On 4 July 2007, Chile’s head coach Nelson Acosta watched on as his team played out a goalless draw against Mexico to earn a place in the quarter-finals of the Copa América in Venezuela. With qualification secured and a three-day break before their next match, Acosta decided to allow his players to have the evening off. 

It proved to be a big mistake. 

The tales of what took place that night at the team hotel in the Caribbean port of Puerto La Cruz – the curfews broken, the alcohol consumed, the chairs smashed and the insults thrown – would quickly find their way back to Chile. The story would be splashed all over the front and back pages of the national newspapers the following day. The repercussions were swift: six members of the squad were immediately suspended and sent home in disgrace. Without them, Chile succumbed to a humiliating 6-1 quarter-final defeat to Brazil.

Sadly, the incident was not a one-off. A record of off-field indiscipline hung over this group of Chilean players. The scandal followed similar episodes during national team trips to Colombia and Ireland, episodes that had served to estrange the Chilean public from its national team, whose nickname – La Roja de Todos, or ‘Everybody’s Reds’ – had started to feel at best ironic and at worst downright insulting. 

By the time the events of July 2007 unfolded, Harold Mayne-Nicholls was already six months into his tenure as president of the Chilean football federation (FFC). The Fifa official and former journalist was painfully aware of the growing sense of disenchantment among the Chilean people regarding the state of their national team. Humiliation at the hands of Brazil was the last straw. Acosta was sacked. Mayne-Nicholls set about persuading Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa, the brilliant and enigmatic Argentinian coach whom he had first met back in 1992, to cross the Andes and replace him. Mayne-Nicholls’s decision would change Chilean football forever, kickstarting a process that would ultimately bring an end to over a century of failure and disappointment.

Despite producing such globally respected stars as Elias Figueroa, Carlos Caszely, Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas, Chile have repeatedly failed to reach their potential on the world stage. At the time of the events of Puerto La Cruz in 2007 it had been fully 45 years since La Roja had registered a win at the finals of a World Cup. The behaviour of their footballers in Venezuela may have provoked outrage back in their homeland but, in global terms, Chilean football had paled into insignificance.

There are many reasons for the underachievement of the Chilean national team. Protected on one side by the Andes and on the other by the Pacific Ocean, Chile is a country characterised by an island mentality. Nevertheless, the locals proved receptive to the sport of football when introduced to it at the end of the nineteenth century and Chile’s football federation, founded in 1895, is the second oldest in South America. But during the first half of the twentieth century, handicapped by its lack of an Atlantic coastline, the country’s footballers had much less exposure to the competitive demands and innovative playing styles brought over by European visitors to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Indeed it was not until 1962, when the country hosted the World Cup, that Chilean football really announced itself on the world stage. 

Unexpectedly, La Roja finished that home tournament in third place. It seemed that Chile were ready to join their regional rivals at the top table of world football. It was not to be, and the national team found itself going backwards over the following decade. Worse was to come, as Chile was suddenly isolated once more – in a political and sporting sense – following Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973. Faced with a prevailing sense of international hostility towards the military dictatorship, La Roja were once again deprived of regular opportunities to play against the best teams from beyond South America. Between 1973 and 1990, with Pinochet in power, Chile played just 10 matches outside of World Cups against European opposition. “For many years, the players didn’t have the required rhythm of competition,” explained the Chilean football historian Danilo Diaz. “This was partly because they didn’t play outside of Chile. The dictatorship hurt us because it isolated us too much. Nobody wanted to play against us.”

There were also other, more basic reasons for Chile’s on-field struggles in the decades that followed their home World Cup. Immediately following that third-place finish, the head coach Fernando Riera was inexplicably sacked. It was to prove symptomatic of the instability within the national set-up that has plagued La Roja’s progress ever since. Including caretaker managers, the position of Chile’s head coach changed hands on 28 occasions between the departure of Riera in 1962 and the next time La Roja reached the second round of a World Cup, under Nelson Acosta in 1998. During this period, not one coach who took charge of a World Cup campaign even survived long enough to lead the team at the following year’s Copa América1. “This is our history,” said Harold Mayne-Nicholls. “We create, and then deconstruct. And this habit means that we never have a permanent sporting project in place.”

