SANTIAGO: It feels like it’s now or never for Chile.
The Copa America host heads into Saturday’s final against Argentina with one of its best chances ever to finally break through with a major title.
Playing in front of the home crowd with an unprecedented generation of players, Chile has almost everything going its way. Another victory will be enough to give the nation the coveted title, and failure will feel like a huge missed opportunity.
Chile is playing in its first Copa America final in 28 years. It has never won one, instead coming runner-up four times, including at home in 1955.
“We are in the final and the Chilean people are happy, but we still haven’t won anything,” Chile playmaker Jorge Valdivia said.
Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela are the only South American teams yet to win the Copa America. Chile’s last final was in 1987, when it lost to Uruguay.
Chile’s Mauricio Isla, center, plays with the ball during a training session, in Santiago, Chile …
“For us, it’s a dream come true to be where we are,” said Chile’s Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli. “Now we need to be prepared for what’s ahead of us, which we know won’t be easy.”
In Chile’s way is Lionel Messi’s Argentina, which also has a lot at stake. Argentina hasn’t won a significant title since the 1993 Copa America in Ecuador. Even Messi, who was only a kid at the time, has won nearly everything with Barcelona but hasn’t succeeded with the national team.
Chile had a good World Cup in Brazil last year, playing well against the hosts in the round of 16 before being eliminated on penalties.
The nation has a great generation of players available to Sampaoli, including midfielder Arturo Vidal of Juventus, forward Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal, goalkeeper Claudio Bravo of Barcelona, striker Eduardo Vargas of Napoli, defensive midfielder Gary Medel of Inter Milan, defender Mauricio Isla of Juventus, and playmaker Matias Fernandez of Fiorentina.
Thanks to Sampaoli’s attacking style, Chile has been playing entertaining football. It has the tournament’s best offense with 13 goals in five matches, and the defense has been solid.
Chile opened with a 2-0 win over Ecuador, then tied Mexico 3-3, and closed the group stage with a 5-0 rout of Bolivia. By finishing first in its group, it avoided an early matchup against title favorites Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil. It eliminated defending champion Uruguay 1-0 in the quarterfinals, and beat Peru 2-1 in the semis.
Defender Gonzalo Jara was suspended from the tournament after provoking Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani by poking his behind in the quarters.
Chile almost missed Vidal earlier in the tournament after he crashed his Ferrari while driving drunk a day after one of the group matches. His driver’s license was suspended for four months, and he is expected to face additional charges for insulting police officers. Sampaoli allowed him to remain with the squad.
The final will be at Estadio Nacional in Santiago, where Chile has played all of its matches so far.