Juan Antonio Pizzi takes a risk in following Jorge Sampaoli as Chile boss
An Argentine centre-forward who played his football for Spain is taking charge of Chile's national team. Juan Antonio Pizzi steps into the slot vacated by the acrimonious resignation of Jorge Sampaoli. Other names were approached or touted -- almost all of them also from Argentina -- but they all declined, and it is easy to see why.
Sampaoli is a tough act to follow. Not only did he win Chile's first silverware (last year's Copa America title), he also turned his team into the neutral's favourites because of the style of their play: bold and intense, relentlessly throwing men forward. After Chile had beaten and eliminated reigning champions Spain from the last World Cup, defeated coach Vicente Del Bosque described Chile as "a team of 11 kamikazes." Recognition for both Sampaoli's success and his methods came when he was on recently on the podium as one of FIFA's coaches of the year.
Following that would be tough in any circumstances but especially now, when the team might well be passing its peak. By the time of the next World Cup, most of the senior players will be the other side of 30 and may well find it hard to reproduce the same level of physical intensity. The fear that Chile may be on the downward slope was surely a factor in Sampaoli's resignation, and in the reluctance of others to replace him.
Pizzi, though, is made of strong stuff. At the age of 18 he suffered a collision with a goalkeeper that cost him a kidney. Some advised an early end to a fledgling career, but he went on to star for Barcelona and with Gabriel Batistuta in the way as Argentina's centre forward, he ended up having a respectable international career with Spain instead.
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This will not be his first experience coaching in Chile, either. He had a fine time in charge of little Santiago Morning in 2009-10, then topping that with one of the local giants, Universidad Catolica, winning the league championship and also performing well in the Copa Libertadores.
The performance of Chile's clubs in South America's Champions League equivalent has been very disappointing in recent times but Pizzi's Catolica were one of the very few to buck the trend, reaching the quarterfinals in 2011 and coming agonisingly close to reaching the semifinals, too. More than anything else, it is that Libertadores campaign that has put him in the frame for the national team job.
His Universidad Catolica side mainly used a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a target man centre-forward (Lucas Pratto) up top. Pizzi used a similar scheme in a successful spell in Argentina with San Lorenzo, again with a target man up front. This, though, is a different way to the one in which Chile have been playing, with lithe, more mobile attackers such as Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas. It will be very interesting to see how Pizzi adapts to the resources available to him.
This summer's Copa Centenario in the U.S. gives him a useful opportunity to spend time with his players and work out the best way to go forward. But it also gives him a dilemma.
Chile played the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America last year. Now they have the Copa Centenario in 2016, the Confederations Cup following in 2017 and, if all goes well, the World Cup in Russia a year after that. Would it really be wise to subject an ageing group of players to five successive summers without a complete break? The risks of burn-out are obvious, especially bearing a mind a game plan that has always put such importance on physical intensity.
Pizzi, then, has a decision to take. But there are no doubts that he will want a full-strength for his first competitive game in charge, at home to Argentina in late March for the fifth round of World Cup qualification. It is a replay of last year's Copa America final and it pits Pizzi against the land of his birth -- an ideal start for the man who lost a kidney but who has shown plenty of heart.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.