SANTIAGO, Chile — It was just over a year ago that South American flair and passion—from James Rodriguez and the rest of an exciting Colombian side to the din created by the traveling Argentinean masses, not to mention Brazil’s emotional histrionics—brought an unforgettable splash of drama and color to the World Cup. With apologies to Uruguay and Ecuador, the other of the continent’s fantastic Mundial four was Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile, which memorably dismantled Spain in the group stage before coming a thwack of a crossbar away from eliminating the hosts in the Round of 16.
Twelve months later at the Copa America, the stakes, and the pressure, are arguably even higher for Sampaoli’s men, who opened the Copa America with a 2–0 win over Ecuador on Thursday night. While past greats such as Elias Figueroa, the magnificent central defender considered by many to be the country’s best ever player, Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano have long been enshrined in Chilean soccer’s hall of fame, this is widely held to be the finest La Roja team of all time.
Added to that is the fact that Chile has never won the Copa America in the tournament’s 99-year history, and that Alexis Sanchez and company are playing at home, and it is easy to see why the expectations of a feverish local media and fanbase are sky high—so much so that Sampaoli considered taking his squad to Spain to prepare for the competition in order to escape the pressure at home.
The nerves that often come with such pressure may have explained the strangely muted mood when Chile and Ecuador took the field this evening, although the fans made plenty of noise when belting out a couple of extra verses of the national anthem in the a Capella style made famous during the World Cup. That, however, was where similarities with Brazil 2014 ended. The atmospheric, if somewhat dilapidated Estadio Nacional, so redolent of history both good (the stadium hosted the 1962 World Cup final, when a Garrincha-inspired Brazil beat Czechoslovakia 3–1) and abhorrent (it was here that some of the worst atrocities of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship took place), is a far cry from the gleaming, wildly expensive modern arenas of the World Cup.
Perhaps all the better for it. With standing fans leaning against the walls at the top of the grandstands, and refreshingly few giant jumbotrons or Pitbull pop anthems, this was a soccer occasion to reflect the spirit of a continent, rather than the glossy modern game: at times ramshackle, rarely affluent, but always passionate.
Unfortunately for the fans though, Chile’s play was also a little more home cooking than haute cuisine during an intriguing, but far from explosive, first half. Though Arturo Vidal, Mauricio Isla, Jorge Valdivia and Alexis Sanchez at times wove some pretty passing patterns, almost exclusively down the Ecuador left, too often the neat moves died on the boots or ankles of a visiting defense that occasionally looked harried but ultimately stood firm.
Sanchez went close twice in the opening minutes, first bursting clear into the box and rolling the ball past Alexander Dominguez’s right-hand post, then chipping softly into the goalkeeper’s grateful grasp. There were other chances too, notably when the marauding Isla curled a low shot wide after exchanging passes with the Arsenal talisman. But Chile has struggled for goals in recent friendlies against Iran, Brazil and El Salvador and again looked punchless in the first half here. For all the team’s gifted attacking midfielders, Sampaoli’s side seemed at times seemed to be missing the thrust of an out-and-out striker. Perhaps it was nerves, or the bitter cold, but the atmosphere remained subdued in the stands too.
Ecuador, meanwhile, after looking ragged at the beginning, soon settled down and was occasionally dangerous on the counter attack. Most of Gustavo Quinteros's team’s best moves came down the left, where Jefferson Montero gave Isla, never the sturdiest of defenders, a torrid time.
Sampaoli sought to address his side’s failings by bringing on Eduardo Vargas for the largely invisible Jean Beausejour at half time, but it was Ecuador that went closest to scoring when, shortly after the break, Montero pulled the ball back to Enner Valencia, who shot just wide with only Claudio Bravo to beat.
Suddenly the game and the crowd, if not the temperature, was warming up, and at the other end Vidal shot wide from outside the box. There were whistles from the stands as Dominguez took his time over goal kicks, and as Chile continued to look lively if impotent, the visitors, who with potentially easier games to come against Mexico and Bolivia would perhaps have been happy with a draw before the game, grew in confidence.
But when the goal finally came it went to the home side, when on 66 minutes Vidal wriggled free just inside the area and was hauled down by Bolaños for a penalty. The Juventus midfielder got up to stroke the spot-kick home and unleash some boisterous celebrations in the stands.
The restless Sampaoli, however, ceaselessly pacing his technical area, knew his side could not relax, and his barked warnings almost proved justified as the twisting, turning Montero continued to provide anxious moments and a dangerous Fidel Martinez cross evaded everyone. Ecuador’s best chance, as the home fans shrieked in panic, came with just nine minutes left, when Enner Valencia smacked a header against the bar.
Chile could only truly relax late on when Alexis Sanchez played in the substitute Vargas, who tucked the ball past Dominguez to clinch the victory. There was just enough time for Chile’s Matias Fernandez to earn a red card for going in hard on Paredes before the fans’ celebrations could begin in earnest. Given the pressures of the day, and the tough test provided by a doughty Ecuador side, it is no surprise that their shouts seemed to be flavored as much with relief as with jubilation.