The tide nevertheless seemed to have turned towards the end of the century, with Acosta granted the luxury of an uninterrupted four-year spell as head coach between 1996 and 2000. At last benefitting from some continuity within the coaching set-up, and spearheaded by Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas, the team followed up their respectable showing at France 98 by reaching the semi-finals of both the Copa América in 1999 and the Sydney Olympics in 20002. But, once again, the hope proved short-lived. Chile came rock bottom in the South American qualification tournament for the World Cup in 2002, finishing below the traditional regional whipping boys Venezuela and Bolivia. Unsurprisingly, it cost Acosta his job. By the time he had been brought back and sacked for a second time, in 2007, La Roja had missed out on another World Cup. As a nation, Chile were fading fast into footballing irrelevance.

According to the football author Braian Quezada, the constant changes to head coaches and regimes at the football association had resulted in a national team that lacked its own footballing identity. “Something was missing for a long time,” he explained. “Everyone knows how Argentina play, how Brazil play, and Uruguay, even Peru. But how do Chile play? That’s a question that, in the nineties, I would ask myself again and again. And I’d never find a reply.” Mayne-Nicholls disagrees, but only to an extent. “We knew how we played,” he insisted, “it’s just we didn’t like it! When we played away from home, everyone would be defending the goal. Ten at the back and one up front. While at home we’d just try to win by sheer force of will.”

Chile’s dismal away record in South American qualifiers certainly supports Mayne-Nicholls’s assessment. The Chileans had the reputation for being a light touch, even when travelling to play those weaker nations such as Bolivia and Venezuela. To take just one example, Acosta’s team played some wonderful football on the way to qualifying for France 98, with Zamorano and Salas playing out their own two-horse race to become South America’s top goalscorer. Yet even during that qualification tournament, they did not win a single away match. Chile qualified thanks to the seven wins and 25 goals they managed at home, but only picked up four points on the road. Had the World Cup-holders Brazil been involved in those qualifiers, it is not inconceivable that that fine generation of Chilean footballers would not even have boarded the plane to France.

The submissiveness that Chile displayed away from home also manifested itself almost every time they took to the field against South America’s two footballing giants, Brazil and Argentina. Even discounting the mismatches from the early part of the twentieth century, La Roja’s record against their two powerful Conmebol rivals is abject. Chile’s win percentage against Brazil has never risen above 10%. Worse still, prior to the World Cup in 2006, Chile had won just five friendlies out of their eighty official matches against Argentina. It is hard to escape the cliché that, in many matches, Chile’s players were beaten before they even took to the field. 

For the Chilean sports sociologist Andres Parra, such deference reflects a deeper national trait of subservience. “Historically, Chile’s rural dwellers have had very low self-esteem, above all in the face of the country’s very dominant – even abusive – landowners,” he said. In this regard, the years of dictatorship had left their scars. “It is also linked to the particularly strong presence of the armed forces. Chile’s history has repeatedly linked the armed forces with political life. There is a sense of obedience. The Chilean never protests, never complains, never makes demands and rarely goes on strike. At various points throughout their history, when Chileans have tried to rise up, they’ve been brutally repressed.” A study carried out by sports psychologist Gilson Dos Santos in the early nineties revealed that 75% of high-level Chilean sportsmen suffered from low self-esteem.

Parra also believes that certain events that have shaped the country’s national identity contribute to an apparent willingness to accept defeat. “Chile’s identity was built on certain military ‘triumphs’ but, in actual fact, they were defeats,” he said. “For example, at the Battle of Iquique, Chile was defeated. Two boats were sunk and the captain was killed. But it is celebrated with a public holiday here, for the courage shown! So it’s a sort of moral victory.” 

This national culture of the moral victory has long been associated with the national football team. Even after a draw or defeat, Chileans often look for tenuous signs of progress or extenuating circumstances to make their on-field failings easier to digest. The country has been known to celebrate draws against Brazil or Argentina as if they were victories, often pointing towards poor refereeing decisions that robbed them of victory. And on more than one occasion, despite returning from international tournaments empty-handed, the national team has been given a heroes’ welcome at La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago.

