AGL World Cup 2014 perspectives: Munoz talks up Chile’s chances
Like the majority of his compatriots, Carlos Munoz must have thought he was hearing things.
Pele, a three-time Fifa World Cup winner with Brazil, had been asked which teams would challenge for the 2014 World Cup. He trotted out the usual candidates – champions in five of the past six tournaments – but one particular suggestion prompted a widespread “come again?”
“I’m thinking of Germany, because I have seen them play many times,” Pele said. “Spain, because they have had the same team for eight years. And of course, Brazil.
“But you must respect Italy. And in South America, Chile is the best team today.”
Chile? But they qualified third in their zone, a competition shorn of hosts Brazil. They are competing in successive World Cups for the first time in their history, a record that includes five group-stage exits in eight previous appearances.
Perhaps Pele was simply having an off day. Before USA ’94, after all, he selected Colombia as would-be champions. But his support for Chile this summer has become a refrain. They are Pele’s hot pick to spring a surprise.
Munoz, Baniyas’ Chilean striker, produces a wry smile when reminded of Pele’s prediction. Having completed his first season in the Arabian Gulf League, he hoped to be included in Jorge Sampaoli’s squad for next month’s tournament, but instead will watch from home, cheering on his countrymen.
World champions, though? Does he actually believe it possible?
“Until we achieve it, you cannot say,” Munoz says. “Chile have a really great team, with great management, and because of that it makes it possible to dream, to get the best result. It makes it possible to surpass Chile’s last great achievement: third place in 1962.”
The bronze medal was collected on home soil, but in five attempts since, Chile have failed to survive beyond the last 16. Yet they take heart from their most recent World Cup performance.
Four years ago in South Africa, under the master guidance of Marcelo Bielsa, Chile impressed with their high-press game. It was not only effective, but attractive. Negotiating a group that contained Spain, they lost to Brazil in the first knock-out round.
In 2011, Bielsa passed the reins to Claudio Borghi, whose sweet start on the long road to Brazil turned sour. So Chile reverted to type, swapping Borghi for Sampaoli, another Argentine, but one heavily influenced by Bielsa. His CV boasted substantial success in Chilean club football.
In his first match, Sampaoli oversaw a defeat to Peru, but fortunes suddenly changed. Six games later, Chile had recorded five victories and a draw – their best run in qualification for any World Cup.
In 16 Conmebol matches, they scored 29 goals, the second-highest in the section, but conceded 25, more than any other side. With Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas up front, and Jorge Valdivia, the former Al Ain playmaker, just behind, Chile had morphed back into Bielsa’s great entertainers. With it, they were back on the world stage. Soon, Pele was predicting great success for them. Sampaoli instigated a remarkable recovery.
“He has shown to be a great coach,” Munoz says. “He’s a hard worker, who demands a lot from us. He knows every detail about all our opponents.
“He came to our country, coached Universidad de Chile and won all the titles. With that winning mentality, he’s trying to spread into the national team, you can see now Chile is very respected by other teams. Everybody sees us as a great team.”
A collection of talented footballers has helped. Sanchez and Vargas represent two of the top clubs in Spain – Barcelona and Valencia, respectively – while earlier this month, Arturo Vidal lifted a third consecutive Serie A title in Italy with Juventus. He is considered among the best midfielders in Europe.
Valdivia, now with Palmeiras in Brazil, was a mainstay of the 2010 side, as was Cardiff City’s Gary Medel and Claudio Bravo, the Real Sociedad goalkeeper and his country’s captain.
“Luckily, Chile have a group of players in a really good moment,” Munoz says. “So, for me and the Chilean people, we start to dream of a better result. We’re a powerful team for this World Cup. I’m sure we’ll be at our best level when confronting our opponents.”
They will need to be. Drawn in Group B, Chile face Australia on June 13 in Cuiaba, before taking on the Netherlands and Spain, the two finalists from 2010. Munoz concedes the pool is “complicated”, but performances in Chile’s recent friendlies have enhanced confidence.
Since securing their World Cup spot, Chile have beaten England at Wembley, lost narrowly to Brazil, defeated Costa Rica 4-0 and matched Germany for large spells in a 1-0 defeat. They have certainly caught the attention.
“We’ve shown in recent times we’re very strong,” Munoz says. “We played against some very important teams and it’s been really difficult for all of them. So everybody’s been saying they don’t want to play against us.”
Munoz desperately wanted to be there, to swap Baniyas for Brazil, but was not among the eight forwards to make Sampaoli’s provisional squad. Capped 11 times by his country, a call-up to the January friendly with Costa Rica offered faint hope, and scoring the final goal in a 4-0 rout seemed to boost his chances, too.
However, the wait for a World Cup place will continue for another four years.
“It’s the maximum achievement, every player’s dream” Munoz says. “The experience you get is huge, everything you live in the World Cup – to be with the best from your country and the best from other countries. It’s a really beautiful dream I wish to accomplish.”
But just what Chile can accomplish in Brazil? Like the majority of his countrymen, and buoyed by Pele’s backing, Munoz is thinking big.
“I’m a player, but also a fan,” he says. “So I hope with all my heart this World Cup will be a step to a high point for our team. This group of players gives a lot of hope. We’re confident we can achieve something special.”
Published: May 25, 2014 04:00 AM