Jorge Sampaoli looked on, ensuring his players kept their heads while all around them men were losing theirs. He’d seen the opposition weep before games had even begun. Now they wept before a penalty was even kicked. Its captain, world renown defender Thiago Silva, sat atop a ball on the sideline away from his colleagues; rocking back and forth, whispering frantically into closed fists; refusing to even get involved, let alone lead. Silva’s goalkeeper, Júlio César, peered into the Belo Horizonte sun though eyes bloodshot red, terrified at the prospect of being the next Barbosa.
The pressure was crippling. An entire nation expected. It was all too much.
Sampaoli’s Chile may have lost the penalty shootout in that 2014 World Cup round of 16 matchup, but La Roja’s head coach took note of the emotion that consumed his opposition. It influenced his thinking so much so that he floated the idea of Chile doing all its preparation for this summer’s Copa América in Europe, to escape the circus ahead of the competition his team would host.
Nobody carries a burden of expectation as heavy as that placed on this month’s hosts. After 99 years without a continental title, Chile has never been better placed to break through. “This generation have very good players, not just one or two or three, but 15 excellent players …,” Chilean great Marcelo Salas explained before the tournament, something that made this Chile said the country’s “best ever.”
The pressure is on. You could feel the anxiety in the crowd in Chile’s opening day victory over Ecuador. Arturo Vidal’s drunk-driving escapades did little to quell the emotional toil. With 17 million desperate for a title – ethical questions as to whether Vidal should even still be at the tournament notwithstanding – the last thing the host needed was one of its biggest stars weeping in front of the cameras, vowing to realize a personal redemption.
But while Chile will undoubtedly have to battle the mental fatigue, its biggest challenge could well be overcoming the physical toll of tournament. Samapoli is probably the most devout disciple of former Roja boss Marcelo Bielsa disciples, whose brand of frenetic, high-pressing, up tempo, all out attacking soccer puts a tremendous physical demand on its players.
“It’s a method that provokes a certain level of tiredness, yes,” Juan Manuel Llop, a midfielder in Bielsa’s Newell’s Old Boys team in the early 1990’s told the magazine 8by8. “Not just physical tiredness, but also mental and emotional tiredness.”
The stress of maintaining such intensity over the course of an entire season has recently claimed the likes of Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao and Marseille among its victims, but you wonder whether the physical demands of such an approach are conducive to the immediacy of tournament soccer.
They certainly weren’t in 2002 when Bielsa’s Argentina arrived at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan following a grueling European season, one that had just seen the expansion of the UEFA Champions League. The Albiceleste looked exhausted from the outset, failing to get past the first round. Chile also appeared to tire under Bielsa at World Cup 2010. Sampaoli is now hoping to buck the trend.
After an opening game victory at this year’s Copa, Chile has had to recover from a 3-3 draw with Mexico, one in which the defensive frailties of the team’s style as well as its weakness on set pieces where exposed. Crucially, that draw with El Tri left no room for it to help offset fatigue, as the team’s stars would be needed to ensure a result to close out Group A.
It got back to its best in a 5-0 crushing of Bolivia. And of all the pre-tournament favorites to claim South America’s crown, Chile has been the most impressive after a group stage in which none of the other major contenders found their groove.
“It was a great game for us. We were at an incredibly high level,” Sampaoli assured the press. “Chile will not change its style for the quarterfinals. Playing like this is the only way to beat the big teams we will meet from here on.”
Next up will be a grueling encounter with defending champion Uruguay, who will remain as steadfast and compact as ever, challenging the hosts to do all the running if it is to pull Óscar Tábarez’s disciplined side out of position and overawe the 15-time Copa América winners in the way it did Bolivia.
Soccer’s leading statistics companies aren’t tracking on how far players are running at this tournament, but the heatmaps in Chile’s three group games show how much more ground it is covering than its rivals. A run to the final would call for three more frantic games, demanding Bielsa and Sampaoli’s demanding style be enacted six times in just 23 days.
If Chile is to take to the field in Santiago in July 4th’s final, keeping its legs moving may prove just as important as keeping its head.