But a moral victory is, of course, just a euphemism for failure. The acceptance, and even embracing, of defeat that has traditionally characterised Chilean football is encapsulated by a phrase that became something of a slogan for the national team: jugamos como nunca, perdimos como siempre. We played as never before, we lost as always.

Mayne-Nicholls became president of the FFC in January 2007. “When I arrived, we did a nationwide survey and 81.6% of people said that the national team was capable of bringing all Chileans together as one,” he recalls. “So that became the main aim with the Chilean team: how are we going to unite all Chileans? How can we satisfy all those people who see the national team as a unifying force? It came from the people rather than from us.

“I went to see Bielsa and said I wanted him to come on board and that I wanted him to do three things for me: I wanted the players to have discipline, professionalism and humility… These three factors covered it all. That was the basis. And then the results on the pitch would come second.”

Given the fortunes of the national side, you might assume that the Chile job would have been something of a hard sell for Mayne-Nicholls. But although Chile’s senior team was going through another crisis, at least there was some promise being offered lower down the country’s footballing spectrum. Less than a week before La Roja were thrashed by Brazil in Venezuela, Chile had impressed in their opening match at the Under-20 World Cup in Canada, brushing aside the hosts 3-0. Their line-up that day included Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla, while Alexis Sánchez was an unused substitute. Over the coming weeks, these youngsters gave Chilean football fans some much-needed cause for cheer, progressing to the last four of the competition. 

Despite losing to Argentina in the semi-finals, Chile’s Under-20s had given the country’s football fans renewed hope. Just as importantly, Bielsa had seen that Chile’s players possessed the youth, pace and talent that he could mould to suit his vision of hard-pressing, high-energy football. He accepted Mayne-Nicholls’s offer and, on 10 August 2007, became the country’s new head coach.

Bielsa’s footballing ideology is based around what he refers to as protagonismo. This roughly translates as a willingness to take the initiative, to force the issue. He likes his teams to dominate possession and territory, to show a tremendous work rate and a healthy appetite for winning the ball back when possession is conceded. In some ways, imposing such a style of play on to a team that had previously lacked a clear identity would be the easy part. Yet Bielsa’s real challenge lay in trying to convince the players to take the field with the same positivity, regardless of opposition or venue. To do so would be to fight against psychological shortcomings and a defeatist mentality that had been decades in the making. 

Nonetheless, the new coach firmly believed that he had the resources to do so. “I feel more comfortable if the team that I’m coaching manages to spend more time attacking than defending,” he said in his first press conference. “[Chile has] the footballers to attempt such a project.” Nevertheless, Costa Rica’s La Nación newspaper perhaps best summed up how Bielsa’s latest project was viewed in many parts. Their headline read: “Marcelo Bielsa and his new madness: to bring protagonismo to the Chilean team”.

Bielsa and his backroom staff would start their overhaul of Chilean football by demanding the modernisation of the national team’s training facility, the Juan Pinto Durán football centre. Renovations included changes to the furniture, improvements to the training pitches, a new gym and a low-temperature chamber to help with jet lag. New television screens were installed, along with a cable service that gave the coaching staff access to broadcasts from all over the world. 

The goalkeeping coach Daniel Morón was put in charge of editing videos to facilitate analysis of potential players who might be called up. It was painstaking work, which Morón has subsequently blamed for the deterioration of his eyesight. “We would watch matches from the local leagues and from abroad, which meant editing videos until five o’clock in the morning,” he recalled in 2015. “To consider a new player [for selection], we would have to monitor him for at least 15 matches.”

When it came to hard work, however, Bielsa was more than ready to practise what he was preaching. The coach delivered public speeches all over Chile, raising in the order of half a million dollars, all of which was put into improving the facilities at Juan Pinto Durán. It was not long before word of such dedication to the cause started to spread. “There was always so much affection for Bielsa because he introduced a new way of working and, above all, a sense of ethics,” believes Danilo Diaz, one of the few Chilean journalists to have got to know Bielsa personally. “It was the sense of a job well done, of total commitment to what he was doing.”

