Chile keep faith in journeymen in push to be crowned football's best
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- It's easy to assume that Chile are all about Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal, but the reality is that the two-time South American champions and Confederations Cup finalists are really defined by Eduardo Vargas and Jean Beausejour.
Every elite team needs its superstars, and Chile are blessed with the tenacity and potency of Sanchez and Vidal's endless energy in midfield. But while Germany, their Confederations Cup final opponents in Saint Petersburg on Sunday, typify a global footballing superpower with their production line of outstanding young talent, Chile are a team that is far more than the sum of its parts.
Take Vargas. The 27-year-old forward has been integral to Chile's success in Russia this past month, and also their Copa America triumphs in 2015 and 2016. He is quick, neat and tidy, with desire and work rate, but he spent five years struggling to make an impression in Europe with Napoli, Valencia, Queens Park Rangers and Hoffenheim before signing for Mexican outfit Tigres UANL in January.
Beausejour has a similar story. The 33-year-old had four unremarkable years in the Premier League with Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic before playing in those back-to-back Copa America successes in 2015 and 2016. They are classic journeymen footballers, players lacking the X factor to make them succeed at club level, yet when they pull on a Chile jersey, they are transformed. That is the success story of a team that, according to Arsenal forward Sanchez, is now the best in the world.
If they defeat world champions Germany at the Krestovsky Stadium on Sunday evening, then nobody will be able to argue with Sanchez's statement.
"We have proven ourselves on the pitch," Vidal said on Saturday. "We have beaten Argentina in the Copa America and Portugal in the semifinal here, so if we win on Sunday, maybe we will be the best team in the world."
Chile's emergence as a world power is a tribute to the spirit and unity within the squad, however. It perhaps has similarities to that fostered by Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, a group of outsiders surrounded by more powerful rivals -- Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, in Chile's case.
There is also the identity of a group of players who largely play their football outside of Chile. Only seven of Juan Antonio Pizzi's squad play in the domestic league, but some of those have played overseas: Gonzalo Jara spent five years in England with West Brom, Brighton and Nottingham Forest. Playing away from your homeland, joining up with teammates for the long flights back to South America, strengthens the bonds and patriotism that shines through this Chile squad, which still has seven survivors from the team that was eliminated from the 2010 World Cup by Spain.
"This is a team that has worked together for many years and it is definitely in our favour," Vidal said. "We have played two finals -- one against Argentina, who are one of the best teams in the world -- so we have experience, but we are hungry to keep winning.
"We are ambitious and want to keep winning and are desperate to win the Confederations Cup trophy for the people of Chile."
There is a "band of brothers" mentality, supported by Sanchez's claims of a "family togetherness" that was forged back in 2007 when Vidal, Sanchez, Gary Medel and Mauricio Isla formed the backbone of the Chile team that finished third in the Under-20 World Cup in Canada. Even then, Vidal had enough confidence in his teammates to declare they would one day become the world's best.
"I remember clearly when I said those words," he said. "Everybody was wondering what I was saying, but we had Alexis, Medel, Isla and others. The effort and attitude we had back then has allowed us to reach this final in Russia and win those Copa Americas.
"This tournament is a step to the World Cup, and if we win, it sends a message to the world that we are here to win it next year."
Chile have made it to the final after overcoming Portugal on penalties following a 0-0 draw in Kazan in the semifinal. The victory was another example of the Chileans' winning on penalties after a battle of attrition, a sign of their determination and never-say-die attitude. Coach Pizzi insists that their lack of goals or emphatic victories is merely a fact of life at the highest level.
"This team normally creates chances that leads to goals," Pizzi said. "I don't see that changing, but at this level, scoring opportunities become fewer and further between because of the level of the opponents. We can go toe-to-toe against any team at any level, but this will be the last stage of an intense month of competition against perhaps the greatest possible opponent.
"The first thing we should say is that it is going to be a very tough match. We have deserved to reach the final and have shown great quality, but we respect Germany completely and we have to produce our best possible football.
"I'm relaxed, content and pleased with our result because we have always tried to compete at our highest level and we have proven our ability to do that."
For Vidal, though, the game is all about winning -- for the team and for Chile.
"It is a source of pride to play for Chile with so many great players," said the Bayern Munich midfielder. "We have suffered a lot in our football, but through that, the best of Chilean football has come out. We have won two trophies with this group, but hopefully we can win a third tomorrow and more, because this team still has so many possibilities.
"All our hard work and victories are a message for all of Chile and our young players, who will see what it takes to win things."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_