I always think of these two national teams in tandem, a duo of exciting, untraditional South American national teams who rose somewhat simultaneously in their own distinctive ways.
Most strikingly for my comparison, Chile were a couple of penalties away from playing Colombia in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final.
Because of this synchronicity, I’ve spent a while waiting for the moment they would contest a high-end match of importance against each other, testing out each other’s foibles.
My fantasy didn’t look good for a long time, as both seemed to have taken a bit of a dive as 2018 World Cup qualification commenced. But here at the 2016 Copa America Centenario semi-final it finally happened. Article-worthy, I would even say.
I very much like what Chile have built since 2008. I wrote an article about it a year ago, successfully predicting (or at least pontificating) Chile’s 2015 Copa America title.
Chile are a strange collection of players, mostly failures at club level, but together they have knitted something else and bring out the best in each other.
They are a bunch of swarming, zippy things who fly up the wings with the ball and press hard without it. As 7-0 underdog victories show, the viewing can be exhilarating.
Colombia are a more classical midfield-passing team. They played four wonderful matches at World Cup 2014. James Rodriguez, the unexpected best player and top scorer at the World Cup, and Juan Cuadrado introduced themselves to the world.
But Colombia turned out to be more of a flash in the pan than Chile did. I’ll never quite forgive Colombia for the way they folded against Brazil in the quarter-final, when on the verge of bringing something fresh to the World Cup’s business stages.
Brazil kicked the scheissen out of them, granted, but Brazil did after all then lose their next match 7-1. Niche followers of football may have vaguely heard about that.
Chile inexplicably defeated Mexico 7-0 in the 2016 Copa America Centenario quarter-final. Backbone midfielder Arturo Vidal was suspended for Colombia in the semi-final, but it seemed to matter not. Every time Chile got the ball in the first fifteen minutes of this semi-final they seemed to buzz and appeared able to score at will.
Colombia leaked on their left side horribly, which was the source of the first goal after only five minutes, when unknown Chilean right-winger Jose Fuenzalida’s centre from that side found Colombia’s Cuadrado covering late, who consequently headed the ball towards his own goal, where Chile’s great midfielder Charles Aranguiz tapped in.
Aranguiz and Vidal formed an uncharacteristic hard barrier – Chile are traditionally more malleable in defence – that was able to shut Argentina out in the goalless 2015 Copa America final, won emotionally/traumatically by Chile on penalties.
Aranguiz was also the player who very skilfully rebounded in the second goal against Spain at World Cup 2014, from a standing start with the outside of his right foot. He was injured an entire year and Chile fell. He’s back, and so are they.
Five minutes after that Alexis Sanchez produced a goal out of nothing, whipping in a shot that Colombia’s David Ospina could only touch onto the post with Fuenzalida following up first with the easiest tap-in, already tallying a quasi-assist and a goal.
2-0 after only ten minutes, and Alexis could have finished it five minutes later, when Colombia’s left again leaked and Alexis shot from the impossible angle rather than centering the ball.
Alexis is unstoppable on his day but slightly overrated in that he doesn’t score a lot of goals for Chile, although Chile’s main figurehead was marginal in their cherry-breaking 2015 Copa America win.
Chile were 2-0 up without their true goalscorer Eduardo Vargas having touched the ball. They seemed far superior to Colombia.
Yet Chile were not in control at all after that. It was an intriguing first half. Like their opponents, Colombia began finding space on the right of Chile’s penalty area, Cuadrado’s wing, slipping a few through passes in.
The Colombian midfield’s passing became dominant. Chile’s Daniel Bravo made two difficult saves from shots from the right – one a strange one ten metres out from his goal – and then in a siege before halftime he palmed the ball away three times in twenty seconds.
Chile didn’t seem to have a midfield for the last half hour of the first half, and spent a few minutes chewing up the clock with injuries. That proud man Vidal and Marcelo Diaz were out, and a third midfielder Hernandez went off injured. Yet at halftime at a glance they still held that commanding – illusory? – 2-0 lead. Football is weird.
Football is, admittedly, not quite as weird as the electrical storm that delayed the restart by two hours. By that time I had gone to bed, but Chile slid through the puddles and successfully defended the fruits of their torrid beginning.
While last year’s Copa America in Chile felt like a main event in front of an anxiously committed nation and this one is almost a practice tournament held in glitzy United States, the end result is the same – a second consecutive final between Argentina, graced with Lionel Messi, and Chile, graced with a generation hardened by winning last year’s tournament in the face of much adversity.
Vidal is crucially back for the final, but the Chilean crowd is not, who probably just got Chile over the line last year, collectively blowing Alexis’ trickling penalty into the net to win the tournament. This time Argentina have been sumptuous. We’ll see.