17 November ~ Today's friendly between Chile and Uruguay in Santiago marks the centenary of the hosts' football association (ANFP). It will also be the end of an era in Chilean football as Marcelo Bielsa steps down as national coach. Former ANFP president Harold Mayne-Nicholls hired Bielsa in 2007 and the Argentine promptly transformed the team. Chile reached the World Cup finals for the first time since 1998, having qualified just a point behind group winners Brazil. Together with an encouraging performance in South Africa, Bielsa brought through an exciting new generation of players while insisting on his adventurous 3-3-1-3 brand of football.
Looking to consolidate the advances made over the past three years, Mayne-Nicholls set about preparing the second phase of the project after the World Cup. Bielsa signed a lucrative five-year deal that included control of the Under-20 side, ensuring future internationals were introduced to the same philosophy they would find when they graduated to the full national team. A new multi-million dollar sports complex would be built, while Chilean football would be geared towards strengthening the national side.
Mayne-Nicholls planned a more egalitarian distribution of the $20 million (£12.6m) television income, to allow modest clubs improve their infrastructure. It was here that the ANFP president found opposition. A rupture between Bielsa and the top clubs had already formed over call-ups for friendlies. The domestic league is enjoying one of the closest title races in years and many of the clubs involved are loath to lose key players. The idea of reduced TV revenue, meanwhile, especially to the big three of Colo Colo, Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica, proved a bridge too far. Jorge Segovia, a Spanish businessman and president of first division club Unión Española, stood against Mayne-Nicholls in the ANFP presidential elections. With the backing of the bigger Primera A clubs, including the big three, Segovia won the final vote 28-22.
Bielsa immediately announced his decision to step down as coach, having been closely identified with Mayne-Nicholls. "I cannot, nor will I, work with Mr Segovia," he said the day before the presidential elections. While he has often said that he looks to mix South American craft with European order, that philosophy does not extend beyond his teams to the boardroom. Segovia was seen as heading an initiative to oust Mayne-Nicholls that was instigated by the top clubs and which possibly involved Chile's president, Sebastián Piñera. Piñera is a 12.5 per cent shareholder in Colo Colo, the nation's best-supported club. Allegations in the local press claim that he called the Everton de Chile president Antonio Bloise three times to ask him to stand against Mayne-Nicholls before Segovia stepped forward. Piñera denies any involvement, but is said to be unlikely to accept the ANFP's invitation to attend the Chile v Uruguay friendly.
The only stumbling block to Segovia taking over disappeared on Tuesday. ANFP statutes declare that nobody may be president if they own a stake of ten per cent or more of a company that has done business with the association or its clubs. Segovia is president of the private university SEK (he took his father to court over company control), just as he is president of Unión Española. There has been little effort to dissimulate any contract between the two – SEK is Unión's shirt sponsor. Despite the ANFP statutes, he was ratified as president by a 4-3 vote by the ANFP legal committee. Looking to fend off the tide of popular opinion against him, he promises to bring in a coach "who is just as good [as Bielsa], if not better". One group of fans disagree that this is possible. Instead of wearing Chile's roja to the national team's centenary game, they plan to wear black. Joel Richards