There seems at best something deeply sordid and unfashionable, even highly problematic and reactionary, about taking national pride as the starting point for a post in a week where much of Europe has been either misguidedly standing up for their country of birth, or embarrassingly apologising for not voting. Despite Farage’s thinly-veiled, man-down the bierkeller jingoism and Le Pen’s less euphemistic nastiness, we forget that football can be a patriotic celebration of identity without necessarily leading us towards suspicion of people with funny accents and different coloured skin and without wanting to throw patio furniture at them or ship them back to where they all came from.
I’m not an expert in South American politics by any stretch of the imagination. I’m also not particularly hot on the subtleties of patriotism, being a Welshman who can’t bear to watch his national side, lazily professes to support France, where I reside, and takes most pleasure in watching the England football team’s perennial under-achievement. But for me, one of the most uplifting and heart warming memories in my football memory was seeing Chilean legend Ivan Zamorano singing his heart out during the anthems before the Chile vs Italy group game at France 1998:
Now, compare that, with the much-discussed and much speculated about resounding failure of the majority of the French team to sing, or do anything better than smirking embarrassedly at their anthems before international games:
We can, of course, read the singing, or lack of, in many different ways. The French players decision to sing or not to sing has been held-up as their implicit criticism of the legacy of the now defunct French colonial adventures.
But what of Chile? Lest we forget, the country has had its own chequered national history, most notoriously under Pinochet’s military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990. For a number of reasons, of which more below, France 1998, was Chile’s first appearance on the world stage post-Pinochet and I read Zamorano’s exuberant, and just about melodic, bellowing as a symbolic re-assertion of the South American country on the international stage. Its hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck qualities comes not only from the striker’s enthusiasm for the game of football he’s about to play, but from his national pride. A pride that can perhaps be understood alongside the continent’s broader Bolivarian, or even Chávezian popular optimism. There is something very genuinely innocent and yet determined that sets Zamorano’s singing apart from Farage and Le Pen’s own musical efforts.
The iconic Zamorano, all-time leading goalscorer Marcelo Salas and Elías Figueroa notwithstanding, Chile havenever been a particularly effective force on the international football stage. Their footballing history is perhaps most interesting for their absence from the World Cups in 1986, 1990 and 1994. The team failed to qualify for Mexico, but was banned from Italy and the USA in the fallout surrounding an incident in its attempts to qualify for the 1990 jamboree. The team was trailing its 1989 away qualifier against Brazil when a firework was thrown from the crowd. Chilean keeper Roberto ‘Cóndor’ Rojas feigned injury, reportedly cutting himself with a razor hidden in his glove, and the team refused to continue to play the game, blaming concerns for their safety. As a result, the match was awarded to Brazil, Chile again failed to qualify and was subsequently banned from USA ’94.
In recent years, Chilean football has, however, been less about off-pitch scandal and singing songs, than about modest, if not none too flashy, success on it. The national team was given an overhaul with the appointment of the highly rated Marcelo Bielsa (now of Marseille) between 2007-2011 and the current manager Jorge Sampaoli, appointed in 2012, with Claudio Borghi having a brief stint as boss in the interim looks to have continued Bielsa’s high-octane pressing and attacking approach to the game. Sampaoli’s channeling of the Bielsa effect has certainly caused a number of teams problems in the run up to Brazil, in both regional qualifications, and in tonking England 2-0 at Wembley back in November with two goals from the Barcelona striker Alexis Sanchez. I enjoyed that. Much has been, and will be made of foreign teams needing to acclimatise to the Brazilian climate, but it’s warm and hilly already in Chile, innit?
So, who are the players looking to make their mark this time? The biggest question mark over the squad frustratingly surrounds Chile’s best player, Arturo Vidal, often described as the ‘most complete midfielder’ in world football. He went under the surgeon’s knife just last month and if the team has any hope in making it through to the knockout stage, in a tough group B alongside the Netherlands, Spain and Australia, then he is going to need to show evidence of having the ‘quickest recovery to surgery’ in world football, too. He’ll be there, though.
Sampaoli has adopted what some may describe as unconventional, and I would describe as completely insane, 3-4-3 formation in his warm-up games and I wholeheartedly hope he continues to do so at the World Cup. He’s been using the diminutive Gary ‘El Pitbull’ Medel, yes he of Cardiff, as the main centre back in such a formation alongside Gonzalo Jara of West Brom/Nottingham Forest, and one wonders how well they’ll cope with David Silva, Diego Costa and Van Persie. That said, Medel did a decent job on Wayne Rooney in the aforementioned Wembley game, so maybe, just maybe La Roja (The Red One – as a blue Cardiff City fan, I am evidently a glutton for punishment) can sneak through into second place in their group. Sampaoli has a group of players that, while many of them were were under Pinochet, never really knew the true horrors of his dictatorship. Hopefully, they’ll be a symbol of an increasingly optimistic contemporary Chile and they’ll do so with the spirit and chutzpah of Zamorano, rather than with Roja’s razor blade. I’ll be watching the anthems carefully. Get learning the words, Gary.
Posted by Russell Williams