Defeat may not be so bad for Chile
A dark horse is a curious beast.
In the run-up to the World Cup, the phrase was most frequently used to describe Belgium, a team that is crammed full of household names from the Premier League and so widely hailed as a possible contender to leave Brazil triumphant that, at some bookmakers, it went into the tournament as the fifth favourite.
They were not the only ones, though. Germany, to some, were dark horses, despite the fact that they have reached four consecutive semifinals in major tournaments.
The Dutch -- spearheaded by Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, two of the game's most high-profile stars, and fresh from their final appearance four years ago -- were favoured by others, as were the French. But then so were Colombia, a team shorn of its most recognisable face, Radamel Falcao, and one that had no previous pedigree in tournament football.
The point is that dark horse is a term so broad as to be almost useless.
Does it mean a team that can be expected to do rather better than its history and place in football's century-old firmament suggest? Is it one that might, despite the presence of rivals with far deeper resources and far grander ambitions, end up actually winning the thing? Or is it a side like Germany, France or the Netherlands that is not among the first gaggle of favourites but could emerge as the winner?
This sounds like semantics or nitpicking, but the difference in definition is crucial when it comes to examining the team that has become the tournament's official dark horse: Chile.
Jorge Sampaoli's team has made quite an impression since it arrived in Brazil. Chile beat a dogged, determined Australia side in their opening game and then put the Spanish to the sword, a performance that attracted effusive praise from no less an authority than Jose Mourinho. "They are a team," said the Chelsea manager, "who know precisely what they want to do."
At that point, the timbre of the way they were covered changed. Suddenly, they went from outside chance to do rather better than we might ordinarily expect them to -- an equivalent to Colombia -- to a team that was suddenly considered a possible victor.
That has a significant effect not just outside a squad, but within it too.
Sampaoli has spent much of the past year attempting to stem the tide of natural enthusiasm that had swept over his side. "Given the teams that we will be up against, it is not logical to think we will be candidates to win it," he said in December. "History tells us that things tend to fall into place, and the logical candidates are the usual suspects. It does make me a bit uncomfortable that the fans think I am capable of making Chile win a World Cup, because it is not realistic."
In England, this has become known as managing expectations, and it is often met with a sneer and an accusation that it is an admission of failure. This is unfair.
Instead, it can be a legitimate attempt to make sure your supporters are not heading for an inevitable disappointment that can cloud even the most seismic achievement and -- possibly more importantly -- that your players do not feel suffocated by an unaccustomed pressure.
That is what Sampaoli was trying to do. Like any coach, he traveled to Brazil in hope -- "surprise results could give Chile the chance to get in the mix," he said in the same interview with Fifa.com -- but he is smart enough to know that Chile's ambitions are a little less gilded. A place in the quarterfinals would represent an impressive return.
The problem, for Sampaoli, was that his team went and spoiled it all by being brilliant, arguably the finest side in the tournament to watch, the sort of outfit that impresses everyone and anyone with its intensity, speed, energy, intelligence and style. That win against Spain blew any notion of managing expectations out of the window. Suddenly, Chile were viewed as a possible champion, precisely the atmosphere that the manager did not want.
It seems counterintuitive to suggest it, then, but perhaps losing their final group game against the Netherlands is not such a bad thing.
Yes, it will dent their burgeoning confidence, and yes, it sets up a last 16 meeting with Brazil. Playing the hosts would be tough enough for anyone, let alone a side whose history is littered with collapses against the Canarinho. Chile have beaten Brazil only once in the past two decades.
They were knocked out of the 2010 World Cup by Dunga's side in the first knockout round, and the highly esteemed side containing Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas that made it to France 1998 was dispatched in similarly authoritative style at the same stage.
History suggests that losing to the Dutch will put an end to Chile's stay in this World Cup because -- as any Brazilian will tell you -- they are bewitched by the Seleçao.
But there is a flip side.
Chile were not embarrassed by the Dutch. Sampaoli will be able to tell his players that they have proved they can live with the best teams in this tournament, and he will be able to mean it. He will also -- correctly -- point to the fact that, for all the fervour of their vast and raucous support, there is a good chance that Brazil simply are not as good as the Dutch. There has certainly been little to suggest they are thus far.
More significantly, though, it will dampen those smouldering expectations, just a little. It means Chile can revert to a role they find infinitely more comfortable: that of the first type of dark horse, the team under no pressure to deliver the trophy that can hope to achieve rather more than it might ordinarily be expected to.
"Maybe," said Sampaoli, after the victory against Spain, "we are the rebels of this tournament."
That is how he wants his team to be seen -- as the upstarts, the mavericks, taking on the old, traditional powers. That is how we can start to see them, once more, now that the Dutch have issued a gentle reminder of the natural order of things. Chile are far more comfortable in the role of rebels. Their brief stay as part of the establishment did not suit them.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.