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Fiery Chile combats not just top opponent, but history in facing Brazil

Chile's Alexis Sanchez (7) will hope for more celebratory slides against World Cup host Brazil in Saturday's knockout-stage encounter. Photo: Clive Mason/FIFA/Getty Images

Chile's Alexis Sanchez (7) will hope for more celebratory slides against World Cup host Brazil in Saturday's knockout-stage encounter.

Past record often has little bearing on the present. What, really, does a defeat 40 years ago have to do with the present? And yet there are times when a head-to-head is so startling, so contrary to expectations, that it does seem to mean something.

Chile has played Brazil 70 times, going back to the first meeting, a 1-1 draw on 8 July 1916. It was won only only eight occasions. Of course you’d expect Brazil to have the upper hand, particularly given the occasional deserts in Chile’s footballing history, but a 50-8 record with 12 draws seems excessive. The recent record is particularly striking.

In the past 20 years, Chile has played Brazil 16 times. It has won just once: in a World Cup qualifier at home in 2000. At the last World Cup, having impressed in the group stage as Marcelo Bielsa’s dynamic approach made them arguably the most watchable side in the tournament, it came up against Brazil in the last 16 and capitulated, losing 3-0.

That’s the other notable thing about Chile’s results against Brazil: there are a number of big losses in there - a 6-0, a 5-0, two 4-0s, a 4-1 and four 3-0s in the past two decades. Chile appears to lack self-belief against Brazil. An inferiority complex perhaps makes sense in historical terms, and eradicating that might be the final part of the Bielsista revolution.

Chile’s football has never really had an identity. It’s never finished better than fourth at the Copa America and this is only the third time it’s moved beyond the group stage of the World Cup. While other South American nations boasted world titles and globally recognized stars, Chile wondered why more people hadn’t heard of the great defender Elias Figueroa.

What made it worse was that Chile wasn't a ‘new’ football nation, like Bolivia or Venezuela: It had been it it from the start, competing at the first Campeonato Sudamericana in 1916. Then came Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentine manager was appointed in 2007 and remained in the job for four years, instilling a thrilling style of aggressive, hard-pressing football. Suddenly Chile had a style, a way of playing that made neutrals take notice.

Part of the reason that Claudio Borghi, who succeeded Bielsa, was forced out of the job last year, was that he had tried to pull the team away from a Bielsista approach. When Chile replaced him, there was only one realistic candidate: Jorge Sampaoli, yet another Argentine, but one who was a self-professed “disciple” of Bielsa and had employed his methods to great success at Universidad de Chile, winning the Copa Sudamericana - only the second continental title ever won by a Chilean side.

Sampaoli is a bundle of energy on the touchline, fizzing about his technical area, wild eyes bulging, yet off the pitch he is softly spoken and thoughtful. When he was appointed last year, one of his first tasks was to travel to Europe to explain to disaffected players what he intended to do, to rekindle their passion for the national shirt.

His style of play, you suspect, was also an attraction: after all, this is a way of playing that has taken players from the likes of Cardiff City, Nottingham Forest and Wigan Athletic and molded them into a side capable of beating reigning world champion Spain.

“We will not change how we play,” Sampaoli insisted before the tournament. “We will not allow ourselves to be modified by our opponents. We have to want it more than opponents, to surpass them in spirit. We will go mano a mano against anyone. Our idea is to surprise opponents who are used to having opponents play against them in a certain way.”

His pre-tournament program included friendlies against Spain, Brazil, England and Germany, as though he wanted to convince his side, his “little rebels” as he puts it, that it could compete with the traditional powers. It lost to Brazil, of course, but only 2-1, and those games brought a morale-boosting win against England and good performances against Spain and Germany.

It was a risk: a string of heavy defeats would have shattered confidence. But Sampaoli believed in his players and they have responded to that: those friendlies might have cleared some of the old negativity. Even the 2-0 defeat to the Netherlands in the final group game didn’t seem to faze them, with Sampaoli claiming the moral high ground and criticizing the Dutch for what he saw as their negativity.

"We looked for victory, we wanted to win and we couldn't find a solution to a team that only defended and only aspired to long-range shots, not even counter-attacks,” he said. “This is a Chile that I am proud to be at the helm of, in spite of the fact that we didn't get a result. The courage of the squad is clear. They have their heads held high and they are getting ready for the round of 16.”

The question now is whether they believe enough to really take the game to Brazil.

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