Chile: the Perennial Underachievers

Can Chile finally shrug off the underachiever’s tag and lift the Copa America in their Home Soil? They have had their fair share of chances but have always failed to go the distance. Tamas Sinha narrates the story of those so-close-yet-so-far and those millions of broken hearts here at Goalden Times. You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here

When Marcelo Salas stepped up to take his penalty shot that day in 1999, the bar was probably still rattling from the venomous free-kick that José Luis Sierra had taken a few seconds ago. Uruguay were already ahead (with a goal from Daniel Lembo), and Chile needed a come back desperately. Referee Ubaldo Aquino, famous for the Martin Palermo penalty incident, blew the whistle and El Matador started his run. Uruguayan goalkeeper Fabián Carini misjudged, and jumped to his left. However, Salas’ shot hit the middle of the bar, exactly like Palermo, and Chile missed the opportunity to equalize the game.

Let’s travel back one more year. Chile were facing (at that time) three-time World champion Italy in their thrilling opening match at Bordeaux,  and had almost beaten them before ending in a 2–2 draw. Salas scored both the goals for Chile, and that was how the world came to know about the magnificent striking pair of El Matador “Salas” and Iván “Bam Bam” Zamorano.

The deadly duo of La Rojas couldn’t win the match for Chile
The deadly duo of La Rojas couldn’t win the match for Chile

The nation had high hopes for these two when they played together in Copa America 1999—the only time they had played with one another in this tournament. This was the fateful semi-final against Uruguay. Chile were still 1–0 down, but didn’t remain that way for very long. The 73rd minute saw them getting another free kick. This time, Sierra pushed a swerving ball into the box and “Bam Bam”  Zamorano scored an exquisite header to bring Chile back into the match.  Later, the match went to the tiebreaker, and, sadly enough, Mauricio Aros missed the only penalty in the shootout. Chile were shown the door. Yet again,La Rojas had failed to deliver when it was needed the most.

The Journey Starts

We need to go back almost 100 years to see how it all started. We all know how sports has always been associated with celebrations. So, when Argentina wanted to celebrate the centenary year of May Revolution, they invited Uruguay and Chile to play a friendly tournament in 1910. The success of this tournament influenced Héctor Rivadavia Gomez, then board member of the Uruguayan Football Association, to form a football federation in South America.  Gomez’s project turned into the first South American championship in 1916 as everyone unanimously supported it. It was the centenary celebration of Argentina’s independence, and Gomez influenced the formation of Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL), the oldest FIFA confederation. The oldest continental championship was started in South America in 1916 with only four nations—Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. While the other three nations have been the most successful in the history of South American championship, Chile has never been able to touch the silverware till date, despite being the fifth most successful team in the competition(as per all time tables). Why has Chile had this sorry fate for 100 years? Let’s see how it all began.

Early Years (19161953)

CONMEBOL is the smallest football confederation under FIFA, which has only ten associated, affiliated nations till date. Despite the small number of participants, South American teams have always played the most enthralling and competitive football in the world. Even though the four nations started off in similar circumstances, Chile found it difficult to cope up with three other Latin American giants. The misery continued for decades, and the team couldn’t win a single match in the competition till 1926. In addition to that, Chile had a miserable tournament in 1917, when they conceded ten goals, but scored none.  Apart from this, Chile had withdrawn from the tournament in 1921, 1923, and 1925 at the last moment for various reasons.


 Fortune started favouring the La Rojas a little in 1926, when they hosted the tournament and found their first victory in the competition in their first match, against newcomers Bolivia.  David Arellano, the founder of Chile’s most successful football club Colo Colo and attributed with showcasing the “Chilena” to Europe, architected Bolivia’s demolition with four goals in the match. Interestingly, they also scored the first ever goal scored from direct corner kick in the South American Football Championship in this match. Despite the brilliant start, the Chileans couldn’t go past Uruguay and Argentina, and finally ended at the third spot with another hat-trick from Arellano in their final match against Paraguay. Arellano also earned the golden boot by scoring seven goals in the tournament.