Meanwhile, the Argentinian coach set about introducing his players to his demanding tactical concepts and intense, repetitive training methods. In games, Chile started to line up with three forwards for the first time in their modern history. Humberto Suazo, a pleasingly old-fashioned number nine with a good aerial game and an eye for goal, led the line following the international retirement of Marcelo Salas in late 2007. He was surrounded by a crop of exciting young attacking players – including Jorge Valdivia, Matías Fernández, Fabián Orellana and Luis Jiménez – who injected energy and pace into Bielsa’s favoured 3-3-1-3 system. 

From his first matches, Bielsa also fielded members of the Under-20 squad that had performed so well in Canada, including Medel, Vidal and Sánchez. In a qualifier away to Bolivia in June 2008, he put out a starting 11 with an average age of just 23 years. It would have previously been unthinkable to play such an inexperienced team in a competitive match – let alone in the altitude of La Paz where Chile had so often struggled in the past. Yet on the day, La Roja won 2-0. Both were scored by a 20 year-old Gary Medel. 

“He understood that the way Chile should play was fundamentally without fear,” explained Parra. “Throw yourself into battle. Don’t be anxious. It harks back to the cavalry charge. Not to go mad or to lose your head, but a way of attacking quickly and surprising the opposition. … And, above all, Bielsa took advantage of the speed of the Chilean player. This is how football is played on the streets here – with pace.”

However, although Chile soon started to play with more abandon and adventure, it would still take time to convince the public that this would necessarily be a recipe for success. The Argentinian coach is known for his reluctance to compromise either tactically or psychologically, and he wanted his players to show the same intransigence. Yet the dangers of such an approach were clear from his first competitive match in charge, as Chile went toe-to-toe with Argentina at the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires. Class and experience were to prove decisive, with Argentina winning 2-0 thanks to a brace from Juan Román Riquelme. The sense among the Chilean fans back at home was that their team had paid the price for not showing the Argentinians enough respect. 

But Bielsa would not back down and he would slowly win over players and fans alike. “He convinced them that they had to compete,” said Danilo Diaz. “He forced them to compete. The team started playing all of their friendlies against supposedly superior rivals. They dared to take on better teams, with the risks that this entailed. Above all, the risk of losing. But if they lost, they lost. There were never any excuses with Bielsa. He would always accept that Chile had been beaten by the better team and people liked that.” 

Mayne-Nicholls, agrees. “We brought in a coach who told them to fear no-one and told them to play the same way regardless of the opposition,” he said. “And he convinced them of this.”

Results were initially inconsistent. At the end of the first half of the qualifiers for South Africa 2010, Chile’s record read: Played 9, Won 4, Drawn 1, Lost 4. However, during the return fixtures, the new fearlessness demanded by Bielsa began to deliver spectacular results. La Roja qualified for the World Cup in style, finishing in second place, only one point behind Brazil. On the way, they recorded a series of particularly striking wins away from home, including their first victory against Peru in Lima for 24 years and their first triumph over Paraguay in Asunción for 28 years. 

No result, however, was more important than the match against Argentina in Santiago in October 2008. 98 years on from that first international friendly between the two teams, Chile finally recorded their first competitive win against Argentina. La Roja stamped their authority – and their protagonismo – on the game from the off, out-thinking and out-fighting their more celebrated opponents. The only goal of the game encapsulated Chile’s new-found confidence and dynamism, with Medel sprinting half the length of the pitch out of defence to cross for Orellana to score. “The moment when I really saw that people were happy was when we beat Argentina 1-0,” Mayne-Nicholls recalls. “I thought to myself: ‘Now we’re having the effect that the people want.’”

