Third in the FIFA rankings and fourth in the Conmebol World Cup qualifying standings, Chile is adapting well to life as Copa America champion despite losing at home to Argentina last week.
Fans crammed into the Estadio Nacional hoping to witness another vanquishing of Argentina, which fell in a penalty-kick shootout,4-3, last July as Chile captured the nation’s first regional title, but a pumped-up Argentine team roared back after falling behind in the 10th minute to take a 2-1 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Goals five minutes apart by Angel Di Maria and Gabriel Mercado wiped out the 1-0 advantage provided by Felipe Gutierrez's and stunned most of the Santiago crowd into a brief silence. Both teams created and squandered second-half chances during a frenetic spell that eventually petered out. Dispirited Chilean fans departed as a small section of their Argentine counterparts celebrated a slice of redemption.
Fortunately for head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who in January took over for the overseer of last year’s triumph, Jorge Sampaoli, up next was Venezuela. A 4-1 thrashing in Caracas on Tuesday lifted Chile into fourth place, which is the lowest rung in the 10-nation group assured of a World Cup berth.
Chile was eliminated in the round of 16 at the last two World Cups, and its victory in the Copa America rekindled memories -- distant and faint, to be sure -- of its greatest global achievement: a third-place finish as host in 1962. Chile finished second in its group behind West Germany and after beating the Soviet Union, 2-1, in the quarterfinals lost to eventual champion Brazil, 4-2, in the semis.
Chile took third place by posting a 1-0 defeat of Yugoslavia, for which former U.S. national-team goalkeeping coach Milutin Soskic tended the posts. (Also on that team as backup keeper was Mirko Stojanovic, who played several seasons in U.S. pro leagues with Oakland, Dallas, and San Jose.)
Chances of another deep run into the World Cup knockout rounds are slim, but Chile is riding an unprecedented run of success. Never before in its history has it advanced out of group play in back-to-back World Cups, and it can set another milestone by playing in a third straight World Cup if it qualifies for Russia.
Three days after the bounce-back defeat of Venezuela, more good news arrived. A key contributor to the Copa America triumph, midfielder Charles Aranguiz, got on the field for the first time in a competitive match since suffering a torn Achilles tendon last August.
He came on for the final minutes of a 3-0 victory over Wolfsburg on Friday to compete his comeback from an injury that occurred just a few weeks after moving from Brazilian club Internacional to Bayer Leverkusen in a $13.3 million transfer.
Like several South American teams, Chile is somewhat of an enigma regarding who will be picked for the Centenario. It doesn’t have the drawing power of Brazil and Argentina, which have announced stars Neymar and Lionel Messi, respectively, will play in the Centenario. Alexis Sanchez is regularly banging in goals for Arsenal and midfielder Arturo Vidal, who changed clubs after playing for Juventus in the 2015 Champions League final, is a mainstay for Bayern Munich, but how important will Pizzi regard the Centenario when it comes to his best players? Conmebol teams still have two-thirds of their 18-game qualifying schedule to play.
The region’s federations have been riddled by the arrests of presidents and a raid of the organization’s offices in Ascuncion two months ago. In November, the president of Chile’s soccer federation, Sergio Jadue, resigned and -- ironically -- fled to the U.S. rather than cooperate in an investigation conducted by federation officials probing ties to the FIFA corruption and bribery scandal. He pleaded guilty in December to charges of racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. The FIFA ethics committee in February recommended a lifetime ban on soccer activities, and on Friday Chile's internal revenue service filed a criminal complaint against Jadue for tax fraud.
Chilean fans should be relishing the best accomplishments by their national team in half a century. Instead, what their team does on the field is incessantly overshadowed by a spreading stain of shame that has irrevocably altered the landscape of international soccer.