David Arellano became a key player for Chile in 1926
David Arellano became a key player for Chile in 1926

Arellano’s accidental death in 1927 while playing for Colo Colo came as a shock to everyone. This was followed by the side’s withdrawal from the next two tournaments, and their comeback was not special either. Their campaigns in the 1930s were nothing but lacklustre other than the heroics of Raúl Toro, who scored seven goals in 1937’s tournament and earned the coveted golden boot.In 1941, Chile celebrated the founding of Santiago’s 400th anniversary by hosting the tournament, and also invested heavily in their national stadium. However, despite their initial success, Argentina defeated them to clinch the title. In 1945, they hosted another special edition of the competition where no trophy was handed over. This tournament was a goal fest (4.24 goals per match), and Chile started off with a brilliant 6-3 victory over Ecuador, which featured a hat-trick from Juan Alcántara. Alcántara, along with Guillermo Clavero, inspired a 5–0 demolition of Bolivia. Santiago brought out the best from their performance, but Chile remained a few steps behind Argentina. In 1953, Chile exhibited another great individual talent in Francisco “Paco” Molina, who scored eight goals to bag the golden boot in Lima. His great performance in the tournament earned his transfer to Atletico Madrid in Spain, where he left his remarkable legacy. Chile, however, remained far from the destination.

So Close, Yet So Far (19551956)

The story revolves around the Colo-Colo Legend, Enrique “Cua Cua” Hormazábal. His intelligence and exquisite technique brought a new wave of hope to Chilean football. He used to believe that “Football is played with the feet, but is born in the head”. Santiago again hosted the championship in 1955, and Chile started the journey with a thumping 7–1 victory over Ecuador. This was the match that saw the rise of Cua Cua in the South American championship with a memorable hat-trick. Chile’s best match came against their eternal rival Peru, when they beat Peru in the best match of that championship edition. Chile was leading the match 4–1 with the brilliant brace from former Newcastle United star George Robledo. Unbelievably though, Peru made a comeback and leveled the score 4–4 at the 83rd minute. However, within a minute of the equalizer, Jaime “Superclase” Ramírez put Chile in the front again with his winning goal. Chile continued the journey with a draw against Uruguay and a 5–0 thrashing of Paraguay to meet Argentina in Estadio Nacional for the title decider. Argentina prevailed again with a narrow win in the finale, which was decided by a single strike of tournament top scorer Rodolfo Micheli. Hormazábal, despite being the best player of the tournament and scoring in all other matches, failed to transform the Chilean dream into reality.

Enrique “Cua Cua” Hormazábal
Enrique “Cua Cua” Hormazábal

One year later, Chile and Cua Cua returned in search of their first title in Montevideo, Uruguay. They started with another brilliant win against heavyweight Brazil, and Cua Cua scored a brace. This match saw the rise of another star in Chilean football—Leonel Sánchez—the iconic figure of Universidad de Chile. Despite the initial victory, Chile’s dream remained unfulfilled yet again as they lost back-to-back matches  against Uruguay and Argentina. Chile then met Peru in another thrilling encounter, which ended 4–3 in favour of Chile. Both Cua Cua and Sánchez scored for Chile. Cua Cua finished the tournament as the highest scorer but couldn’t deliver the ultimate glory to his country. Chile finished one step away from the title after losing to Argentina in the final. This was the only time in the history of competition when Chile finished in the second place in two consecutive years.

The Saga Continues (19572011)

After their brilliant performances in 1955 and 1956, Chile had a long period of drought, and didn’t have a memorable Copa for the next 23 years. The tournament format had changed by then. It was a six-month long competition in 1979, where matches were played in home-away basis in different countries. Chile had beaten Peru in that year to reach the final against Paraguay. Their journey was helped by the brilliance of Carlos Caszely, the player of the tournament. Elias Figueroa—the finest Chilean player and one of the greatest South American defenders of all time—was also instrumental in their amazing run.  Don Figueroa, who recovered from an onset of polio in his childhood, was once heralded by Pele as the best defender the latter had ever faced. However, their opponents were the rejuvenated Paraguayans blessed with the twinkle toes of their greatest player, Romerito. Chile lost the away game in Asunción 0–3 (Romerito scored a brace). But they came back next week, and avenged their loss by beating Paraguay 1–0 at Santiago, with a solitary goal from Carlos Rivas. This, effectively, pushed the deciding match to Buenos Aires. Rules were different then—goals scored in the final matches were not counted and one win from either team in the home and away legs forced the final playoff. To make things more complex, goals scored in the first two “final” matches were taken into account if this game happened to end in a tie. This left no choice for La Rojas but to win the last game. The decider ended in a goalless draw even after the additional time, and Chile were left empty handed once again.

