By Matt Hawkins –
Chile is the most successful also-ran country in South America. The host of the 2015 Copa América has never won the trophy yet sits in forth for all time matches won at the tournament. They face off against Argentina on Saturday, a team looking to equal Uruguay’s record of 15 cups. The Albiceleste is not without its own drought: Lionel Messi has yet to win the tournament. During his tenure with the national team, the cabinet at the AFA headquarters has been conspicuously empty. Only four years ago, Argentina, playing at home, was knocked out of the quarterfinals by eventual champion Uruguay.
Argentina has rarely considered Chile a major football rival. Over the past century, Chile has only won 6, tied 22, and lost 57. Until now, the rivalry between the Andean neighbours has been fuelled more by the politics off the field than the play on it. Argentina has looked across the River Plate to Uruguay for its clásico rival. With the final to be played in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile will have a chance to finally put its name into the history books and continue Messi’s frustration.
And it is perfect timing. This is Chile’s best football team, ever. Led by Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez, alongside Eduardo Vargas, Arturo Vidal, and keeper Claudio Bravo, it has been a golden generation for Chile. The tournament has witnessed veteran Jorge Valdivia, now playing for Palmeiras of São Paulo, masterfully been pulling the strings in the midfield. In the semi-finals, with arguably support from the referee, Chile left a resurgent Peru wondering where their tournament went after Eduardo Vargas blasted the ball into the corner. Chile has clearly benefitted from the consistent presence since 2012 of their manager Jorge Sampaoli, who has done well to evolve the system put in place by his mentor Marcelo Bielsa. This is Chile’s moment to shine.
La Roja, however, are facing the world’s best player who might just have found his place on the national team. Continuing to play in a withdrawn playmaking role, Messi will never equal his goal production at Barcelona. But in the semi-final 6-1 dismantling of Paraguay, it was Messi’s penchant for opening spaces that tore apart the defence. By the end of the match it was also clear that Ángel Di María, with a brace and a beautiful assist placed to the head of Agüero, can indeed play as a top forward. Playing alongside Kun Agüero and Javier Pastore, the team finally produced the flowing attacking football we all expect from Argentina.
Chile is unlikely to play Argentina as open or leave Messi unattended for long. Fuelled by the occasion and a long-standing feud between the two countries; the match promises to be a physical battle through the midfield.
A distinct characteristic of the Copa América is the intense political intrigue scripted into each match. Each team sits at the core of its country’s national identity. Over the years, the tournament has acted as a proxy for the political conflicts that have divided the continent. Earlier in the tournament Bolivia faced Chile in the group stage; the match instantly became emblematic of a long-standing Bolivian demand to regain access to the ocean it lost during War of the Pacific in 1883.
Argentina and Chile share the third longest border in the world and it has not always been peaceful. In the southern reaches, in the barren and sparsely populated Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego archipelago, Argentina and Chile have fought over where the line should be drawn. Moreover, this conflict led to a moment of political betrayal in the eyes of Argentines when, during the 1982 Malvinas/Falkland Islands War, Chile refused to provide political support to their South American neighbour and reportedly allowed the British to operate in their country.
It is with this baggage that Argentines arrived in Chile, a song already prepared for the occasion. Borrowing from last year’s World Cup hit, which focused its attention on the host Brazil, but without any significant football-lore to retell, the Argentines turned to politics:
“Chile, tell me how it feels.
To know that the ocean is coming.
I swear, even if you drown,
We will never help you out.
Because you are a traitor,
A snitch and a pig,
In the war you sold us out.
Never come back again.
I hope that you drown,
And that the English help you swim.”
Embarrassing Chile in Santiago would likely be felt back on the streets in Buenos Aires as well-deserved retribution.
This stereotypical Argentine arrogance, however, has made their country the main target for most countries at the Copa América. There is little reason for Chileans to feel differently. Defeating Argentina and lifting the cup would be doubly sweet for the country hoping to finally find its place amongst the South American champions.
Starting off strong, Chile impressed with a convincing 2-0 victory over an athletic Ecuador before a small slip against Mexico ended in a 3-3 draw. A 5-nil goal fest against Bolivia closed out the group. The quarterfinal match against Uruguay will be remembered for the incidents on the field and not the 1-nil victory, the goal provided by Mauricio Isla who found the back of the net through a resolute and physical Uruguayan defence.
Argentina also finished first in their group, though they struggled to impress over a full 90-minutes. An opening draw saw the Paraguayans pull two back in the second half to finish level. Back-to-back 1-nil victories over Uruguay and invited guests Jamaica put the Argentines through their group in first place. Argentina then defeated Colombia on penalties 5-4 after going the full length in a back-and-forth battle without a goal scored.
Controversial moments have dominated this Copa América. Always a tournament played at the physical limits of the FIFA rule book, some of the on-the-field battles of this edition have been notably fierce. The World Cup quarterfinal rematch of Colombia-Brazil in the group phase ended in a multi-game suspension for Neymar after the forward insulted the referee in the tunnel after being shown a red card for an insinuated headbutt; the action a culmination of a match-long spat with Colombian defender Jeison Murillo.
After Chile’s second match of the tournament, Arturo Vidal was arrested for drunk driving after crashing his Ferrari on the outskirts of Santiago. He was released. On the field for Chile, there was Jara’s infamous finger inserted past the sphincter of Edinson Cavani. The examination inexplicably led to the second yellow and expulsion for the Uruguayan forward. Played on a knife-edge, the encounter ended in a bench clearing shoving match and Uruguay’s 68 year-old manager Óscar Tabárez leaving before the final whistle.
Matt Hawkins is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research covers the intersections of football and politics in Argentina. His dissertation focuses on the Return to Boedo campaign by supporters of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. He writes infrequently on supporter culture for stonymondayriot.com and can be followed on twitter @mhawkin2.