LED BY A COACH CALLED EL LOCO, CHILE MIGHT BE THE MOST INTERESTING TEAM IN GROUP H. THE RISING SOUTH AMERICAN POWER HAS A REPUTATION FOR LETHAL FINISHERS (SUCH AS Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano in the 1990s), and the latest is Humberto (Chupete) Suazo. The stocky forward, who stands a shade below 5' 7", has an uncanny ability to find the back of the net. This season he has scored five goals for his club in La Liga, Real Zaragoza, through April 4, and in World Cup qualification he made 10 goals for La Roja, the most in the South American group.
Furthermore, the Chilean offense that Suazo fronted scored 32 goals, second only to Brazil. (Of course, with its all-or-nothing style, Chile also conceded 22 goals.) La Roja won at Paraguay and scored a home victory over Argentina, the first time Chile had defeated the South American soccer power in qualifying. The win prompted the resignation of then Argentine coach Alfio Basile, who was eventually replaced by Diego Maradona.
Chile is a team that loves nothing more than to go forward. Besides Suazo, the offense features Mark (Speedy) González, the blazing left winger now with CSKA Moscow, and Alexis Sánchez, an attacking winger for Udinese in Italy's Serie A, who is known as El Niño Maravilla (the Wonder Boy). The squad is also the youngest of all the South American teams: Sánchez is 21; defender Gary Medel, who plays for the Buenos Aires club Boca Juniors, is 22; midfielder Carlos Carmona (Reggina in Italy's Serie B) is 23; and midfielder Matías Fernández (Sporting of Lisbon) turns 24 just before the World Cup.
Medel's intensity has earned him the nickname Chilean Gattuso, after AC Milan and Italy star Gennaro Gattuso, while Fernández, a playmaker and free-kick specialist, was the 2006 South American Footballer of the Year. Put them all together, and you have, as Spain manager Vicente del Bosque put it simply, "a great team."
The mastermind behind La Roja's rise in the FIFA World Ranking (Chile is currently No. 13, up from its 10-year low of No. 84 in December 2002) is the Madman himself, manager Marcelo Bielsa, a disciplinarian who barks orders up and down the sideline. In addition to bringing in younger players, Bielsa instituted a 3-4-3 formation that has helped the team play more as a unit without sacrificing flexibility and position switches—and, most important, produced more goals. Bielsa's critics, however, assert that Chile cannot defend against counterattacks; its obsession with moving forward often leaves it exposed in the back, despite the best efforts of defender-midfielder Arturo Vidal, who plays for Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen. Chile's goalie, Claudio Bravo, who keeps the net for Real Sociedad in Spain's second division, has star potential, but he'll be sorely tested by sharpshooters Fernando Torres and David Villa of Spain and, if he fully recovers from injury, Alexander Frei of Switzerland.
Bielsa's last appearance in the World Cup is one he would like to forget. When he coached his native Argentina in 2002, the team lost 1-0 to England and drew 1-1 with Sweden; the pretournament favorite to win the Cup did not get out of the first round. But, Bielsa told FIFA.com, "I'm not looking at this as a chance to get revenge for what happened to me in 2002. Nothing I can ever achieve in the future will make that sadness go away. The most important thing at a World Cup is to make sure the players are in top form, and that depends on so many different factors. Some of them you can control, but some are the result of everything the player has been through in the previous 10 months."
This, obviously, is the strength of the Chilean side, thanks to Suazo, who is deadly with possession in the box. Along with Sánchez and González, Chupete should give fits to defenses in the rest of Group H.
Fernández, an attacking midfielder, makes this talented unit go thanks to his ball control and dangerous free kicks. He gets help from Rodrigo Millar, Carlos Carmona and Jean Beausejour, though none of them are as offensive-minded as Fernández.