One player in particular stood out. “It was the best match Medel has ever played for the national team,” said Mayne-Nicholls. “He nullified Messi, never let him have a kick.” Previously considered to be exclusively a combative central midfielder, Medel had been reborn under Bielsa on the right side of a three-man defence. The redeployment was typical of the fresh thinking and innovation that Bielsa brought to the national set-up. His prodigious work ethic and stamina for poring over hours of footage meant that no stone was left unturned in his quest to improve his team. “He had the players taking part in training sessions of the highest order,” said Danilo Diaz. “And with his own experience at the top level, he was able to assess which players were good enough to compete. He spotted players whom nobody had considered, such as Gonzalo Jara. This was Bielsa’s great strength – he saw what others didn’t see.”

A perfect example of Bielsa’s audacity came as Chile secured their qualification for the World Cup a year later against Colombia. In the hostile atmosphere of the Estadio Atanasio Girardot in Medellín, he fielded a three-man defence consisting of the unheralded Waldo Ponce and two 22-year-old midfielders, Gary Medel and Arturo Vidal. His apparent folly was demonstrated after 14 minutes, as a mix-up between Medel and the goalkeeper Claudio Bravo ended up with Vidal awkwardly turning the ball into his own net. Yet Bielsa refused to take a backwards step. After 30 minutes, he sent on playmaker Jorge Valdivia to play behind his front three. Valdivia – a sublimely gifted attacker with an infuriating propensity for off-field indiscipline – produced an attacking masterclass. He scored one goal and had a direct involvement in the other three as Chile ran out 4-2 winners.

“It gives the team and the country a huge lift, because these are results that echo around the world,” said Braian Quezada. “They wound up the opposition too. After the win against Argentina in 2008, the Argentinians sacked their coach. So these results boost Chile, but they also have a negative effect on their rivals.”

With Chile’s performances vastly improved and qualification to South Africa 2010 secured, support around Chile had never been so strong for their national team and its idiosyncratic Argentinian coach. Bielsa had become a public icon, and not just for football fans. “He managed to transcend football into general life here,” said Quezada’s long-time collaborator, Carlos González. “The press presented Bielsa as an example to follow.” 

In return, Bielsa embraced Chilean culture. “I think the country suited him really well,” said Andrés Parra. “Bielsa has a very particular character. He’s introverted, quiet, but with a sharp sense of humour… He was committed to studying our theatre, culture and books. And for such a famous coach, he liked to talk to people. He would go to the bakery on the corner to buy his bread, or to the local market to buy his fruit and vegetables.” 

Following 12 years in the international wilderness, Chile were returning to the World Cup. And in a tournament otherwise notable for dour matches and defensive tactics, the high-octane approach of Bielsa’s youthful team was a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, Chile suffered from the absence of a fully-fit Humberto Suazo, their leading marksman who had ended the qualification tournament as South America’s top scorer. The single-goal victories over Honduras – that elusive first win at a World Cup since 1962 – and Switzerland were not necessarily an accurate reflection of two exciting attacking performances. And having qualified for the second round, despite a 2-1 loss against Spain, who would go on to win the title, Chile were ultimately dumped out of the tournament by Brazil. In a clash of tactical styles, Chile had no answer to Dunga’s pragmatic and well-drilled Seleçao who, in one of their more convincing performances under the former World Cup-winning captain, won 3-0.

Thanks to their exuberance and fearless commitment to attacking football, Chile’s squad – with an average age of just 26.4 years – had nonetheless caught the attention of football fans from around the world. Three years on from the incident in Puerto la Cruz, La Roja de Todos were the pride of a nation once more.

Regretfully, Marcelo Bielsa would not be around to lead that young squad into the exciting future that lay ahead of it. The elections to decide the next president of the Chilean FA, held in November 2010, turned into a two-month saga of protests, appeals and recriminations. Despite the progress made by the national team under his tenure, Mayne-Nicholls was ultimately defeated. From the start, Bielsa had warned that he would resign if Mayne-Nicholls was not re-elected. True to his word, he announced his departure following confirmation of the election results, on 3 February 2011. 

As he closed his final press conference, an uncharacteristically emotional Bielsa bade one last farewell to his adopted country, concluding, “I consider my three and a half years in Chile to have been a gift in life. I have learned to love life here. I’m proud to have lived in this land and I know for sure that, by leaving, I’m the one losing out. To all the football fans and, if I may, to the Chilean people in general, thank you all very much.”

