Feature

Chile time at the Copa America

The Copa America trophy at the National Stadium in Santiago during the opening ceremony of the Trophy Tour in January (Getty) Source: AFP

Home advantage or home disadvantage? It’s a question that is looming large over the Copa America, which kicks off later this week.

In the 99-year history of the world’s oldest continental competition, 37 of the 43 titles have been snapped up by Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Other than the traditional big three, Bolivia has won it, Colombia has won it while Paraguay and Peru have both won it twice. 

Chile does not appear on the list of Copa America champions – even though it took part as far back as the inaugural tournament in 1916.  The current side, by popular consensus, is the best in Chile’s history. As 2015 host, then, the pressure is on it to bring the long, dry run to an end.

And coach Jorge Sampaoli is worried about the pressure. He has first hand experience of what it can do.

A year his side came agonisingly close to knocking Brazil out of its home World Cup. In the last minute of extra time Mauricio Pinilla’s shot came back off the bar. Had it gone just a touch lower the world would never have witnessed the Selecao's 7-1 semi final humiliation to Germany. 

Instead Brazil came through the penalty shoot out and went on to the quarter finals. The atmosphere was one of uncontrolled emotion. Brazil captain Thiago Silva could not even face the prospect of taking a kick, and instead sat apart from his team-mates, a symbol of a team that had lost its emotional control, and seemed to be in floods of tears before, during and after the matches.

Sampaoli wanted none of this for his team in the 2015 Copa. He gave prolonged though to the psychological preparation of his men. His masterplan was to take them out of the country, away to the other side of the Atlantic – probably Spain – where they could escape from the hype and the expectations.

The idea was only abandoned at the start of May, when it became apparent that many key players would be in action for their clubs until late May or even June. Instead he has based his team in a former monastery well outside the capital, Santiago.

The group emerged on Friday night to play a final warm up match against El Salvador. At the end of the 90 minutes the crowd went away worried, although Chile had won the game. The single goal victory, though, did little to calm some jangling nerves in the Chilean public.

Sampaoli’s side can be a delight to watch, all attacking ambition and high energy pressing. There is seldom a dull game when Chile is playing.

However, of late, there are seldom many goals either. After watching La Roja take an early lead the crowd sat back and waited for a landslide. It never eventuated. Almost the entire game was played in El Salvador's half but the opponent's defence was not breached again.

After the defeats in March to Iran (2-0) and Brazil (1-0), Chile’s full-strength side has played three times this year and scored just once. There is a lack of penalty area presence – and an absence of calm in front of goal.

Moreover, Chile’s aggressive approach means that the opposition always has a chance on the counter-attack.

Chile kicks off the Copa against Ecuador, a match of styles that has the potential to produce an exciting opening game. Sampaoli is concerned by Ecuador’s speed.

"Playing a direct style against them could be risky," he said. "We have to have control."

This match, then, will be a real test of Chile’s emotional state. Opening games are notoriously nervy affairs and this match is a huge occasion for the host's players.

For most of the teams, the Copa America is a dress rehearsal for the coming World Cup qualifiers – winning would be nice but the priority is to emerge from the competition with a settled side.

For Chile it is different. It has been building towards this competition as an end in itself. It is a chance to make history. Opportunity knocks, then, but knees might be knocking even more as the nerves set in.