Chile can challenge at the World Cup after back-to-back Copa America titles
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With all the fallout surrounding Lionel Messi's apparent retirement from the Argentina national team, it was easy to forget that Chile had just accomplished the formidable achievement of winning back-to-back Copa Americas.
And while the decision by the most recognizable player on the planet -- although Cristiano Ronaldo may dispute that -- to retire from the Albiceleste is huge news, Chile's victory should not be left to go quietly into the night.
"I heard," midfielder Arturo Vidal said after the game when asked about Messi's decision. "I don't want to talk about it. He will have had his reasons. I'm just thinking about enjoying [the Copa America win]."
And rightly so. Sunday's 4-2 penalty shootout win over Argentina at the MetLife Stadium, following a 0-0 stalemate after 120 minutes, was another monumental night for Chilean football.
Midfielder Marcelo Diaz said before the final that for the first time in their history, Chile could compete on an equal footing with Argentina, Germany and Spain. He also said that the dream of Chilean football is to go beyond the Copa America and compete seriously for the World Cup, which is next held in Russia in two years' time.
The knockout stages of this tournament -- held for the first time in the United States -- proved that Diaz's hopes are surely not hot air, with La Roja emerging successful again less than a year after emerging victorious as the host nation. For the second consecutive year, penalty kicks were sufficient to overcome an Argentina side suffering from final-stage fright.
This Chile team will go down in South American soccer folklore as one that were able to shed aside their underdog status and compete toe-to-toe with CONMEBOL giants like Argentina and Brazil. They are now officially Argentina's nemesis, the team that has twice gone into a Copa America final against the Albiceleste as the outsider and twice overcome the odds. Not only that, Chile are -- for now -- the team that retired Messi.
The label of "golden generation" is bandied around in international football all too frequently, but Chile have backed up that label and then some. Alexis Sanchez was named the best player of the tournament, Claudio Bravo the best goalkeeper and Eduardo Vargas finished as top goalscorer. Vidal, Gary Medel, Jean Beausejour, Mauricio Isla, Diaz and Charles Aranguiz also all deserve their share of the praise.
Chile's success can be attributed to its collective strength and philosophy -- you can even see the belief and dedication when the players belt out the national anthem, all with their eyes closed.
"The group has always been very ambitious, even after we won a difficult Copa [America last year]," Vidal said. "We always trusted that the group would keep achieving important things. We still have the amazing dream of the World Cup, of another Copa and we hope to be at the level."
Asked what the key was to Chile's victory, Vidal's answer was rapid and concise: "The union; always believing we were going to win and giving everything on the field."
But there was an individual hero on Sunday night in New Jersey: Barcelona goalkeeper Bravo.
Bravo -- criticized in the early games for mistakes, particular after being beaten at his near post in the 2-1 defeat to Argentina in the group-stage opener -- came up with the save and perhaps the moment of this 100-year celebratory tournament in the 100th minute. Sergio Aguero launched what looked like an inch-perfect looping header under the crossbar, but Bravo set himself and sprung to force it over with the very end of his fingertips. Time seemed to come to a halt in the stadium.
Then there was the save of Lucas Biglia's penalty to set up Francisco Silva's winning spot kick.
The transition from head coach from Marcelo Bielsa, who took over with Chile in 2007, to Jorge Sampaoli in 2012 was relatively smooth. But current head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi's early spell since taking the reins in January from Liga MX side Leon was fraught with concerns about whether he was the right appointment. One win in his first five games had the press and fans worried about how their team would fare in the the United States. The loss to Argentina in the first game and the late, late victory over Bolivia in the second only raised concerns.
"All the players have known each other for a long time, we knew the change would be difficult," Vidal admitted.
But things clicked against Panama in the must-win final group game -- Chile won 4-2 -- and, from there, La Roja battered Mexico 7-0, overcame Colombia, third in the FIFA rankings, 2-0 and then stopped an Argentina side arguably in their best form in years.
It's in the defensive department that Pizzi deserves much praise. The change to a 4-3-3 formation from a back three often used by Bielsa and Sampaoli has added defensive stability to a side recognized primarily for its attacking prowess and high-intensity, pressing game. Not conceding a single goal in the last 315 minutes of the tournament certainly points to solidity.
Back in 2010, Chile reached its first World Cup in 12 years under Bielsa and then won its first game at the tournament since 1962. It was the start of something and, since then, the team's rise has been meteoric.
The average age of the core of these players is close to 29, meaning that a new generation will be required to come through eventually. For at least the next couple of years, however, Chile have much to look forward to after claiming two continental titles. They can look forward to Russia 2018 with every reason to believe they will be fighting in the later stages of the tournament.
Vidal and his teammates will celebrate long into the night, justifiably unconcerned about the ramifications of Messi's retirement and all that will inevitably follow.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.