Photo credit: CONMEBOL
By Stephen Tew
On the 4th of July when the Copa America Final kicks off the Estadio Nacional in Santiago will be the focus of the football world. It will be full with hopeful football fans, lit up with thousands of lights, decorated with flags of all of the South American countries, with fireworks ready to go off and Champagne ready to be opened. It will mark the biggest sporting event the stadium has hosted since the World Cup in 1962 and will mark the rebirth of a stadium that has for so long been tainted with the gruesome reality of its past.
As the generations pass fewer and fewer first hand testimonies remain of the imprisonment, torture and even killing that thousands of people were subjected to inside the Estadio Nacional under the dictatorial leadership of Augusto Pinochet, but for many this stadium still holds terrible memories and many ghosts. Its hallways tainted with the lines that prisoners were forced to stand in, its rooms spoiled by the interrogations and torture of captive citizens, and its pitch that has never had the chance to host a national team to put these ghosts to rest. Until now.
Since Pinochet, Chile has re-established itself among the world community. Antonio Skarmeta won a 1994 Oscar with his film Il Postino, Isabelle Allende released the world acclaimed novels “The House of Spirits” and “City of the Beasts”, the city of Valparaiso under went an artistic revolution, and on the football pitch Chile has produced a golden generation of stars that has captured the imagination of the people, and the following months could see them fulfill their substantial potential.
The 44th edition of the Copa America sees Chile host the tournament for the second time in the modern era and, captivated by the teams genuine prospects of success, the nation is gripped with the sort of intense excitement and nerves that only an expectation can bring. Chile, despite reaching the final twice in 1979 and 1987, has never won the competition. But many believe that fresh from their successful campaign in the 2014 World Cup, coach Jorge Sampaoli has a team that can finally go all the way, and in front of their own fans (La Roja), the team could well have their best chance ever.
Chilean football has never been as recognised around the world as it is today. Talisman Alexis Sanchez leads what many believe to be a generation of players that has outstripped the legendary 1998/99 team, which included strikers Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorana. With players such as Arturo Vidal, David Pizarro, Eduardo Vargas and Claudio Bravo along with Sanchez and the midfield wizardry of Jorge Valdivia (El Mago), who Sampaoli has convinced to postpone his international retirement, Chile has a team that has sufficient experience and quality to challenge for any title.
Their performances in the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 won them many fans around the world, and their energetic style and willful approach to attack saw them nearly upset hosts Brazil in the second round, eventually going out on penalties. That experience and subsequent friendly defeat against Brazil in March, will help both the Chilean players and coach Jorge Sampaoli to alter their tactical approach in order to be better equipped and capable of going all the way.
Despite impressive victories, however, the Golden Generation of Chilean football has thus far failed to live up to its billing on the international stage, having been eliminated at the last two Copa America tournaments at the Quarter-Finals stage and failing to get past the last sixteen of the two previous World Cups. Sampaoli is concerned about the pressure of playing at home and how this will affect his team’s chances, and at one pointand had considered to base his side outside of Chile in the run up to the tournament.
Whether the Copa remains Sampaoli´s last chance to deliver the success expected by the Chilean people or not remains to be seen, but he will know that much of the focus will be on him and he will be feeling an immense pressure to perform.
The challenge for Chile is indeed an imposing one, particularly with the traditional big South American teams coming into the tournament with their star players very much in form. Brazilian talisman Neymar has enjoyed his best season to date at Barcelona and clubmate Lionel Messi seems to have recaptured his form. Colombia will also come into the tournament brimming with confidence after their World Cup success and Uruguay, who despite having leader Luis Suarez suspended for the tournament, enter with backup striker Edison Cavani showing the sort of form that proves he may be capable of being a suitable replacement.
Chile kick off the tournament at the Estadio Nacional today (11th June) against Ecuador and will hope to return to the stadium 23 days later to compete for their first ever title. If they can achieve victory at home they will not only achieve vindication for their coach and players but also victory for a new exciting generation of Chileans set to defeat the ghosts of the past.