BRASILIA, BRAZIL – In the opening 10 days of the World Cup, the Americas have reigned supreme.
With Costa Rica, Argentina and Colombia already assured of knockout football with a game to spare, the pre-tournament fears for many European nations have been realized. Portugal, Italy, England and debutantes Bosnia and Herzegovina have all disappointed, while at the other end of the spectrum, Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile have arguably been the most impressive side thus far, particularly in its spectacular dethroning of World champions Spain at the Maracana.
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When asked whether Chile’s victory over Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain was the best performance from any of the teams he has coached, Sampaoli, nicknamed “The Professor,” responded, somewhat philosophically, “I always believe my best match will be my next one.”
It may sound like the banal, tired old cliché that many coaches fall back on during press conferences, but not so for Sampa. The burning desire to improve, succeed, excel—to win—drives Sampaoli, a man who has scrapped to reach the top of his profession. The Argentine is not the kind of man to churn out platitudes, a coach not fond of old chestnuts.
Sampaoli’s playing career was cut short by a knee injury while at Rosario club Newell’s Old Boys when he was just 19 years old. His passion for the game undiminished, he began coaching in Argentina’s lower leagues, getting his first professional job in coaching a little over a decade ago in Peru with Juan Aurich. Spells followed at Sport Boys, Coronel Bolognesi and Sporting Cristal and in Chile with O’Higgins before a move to the great footballing city of Guayaquil in Ecuador to take charge of Emelec.
Success eluded Sampaoli, but during that decade learning his trade in South America’s lesser-known leagues, he perfected the intoxicating and electrifying system pioneered by countryman Marcelo Bielsa. Shortly after “Loco” Bielsa’s tenure as Chile boss came to its conclusion, Sampaoli returned to Chile after his brief sojourn to Ecuador to take over at Santiago outfit Universidad de Chile.
When he took charge of La U in 2011, they were a club eclipsed in more contemporary times by Chile’s most successful team and their great Santiago adversaries, Colo Colo, the team with which they contest Chilean domestic football’s showpiece rivalry, el Clásico de Fútbol Chileno.
What followed for Universidad de Chile—and Sampaoli—was a period of unprecedented success. El Chuncho won three successive domestic titles and their first-ever continental crown, the 2011 Copa Sudamericana.
The vultures picked clean the bones of that vintage 2011 La U side, with a host of players snapped up by European sides on the back of not just the success, but the manner in which they excelled both domestically and continentally.
Starlet striker Angelo Henriquez—promoted into the first team squad after the sale of star forward and Chilean international Eduardo Vargas—departed for Manchester United. Metronomic midfielder Marcelo Diaz left for Basel of the Swiss Super League; Junior Fernandez—another player brought in by Sampaoli to replace those who left after the Sudamericana success— made his way to Germany with Bayer Leverkusen. Rio-born Chilean international Marcos Gonzalez headed to Flamengo. Sampaoli not only revolutionized the team but improved players, too.
Profe Sampa has admitted to being obsessed with his coaching idol Bielsa and while he is a disciple in the purest sense, there are fundamental differences. Sampaoli has evolved the Bielsan system, adding a steel that stems from his years coaching in the Chilean top flight, a physically hard and demanding league.
The result is a hard-running, hard-tackling side that transitions quickly to overload and overwhelm opponents. In Chile’s short tournaments, accumulated fatigue associated with such bravura performances doesn’t take the same toll as is often seen in long-form, European seasons. Sampaoli’s style is perfectly suited to both the players at his disposal and the competition to come.
La Roja are already assured of a place in the last 16 of this summer’s competition matching their efforts in South Africa four years ago. In Bielsa’s last game in charge of the Chilean national team, they were defeated by Brazil in Johannesburg. A rematch at the Mineirao in Belo Horizonte this time around is a distinct possibility and with Chile having already beaten Spain in the group stage—something Bielsa and the 2010 squad were unable to do, going down 2-1 in Pretoria against the soon-to-be champions—Chile may yet provide another surprise or two at the 2014 World Cup. And what a shock that would be.
Paul Sarahs is an English-based journalist who is covering the World Cup for Sportsnet in Brazil. Follow Paul on Twitter.