate the wing and defender Gary Medel, who scored the two goals in the victory against the Bolivians (one of them with a cartwheel shot). From that moment on the current player for Boca Juniors was to become a mainstay in Bielsa’s starting 11.
With 10 points of a maximum of 18 available up until that moment, the qualifying round showed a similar situation to the one for Korea-Japan 2002. The next rival? The powerhouse Brazil with Kaká, Robinhoand Luis Fabiano, which dealt a categorical 3-0 defeat that once again raised doubts regarding a process that had not completely gelled.
But, as always, the nature of football gave “La Roja” a chance at revenge when on the next date the team dealt Colombia a resounding 4-0 defeat, totaling 13 points with only one game to go before the end of the first phase, though this remained unchanged as Ecaudor defeated Bielsa’s team 1-0 in Quito.
What came next was the most spectacular of all. Before a full stadium, as had been the case throughout the qualifiers, Chile defeated Argentina in a qualifying match for the first time ever, with a goal by Fabián Orellana, whose name was thus registered among the greats of Chilean football. The result could have been better, with a Chile that dominated every sector of the field and was far superior to an Argentina led by Alfio Basile, who resigned from his position after losing in Santiago.
With 16 points in the pocket and practically the entire second phase ahead of it, Chile once again began to caress the dream of the World Cup, which grew after the masterful 3-2 victory over the Peruvian team in Lima with a brilliant performance by Alexis Sánchez, known as the “Niño Maravilla” (Boy Wonder), who scored one of the goals and was a real headache for the Peruvian defense. The other two goals were scored by Matías Fernandez and Humberto Suazo, who was already competing with Luis Fabiano for the title of top goal scorer in the qualifiers. The last Chilean victory in Lima had been 24 years before.
Then came the match against the Uruguayans in Santiago, a game that was played in April 2009 and was marked by the heavy tackle and expulsion of the Chilean player Mauricio Isla (who plays for Udinese in Italy), which complicated things for the locals, though in the end they shared points in a closed match that ended up a 0-0 draw. It was a good result for both teams, as Argentina was defeated in its visit to Bolivia while the leader at the time, Paraguay, only managed a draw against Ecuador.
The next match, against Paraguay in Asuncion, seemed impossible. The “Guaranies” were the leaders of the qualifying round and wanted to clinch their berth in the World Cup with a Defensores del Chaco stadium absolutely packed with local fans. History was also against Chile: only once had the national team had only managed to obtain three points in away games against the Paraguayans, in a much-remembered goal by Patricio Yáñez in the qualifying round that allowed Chile to play in the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
But Sánchez, Suazo, Fernández and company put the past aside and imposed themselves with authority against a Paraguayan team that was unable to do anything about the Chilean team’s excellent level. Already by the 13th minute Matías Fernández took it upon himself to silence the Defensores del Chaco by scoring the first goal of the match with a low shot.
Despite what might have been expected, the local reaction never came and Chile continued to dominate, so nobody was surprised when the second half began with Humberto Suazo scoring the final 2-0 on a cross from Jean Beauseujour, thus bringing Chile even closer to South Africa. After 28 years, Chile was leaving the Paraguayan playing field with a smile.
Turned into an almost perfect machine, Bielsa’s team had no problem crushing Bolivia 4-0 in the National Stadium and was only a step away from qualifying for its eighth participation in a world-class competition.
On 5 September 2009 everything was ready for the party to clinch the berths to the World Cup before Venezuela in the Monumental Stadium, but “La Roja” was unable to control its nervousness and ended up in a 2-2 draw against the team from the plains, a result that complicated the qualification somewhat when added to the 4-2 defeat against Brazil in the away game that was played as the 16th fixture in the qualifying round.
However, a spectacular 4-2 victory over Colombia in Medellin with goals by Ponce, Suazo, Valdivia and Orellana clinched the qualification, which was celebratedin the best possible way with a 1-0 victory against Ecuador in Santiago thanks to a goal by Humberto Suazo, the top scorer in the South American qualifiers with 10 goals. This was the way Chile concluded a historic campaign, the best ever for a Chilean team on the way to a World Cup, the most important international football event.