Brazil are in turmoil, Peru are in despair, and Chile are in the pool with a load of Colombian women. It's never dull in South America, as Leopoldo Iturra discovers

Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 for his use of magic realism, a style which deliberately exaggerates Latin American folk­lore and which allows anything to happen – from the appearance of Romanies who invent snow to immortal incestuous families.

The South American World Cup qualifiers often appear to be played in much the same spirit. Nothing, though, could have prepared us for the shock of seeing Brazil lose twice. Before this campaign, they had only lost once in the whole history of the qualifiers – against Bolivia in La Paz in 1995. That was put down to the effects of playing at 13,000 feet. In the current round of matches, the verderamarillos have lost twice, at Paraguay and Chile, with the latter – a 3-0 trouncing – being their worst ever in the competition (well, they only had two others to choose from).

Chile’s victory saved their coach, Nelson Acosta, from the sack, though how much credit he can take for it is open to dispute. Early in the game, defensive mid­fielder Marco Villaseca had to go off injured. Acosta told Moisés Villarroel, another midfield man, to warm up. Seeing what was about to happen, Iván Zamorano charged over to his manager and told him in no un­certain terms that David Pizarro, an attacking mid­fielder with Udinese, should come on instead. Acosta took the suggestion on board. Pizarro became the key figure in the match and went on to be the star of the team that won the Olympic bronze in Sydney.

So Acosta saved his own skin but, in so doing, he became the unwitting executioner of his only friend among Latin American managers, Wanderley Luxemburgo. Accused of tax evasion at home and flavour of the month with practically no one, the Brazil manager had already gained the nickname “Luxemburro” (“Luxemstupid” or “Luxemdonkey” – both seemed apposite) before finally getting the shove.

As for Colombia, they are unbeaten on their travels and yet have crashed twice at home, first to Argentina and then, more surprisingly, to Paraguay. In the latter defeat, that old charmer José Luis Chil­avert beat Colombia’s keeper Oscar Córdoba with one of his trademark free-kicks. Never one to let his football do the talking alone, he gracefully added afterwards: “That was to stop Córdoba being such a big-mouth.”

The Colombians have undergone a complete ren­ovation. Gone are the stalwarts Valderrama, Alvarez, Asprilla, Higuita et al. Trust has instead been placed in a young side that knows how to grind out results on the back of a rocklike defence. This makes their ability to avoid defeat away but not at home rather more understandable, since at home they actually have to take the initiative and so leave themselves open.

In Peru, by contrast, the fans have more or less giv­en up the ghost. After a promising start under Col­ombian coach Francisco Maturana, they have since slump­ed to the level of Bolivia, themselves only prop­ped up by the perennially hapless Venezuelans. Mat­urana has been accused by the local press of making the most of his past (he took Colombia to the finals in 1990 and 1994). They have made no bones about reducing him to the status of a petty thief, having previously proclaimed him a hero. The situation has degenerated to such an extent that Newcastle’s Nolberto Solano announced his withdrawal from the team via a website.

Another Colombian in trouble is Ecuador’s coach Hernán Darío Gómez. “Bolillo” received his ultimatum before the match against Chile: Ecuador had to win or else he was for the chop. Chile kept the same team that had all but covered itself in glory in Australia the week before, but Ecuador won 1-0 and Gómez celebrated as if he’d won the lottery by dint of his own skill.

In Chile, the feeling was one of incredulity. The euphoria which came from humiliating the Brazilians matched the shame felt at losing to Bolivia and then (stone us!) Ecuador – both matches Chile dominated and then threw away. Acosta has said that qualification is still within our grasp, even though we now have to win all our home games and scrape points in Colombia, Par­aguay, Peru and Brazil.

At the same time, he has announced that youth will have its head, particularly since the impressive display in the Olympics. As a result, the old stagers like West Ham’s Javier Margas and José Luis Sierra of Colo Colo have been shown the door.

The new generation still looks to the much-respected Iván Zam­orano. He de­clared war on the press after the team were caught on TV in a compromising situation in­volving a swimming pool and a num­ber of young Col­om­­bian women, and the play­ers backed him to a man, even though many came home to un­­derstandably frosty receptions from wives and girlfriends. At the time Zamorano’s place in the team was being quest­ioned by fans. But after his goal haul in Sydney all was forgiven. He began to give interviews again and the entire team followed like awe-struck sheep.

What all this amounts to is that, despite the bleak outlook, there is still a residue of faith in Chile – the sort of faith held by those who believe in miracles.

From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month

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