Following a backwards step under the stewardship of Claudio Borghi, Chile were to pick up where Bielsa had left off with the arrival of Jorge Sampaoli in January 2013. Sampaoli, a self-confessed disciple of Bielsa, would lead La Roja to a stunning win over the European and world champions Spain at the 2014 World Cup, judged by Andres Parra to be “by some distance the most important match in the history of Chile’s national team”. Yet the best was still to come, with a first Copa América success at their home tournament in 2015. This would be followed by a second triumph at the Copa América Centenario, held in the USA last year, by which time Juan Antonio Pizzi had become the fourth successive Argentinian to be installed as head coach.

It may have been Bielsa’s fellow countrymen Sampaoli and Pizzi who ended up bringing silverware to Chile at last, but nobody in the country has forgotten what an impact El Loco made to their struggling national team. Speaking with Chileans now, their affection for him is apparent and undiminished. Indeed, when Mayne-Nicholls looks back on the project for La Roja that he initiated following the Copa América in 2007, he is convinced that Bielsa’s impact has spread beyond the confines of the football pitch. “This year marks 10 years since his arrival,” Mayne-Nicholls said, “and the social legacy that lasts to this day is that people still remember Bielsa the person, beyond how the team played. His legacy is to have transmitted values via sporting performance. There is still much affection and admiration for him.”

It even seems somewhat paradoxical that, at a time when the national team are enjoying a period of unprecedented success, Chileans prefer to look backwards with nostalgia for Bielsa’s spell in charge. The same cannot be said, for example, for Sampaoli. “Sampaoli administered what he found waiting for him,” said Carlos González, echoing the opinion of many. “He just took advantage of what was at his disposal.” The analysis is undoubtedly influenced to a certain degree by Sampaoli’s acrimonious departure from Chile in January 2016 but it also gives an indication of Bielsa’s impact. His true legacy may have been neither sporting nor social, but rather psychological. He convinced a new generation of Chilean footballers – and, importantly, a new generation of fans – that the country could compete with anyone, home and away. In doing so, he managed to start to reverse a national inferiority complex regarding football that had been nearly a century in the making: nowadays, whether up against Argentina, Brazil, Spain or anyone else, Chile fear nobody. 

Mayne-Nicholls tells the story of the Chilean players gathering together at the team’s training complex on 30 June 2015, three and a half years on from Bielsa’s departure. The previous evening, they had beaten Peru to reach the final of the Copa América, and now they were watching the second semi-final to find out who their opponents would be: Argentina or Paraguay. 

Worryingly, the Argentinians were running riot. Already 2-1 up at half-time, they fired in a further four goals after the break, shared between Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín. Lionel Messi ended the night with three assists. “And the Chilean players were celebrating the goals scored by Argentina!” said Mayne-Nicholls. “They were supporting Argentina… The people there were asking them if they’d gone crazy! Surely they would be better off playing Paraguay in the final? And the players replied, ‘No. We want to beat this lot. The Argentinians.’”

This one anecdote encapsulates the new-found self-belief that now permeates the Chilean national team, a self-belief that Bielsa played a central role in creating. Seven years earlier, Chile’s footballers had never even tasted victory against the country’s oldest rival in a competitive match; now here they were, actively relishing the thought of taking them on in the biggest match of their lives. 

Their confidence was not misplaced. Players such as Bravo, Medel, Vidal, Sánchez and Isla had been called up for Bielsa’s very first squad, way back in 2007. They all started that final in 2015 in which Chile defeated Argentina, just as they had predicted, and – following the repeat success in 2016 – all five are Copa América bicampeones. 

This summer, they will travel to Russia to take part in the Confederations Cup. It would take a brave man to bet against them adding another piece of silverware to their collection and reaffirming their status as Chile’s most decorated generation of footballers. Yet, regardless of who is coaching them, for many Chileans they are still associated with just one man. They are, and will forever remain, the Bielsa generation.