Are Chile's old guard ready for a Copa title defence?
The champions have named their weapons.
Chile, winners of the past two versions of the Copa America, have announced their squad for next month's tournament in Brazil. Of the 23 man party, over half went to the 2016 Centenary Copa -- and therein lies the problem.
Chile had a long wait to get their hands on the trophy, all the way from the inaugural Copa in 1916 to the 2015 competition, which they won as hosts. A year later they won the special tournament staged in the United States to celebrate a hundred years of the world's oldest continental competition. They had reached the top and soon discovered the old truth that if arriving at the summit is hard, staying there is harder still.
Chile failed to make the 2018 World Cup. Their golden generation had run out of steam. The bulk of the Chile side had come through the ranks together from the 2007 Under-20 World Cup. They were aging together, and they had been overplayed; the 2014 World Cup, two consecutive Copas, the 2017 Confederations Cup -- it all added up to years without a proper break, a schedule that appears to have had a disastrous effect on the career of Alexis Sanchez.
Chile were also running into the problem that historically has plagued all the lesser South American football nations. It happened to Peru after the 1970s, to Bolivia after USA 94, to Colombia in the mid-'90s; how to replace a magnificent generation, a group of players whose collective appearance on the scene has raised the bar of expectation.
Once Chile had fallen narrowly short of making it to Russia 2018, Colombian Reinaldo Rueda was a logical choice to coach the side. He has considerable World Cup experience, having taken both Honduras and Ecuador to the tournament. He won the 2016 Copa Libertadores in fine style with Atletico Nacional, and he made his name as a youth development specialist. He ticked all the boxes. But Rueda has had a tough time in charge of Chile.
No outstanding new talent has appeared to replace the old-timers. And the process of renewal has been made much harder by the lack of patience of the local press and public. There should be a general acceptance that results will suffer in the short term during the rebuilding process and results in international friendlies are hardly a priority.
But every defeat has been greeted with a flurry of media hysteria, and speculation that Rueda is about to be sacked. This is not an atmosphere conducive to the lengthy and problematic task of rebuilding a national side. In such circumstances it is understandable that Rueda has opted to play safe for his first competitive games. Indeed, for the last FIFA dates in March he even recalled defender Gonzalo Jara, one of the senior members of the old guard.
The one area in which there has been significant renewal is in goal. Manchester City's Claudio Bravo was the team captain. He has been discarded, both as a result of his inactivity at club level, and also because -- in a dressing room that has always been hard to handle -- he has fallen out with Arturo Vidal. The new keeper is Gabriel Arias, a naturalised Argentine.
Another newcomer, Guillermo Maripan, adds much needed height to the defensive unit. Arturo Sagal is an interesting striker attacking from wide spaces. In general then, the old guard are still leading the charge. And if this aging squad can successfully retain their title on Brazilian soil, it will clearly rank as the greatest achievement in the history of the Chile national team.
Chile's 2019 Copa America squad:
Goalkeepers: Gabriel Arias (Racing, Argentina), Bryan Cortes (Colo Colo), Yerko Urra (Huachipato)
Defenders: Mauricio Isla (Fenerbahce, Turkey), Gary Medel (Besiktas, Turkey), Guillermo Maripan (Alaves, Spain), Paulo Diaz (Al Ahli, U.A.E.), Jean Beausejour (Universidad de Chile), Gonzalo Jara (Estudiantes, Argentina), Oscar Opazo (Colo Colo), Igor Lichnovsky (Cruz Azul, Mexico)
Midfielders: Charles Aranguiz (Bayer Leverkusen, Germany), Arturo Vidal (Barcelona, Spain), Pablo Hernandez (Independiente, Argentina), Erick Pulgar (Bologna, Italy), Diego Valdes (Santos Laguna, Mexico), Esteban Pavez (Colo Colo)
Strikers: Nico Castillo (America, Mexico), Eduardo Vargas (Tigres, Mexico), Alexis Sanchez (Manchester United, England), Juan Pedro Fuenzalida (Universidad Catolica), Junior Fernandes (Antalyaspor, Turkey), Arturo Sagal (Pachuca, Mexico)