A meeting with an idol of mine got me thinking about how Chile's national team has metamorphosised into one of world football's most exciting collectives.
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23 Mar 2014 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 14 May 2014 - 1:26 PM

There is much wisdom in the old piece of advice that it is a mistake to meet your idols, because you are bound to be disappointed.

Great ex-footballers, for example, have sometimes become dangerously accustomed to being listened to, even on subjects on which they have no special authority. It does not always make them the most agreeable company. There is a price to pay for being idolised.

A few hours, ago, though, I came away from a meeting with a personal idol who did not disappoint. I am on a quick visit to Santiago, where I dropped in on Joan Jara, English-born widow of the great Victor Jara.

Tortured and murdered in the days after General Pinochet's coup in September 1973, Victor Jara was a magnificent singer-songwriter (and a theatrical director of note as well), the most prominent symbol of the artistic effervescence Chile experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the government of Salvador Allende was brought to a brutal end by Pinochet and his thugs.

A distinguished dancer and dance instructor in her own right, Joan Jara has spent more than forty years fighting for justice for Victor and the thousands that suffered his fate.

She is well into her eighties now, and although her health is good, I did not want to take up too much of her time. I left with hundreds of questions I would have liked to have asked, but delighted to have met such an admirable figure, who manages to combine the serenity and wisdom of age with the optimism of youth.

As I wandered away, one of the things she said turned round and round in my mind. A decade after the coup she returned to Chile, where she was persuaded to start giving dance classes once more. It soon became clear to her how much the country had changed.

Those students that had been formed as people by the values of the Pinochet regime found it extremely hard to work collectively. The every-man-for-himself jungle economics of the far right had produced an individualistic mentality, unsuitable for group work.

As in dance, I wondered, so in football? It is a fair question. Football is such a powerful social force that it can act like a sponge, soaking up changes that are happening in the society around it.

Maybe, then, there is a clear example of 'Pinochet football'.

In the qualifiers for the 1990 FIFA World Cup, when Chile played Brazil in Rio's Maracana stadium, goalkeeper Roberto Rojas took the field with a knife concealed in his glove. The idea was to cut himself and pretend he had been hit by a stone or a flare, thus forcing the game to be cancelled. The farce was discovered, Chile was kicked out of the competition and barred from taking part in the qualifiers for the next World Cup.

It was a defeat for win-at-all-costs individualism, while in Chile Pinochet was also suffering setbacks. He was reluctantly forced to step down as president in 1990, as the country prepared for a return to democracy.

Subsequent generations have grown up in more tranquil, less brutal times. Joan Jara told me that her younger dance students – the ones not carrying the influence of the Pinochet years – are far more collectively minded and able to work together.

Maybe this, too, can be applied to football.

Going into the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Chile is one of the teams the neutrals are most keen to watch – and not just because of the midfield powerhouse performances of Arturo Vidal or the forward trickery of Alexis Sanchez.

What stands out about the current Chile team is its desire, wherever the game is played and whomever the opponent might be, to impose its will on the match. The performance away to Germany at the start of the month is a case in point.

The Germans' 1-0 victory does not begin to tell the story of the game. Chile, with its high defensive line and high tempo reduced the host to a state of high anxiety. They could have scored six or seven. After the match Germany coach Joachim Low said that he had never before seen his side dominated to this extent.

This is because Chile is armed with that most dangerous of weapons – a collective idea. It is a not a native development.

Chile's playing style has been introduced by Argentines; first Marcelo Bielsa, who took La Roja to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and now his disciple Jorge Sampaoli.

Indeed, it is a style of play that has found more acceptance in Chile than it ever did in Argentina – where the historic importance of the foot-on-the-ball number 10 always offered resistance to a gameplan based on unrelenting speed.

Chile, whose football lacked such a coherent identity, offered less opposition. Once it was clear that the Bielsa style was achieving results, it was adopted by many of the local club sides.

Sampaoli made his big breakthrough with a stunning spell in charge of Universidad de Chile. Current domestic champion O'Higgins is coached by Eduardo Berizzo, Bielsa's former assistant.

The current generation of Chilean players, formed as people in the post-Pinochet era, have been able to embrace a collective idea of play and put it into exhilarating practice.

I could not bring myself to ask Joan Jara if she had any thoughts on the current Chile side. Her mind is on more important matters.

However, maybe it is not too much of a stretch to say that the way Jorge Sampaoli's men are working together offers a tiny piece of justification for her hope that a new generation of young people will take up the struggle to create a better society.