Chile playing against Paraguay in the 1979 Final
Chile playing against Paraguay in the 1979 Final

Eight years later, in 1987, Chile managed to reach the final again—beating heavyweight Brazil in the group stage.  This time, their match was against Uruguay. After beating Maradona’s Argentina, Uruguay were favourite to win the tie, and Buenos Aires had never been lucky for Chile. It was a game between two brutal teams and Chileans took the upper hand with their violent plays, especially against “El Príncipe” Enzo Francescoli.The game saw four players sent off from the field, and expectedly enough,  Uruguay won their 13th title with a solitary goal.

Another venture in 1991 fell short again in the final round. This time, though, the Chileans were hosting the tournament, and a certain Gabriel Batistuta took Argentina to the summit. Chileans again started seeing some ray of hope in 1999, when Chile’s favourite sons (as mentioned before) played together in the competition.  Despite a not-so-impressive performance in the first round, Chile went to the knockouts as the best third-placed team (having won one and lost two matches). Chile beat Colombia in the next round to meet Uruguay in a thrilling semi-final. A lot was depending on the SaZa pair in this match, but sadly enough, the climax was different. Uruguay drew the first blood and Marcelo Salas stepped up to the grand opportunity. Chile managed to choke, once again. Since then, the team hasn’t made it to the final four in the tournament.

Story of the Rivals

The “Derby of the Pacific” (Clásico del Pacífico) is the rivalry between the neighbouring Pacific countries of Chile and Peru. The tension between these nations can be traced back to the War of the Pacific in the nineteenth century, and that influenced their football relations as well. This rivalry is one of the most popular international rivalries in the world and the intensity saw a marked increase after the failure of the formation of the “Combinado del Pacifico”, a binational football team consisting of Chilean and Peruvian footballers.

There is one major controversy regarding the invention of bicycle kick as well. In Chile they believe that Ramon Unzaga invented this move in 1914 in Talcahuano, and demonstrated it in the early versions of Copa. The Argentine press named it “la chileña”. On the other hand, Peruvians claim that it was invented before that, during 1892 in port of Callao by the locals known as Chalaco. According to Peru,  Chileans copied it later during their regular matches between Callao and the Chilean port of Valparaiso. That’s why it’s known as “La Chalaca” in Peru.

 "Chile salio DERROTADO en un match que nunca debio PERDER" (English: "Chile came out defeated in a match that it should have never lost"). A sub-heading further reads: "CHILENOS JUEGAN MEJOR Futbol Que los PERUANOS" (English: "Chileans play better football than the Peruvians")
When Chile lost to Peru in their first ever match, a Chilean news-paper printed this – “Chile came out defeated in a match that it should have never lost”. A sub-heading further reads: “Chileans play better football than the Peruvians”

Peru’s first championship came in 1939, when they won all the games in the competition to claim the title. Peru beat Uruguay in the decider to clinch that title, while Chile has always choked on the big stage. In 1975, when the new format was introduced in Copa, Peru managed to clinch the title once again. Luck favored them in their semi-final match against Brazil, which they won via a controversial lottery. Chile, despite being in the same group with Peru, failed to beat them even at home. In Chile they believe that Chileans play better football than the Peruvians. However, it cannot be denied that Peru has won the South American trophy twice, even though Chile started their Copa journey before them. Chile have always had an abundance of individual brilliances, but have lacked the proper support to overcome mighty opponents. On the other hand, their fierce rival Peru is a perfect example how a team can perform successfully together (especially in the 1970s).

The dream goes on

Despite being a part of the founding nations of CONMEBOL, Chile has never been as strong as the three other South American powerhouses. The competition in South America has always been very intense and the teams are always very close in term of quality. Even in the Copa Libertadores (the continental club championship of South America) Chile’s performance has not been very good. Chile’s best club Colo Colo has only won the Championship once. It is also the only Chilean club to win the title till date.

The Chileans have always performed well at home and could have been a strong contender for the South American throne this year, but for the dual obstacles of Brazil and Argentina. The team that coach Jorge Sampaoli has assembled has no dearth of talents. Alexis Sanchez had a wonderful debut season for Arsenal; Claudio Bravo played a pivotal role in Barcelona’s historic treble win; Arturo “Il Guerriro” Vidal earned the cap of one of the world’s best midfielders for his performance for the Bianconeri. All these players have the ability to win a match on their day. In fact, they were just one “cross-bar” width away from knocking out Brazil from World Cup last year. However, they do still lack the big match temperament, which has caused them to be the perennial underachievers for 99 years.