Monday 27 July ~
There is no question as to which team has been the star of the 2010 World Cup qualifying tournament in South America. It's not Brazil or Diego Maradona's Argentina but Chile, whose national side is undergoing a revolution. The team are second in the table with four matches to go. They have won more games than anybody else (eight) and boast the second best attack and goal difference behind Brazil. In October 2008 their recorded their first ever win against Argentina in a competitive match. Yet this would have seemed impossible after strikingly poor performances in the 2002 and 2006 qualifiers.
The man responsible for it all is coach Marcelo Bielsa, the former Argentine manager, who was hired in August 2007. Sebastián Piñera, one of Chile's most successful and wealthiest businessmen and the presidential candidate for the opposition, recently underscored the national fascination with Bielsa when he said the manager "sets an example to the entire country". Chile's last World Cup participation was in 1998 and the coach then was also a foreigner, the Uruguayan-born Nelson Acosta. That team enjoyed the advantage of lining up one of the finest attacking pairs in the world at the time: Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas (nicknamed "Za-Sa" by the Latin American press). The problem the team had was the gulf between the quality of Za-Sa and the rest. Such imbalances do not exist with Bielsa.
One of the most common criticisms heard of the coach during his six-year tenure as manager of Argentina from 1998 to 2004 was his reluctance to use both Gabriel Batistuta and Hernán Crespo. No matter how badly Argentina may have needed a goal, Bielsa would always keep one or the other on the bench because he believed the team had to maintain the balance created by specific players in specific roles. In Chile he uses the same 3-4-3 line-up he used both then and during his best club years (at Newell's and Vélez, in Argentina) and a similar controversy has arisen over the talented playmakers Matías Fernández and Jorge Valdivia, whom Bielsa will not use together. Finding this balance has not been easy: more than 100 players have been called up in Bielsa's two years in charge. To have developed a much-admired attacking style with a pretty much starless side like Chile is probably his greatest achievement.
Off-field eccentricities have also spiced Chilean admiration for El Loco (Madman) Bielsa. One recurrent story in the Chilean press is that he has chosen to live by himself in a few rooms at an FA training ground instead of renting a house, while his family live in Argentina. The Chilean FA pays US$1.5 million a year to cover the salaries of his coaching team and himself, a huge amount by Chilean standards. Yet Bielsa only picked up his pay for the first time in June 2009. In the meantime, he lived off bonuses paid for points won. Other quirks catch the eye: Bielsa visits a zoo in search of inspiration for coaching ideas, he refuses to own a car, and is more than willing to stop and chat with kids on the street but won't give interviews to the press (although he does conduct long press conferences).
Of course, success makes behaviour look colourful when it would otherwise seem weird – all these details would be of little value if Chile were performing badly. But with remaining matches at home against Venezuela and Ecuador (plus trips to Brazil and Colombia), it looks likely that the Chilean revolution will continue until at least June 2010. Rodrigo Orihuela