In just under a month’s time, Australia’s own Socceroos will begin its 2014 Brazil World Cup campaign with a match against South American qualifiers Chile, before taking on the might of the Netherlands and Spain in the three guaranteed games of the group stage.
Until now, the focus of the Australian media and wider public has been on the impending battle with current title holders and world’s number one ranked team Spain, as well of course as 2010 World Cup runners up Netherlands. Each are giants of world football and boast an embarrassment of riches in terms of the talented footballers at their disposal. We are talking about David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Robin Van Persie, Robben Huntelaar, etc, etc.
So while Australian football is coming to terms with its 30 man squad chock full of youth and relative inexperience, most of the hypotheticals played out by football analysts and public seems to rely heavily on a first match win or draw against Chile, under the presumption that it represents the easiest of our three group fixtures.
On the face of it, it seems the logical decision.
After all, Spain are chasing their second successive World Cup and sit on a run of international competition wins that reads Euro/World Cup/Euro. They boast a once in a generation team that has won almost all and sundry for the last decade and while their aura of invincibility may have worn just a little, the resistance of their existing team to age and the renewal of key positions means that their line-up remains as impressive as ever. They will be one of the teams we talk of to our kids and grandkids as the best we ever saw.
The Netherlands are no slouches either. They made the last World Cup final in 2010, only to lose to Spain in the dying minutes of extra time and while lacking the presence of a World Cup in their trophy cabinet, they have made the final three times since 1974. They have also won the European Championship in 1988 and they seem to make the latter round of both competitions with a consistency that very few other nations can claim.
None of this comes as news to even the most part-time of Australian football fan. However for all the hype created around these two teams, and most of it being well deserved, it belittles the chances of our Australia’s other group member, Chile.
Chile has spent most of its time in world football playing in the shadow of its two extremely talented neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. In the same forty year stretch in which the Netherlands was making three World Cup finals, Chile made just four World Cups in total, and never progressed past the Round of 16. For their best finish at a World Cup, you will need to go back to 1962, when they hosted the event and finished third behind Brazil and Czechoslavakia. Their performances at the Copa America are not much more impressive either, with a handful of second and third placings doing little to hide their tally of zero wins.
By all accounts, until now they have been the also-rans of South American football, and the reality of this situation has been accepted surprisingly well by the Chilean people.
So with that in mind, what now marks them as the threat for Australia’s World Cup Group and Dark Horses for the entire competition?
For one, they are in the midst of their best ever generation of players as well. Their likely starting line up contains some of the top players in Europe and South America. Their midfield will almost certainly include Arturo Vidal, who was part of a Juventus team that has just secured their third consecutive Serie A premiership with a record-breaking 102 points.
He will be joined up front by Barcelona striker Alexis Sanchez, who managed 19 goals in this year’s La Liga, and who already holds a La Liga title, a Copa del Rey, a UEFA Supercup and a FIFA World Club level medal. He also scored 8 goals in 11 appearances for the Chilean national side last year.
Others of note include Matias Fernandez at Fiorentina, Claudio Bravo at Real Sociedad, Eduardo Vargas at Sevilla, Gary Medel at Cardiff, and Eugenio Mena at Santos in Brazil. In every area of the park, they have talented individuals operating with great success domestically and abroad.
These names perform for country as well as club. Their national squad have found that perfect combination of talented big name players and a cohesive team unit and spirit that plays with little concern of expectation and no regard for international reputations.
In the last year or so of matches they have beaten Uruguay, Ecuador, England, and Costa Rica. They have drawn 2-2 with Spain in September and 3-3 with Columbia in October. They have also registered one draw and one loss with 2014 hosts Brazil, still managing to score in both matches. In fact, in this time, their only two losses came at the hands of Brazil and Germany.
Beyond this, the nature of the games were just as impressive. They dominated in their 2-2 draw with Spain, playing a high press, high intensity match that disrupted the natural flow of La Furia. It was only a stoppage time equaliser from Jesus Navas that robbed the Chileans of a win. They were also commanding in their 2-0 win over England, and dictated large pockets of the match against Brazil. In their loss against Germany they were unlucky to concede against the run of play and were almost certainly the better team for much of the match, as evidenced by the home fans jeering the German performance at the close of the match.
Their recent success highlights the true threat of the Chilean team for Australia.
They play with little fear or deference for the existing world football superpowers. They bring an energy to the field that appears to render the high possession strategy of world football less effective. Their fans, like most South American nations have little regard for overly defensive displays, instead preferring to see free-flowing football that creates regular threats on goal, even if that means at both ends of the pitch. In their last 12 matches, they have been kept scoreless just once, in their 1-0 defeat to Germany. In this period they have also scored 30 goals at an average of 2.5 per match.
In the Socceroos 4-3 loss to Ecuador, the second half, while highlighting the nerves of the young squad, also exposed their susceptibility to a high press game. In the first half, with time on the ball, the Australians were able to find their holding midfielders and utilise their wide men. However, in the second half when Ecuador brought on a number of its more talented players, that time and space was cut off, and Australia’s fluidity and confidence was ruined.
The trouble is that Ecuador’s second half tactical approach was very similar to Chile, relying on the high fitness of players to shut down opposition players on the ball and not allow them room to operate comfortably. It is the same tactic that Chile used with success against teams like Spain, Germany and Brazil, and will yield strong results if they can successfully institute it against Australia in a month’s time.
It is this that may make it toughest for Australia to achieve success.
By comparison, Spain play a high possession game that is patient in seeking its goal scoring opportunities. It also affords opposition teams the opportunity to (for lack of a better term) park the bus and limit the incisiveness of Spain’s attack. It is why so many of Spain’s wins are by a single solitary goal despite their overwhelming control of the game.
The Australians will prepare for Spain in such a way. Arguably one of the strengths of the Australian sporting mentality is the knuckle-down-and-fight-it-out approach we bring to quality opponents. That underdog mentality we fostered during the World Wars and now apply to unheralded Australians sports men and women going up against bigger names. It will serve well against Spain and certainly allow for the possibility of an upset.
The Netherlands, for all their reputation in world football have still tended toward the occasional capitulation. Euro 2012 is a good example. Despite being unbeaten in qualification and having perhaps the most in-form striker in the world at that moment in Robin Van Persie, the Oranje failed to win any of its group games and quickly exited the tournament.
As any Dutch person will tell you, the confidence and performance of the team is so often demonstrated (or decided) in their first performance of a tournament, and so it will be interesting to see how they fare against Spain.
Overall, any of these three teams can be world-beaters on their day, just as Australia is capable of beating any of them given a magnificent performance. However, it is important to remember that despite the high esteem of Spain and Netherlands, Chile is not the weak link. It will be a tough match and any points we can gain from it should be considered worth their weight in gold.