SANTIAGO (AFP) - South American minnows Chile popped the Champagne corks Saturday as national team coach Marcelo Bielsa successfully guided his side through qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals.
Modest Chile's 4-2 defeat of Colombia means they become the third of four automatic qualifiers from the South America zone, after Brazil and Paraguay, to book their ticket to South Africa next summer.
Chile's first appearance at the footballing showpiece since France '98 will be savoured even more as a huge question mark continues to hover over Bielsa's native Argentina - considered, with Brazil, the continental giants.
Diego Maradona's Argentina side beat lowly Peru 2-1 Saturday thanks only to Martin Palermo's winner two minutes into second-half injury time.
Although that result left the former World Cup winners occupying the fourth and last spot reserved for automatic qualifiers in the 10-strong group, Argentina could still end up in fifth place and be forced into a play-off.
Argentina go into their final qualifier against Uruguay in Montevideo on Thursday with a one-point lead over their near neighbours and arch rivals.
Defeat or even a draw against Uruguay would leave Maradona's side facing a two-leg play-off against the fourth placed team from the CONCACAF (Central American) zone for a chance to go to the World Cup.
Chile meanwhile will head to South Africa hoping Bielsa, the Argentina coach from 1998 to 2004, can rekindle the small glories of 1998 when strike duo Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas helped Chile to the second round of the competition.
That was Chile's best result at the World Cup since the real glory days of 1962 when Chile, as hosts, finished third after beating Yugoslavia 1-0.
Even before they embark on that mission Bielsa's popularity has taken the country by storm.
Last week he was voted the best coach in the history of Chilean football by the readers of football magazine El Mercurio, and the country's President, Michelle Bachelet, has hailed him a "role model for youth" and praised his "ability to get results with hard work, discipline and enthusiasm".
Bielsa is known as "El Loco" (the Mad One) and his trademark disciplined approach means he is often marching up and down the touchline barking orders to his players.
With Chile, Bielsa has gone some way to reviving the 'total football' philosophy which became the trademark of Johan Cruyff's Holland side in the 1970s.
As a result, Bielsa's 4-3-3 formation with Chile has prompted them to play as a unit. Attacking and defending together has helped them win nine of their 17 matches, scoring 31 goals - second only to Brazil - but conceding a less impressive 22.
One of his favourite maxims is: "Every player, at whatever time in the match, has a good reason to be running somewhere. There is no reason whatsoever for a player to be standing still."
Chile's squad has a solid foundation of young players, such as livewire winger Alexis Sanchez, a 20-year-old who plays for Udinese, midfielders Carlos Carmona, 22, (Reggina), Matias Fernandez, 23, (Sporting Lisbon) and plenty of other such talents waiting in the wings.
Bielsa will go to South Africa hoping they can help him make amends for the crushing disappointment of 2002.
In Japan, Argentina failed at the first hurdle finishing third in group F behind Sweden and England. Bielsa only partly made amends two years later by leading Argentina to the Olympic gold.
|Coach: E. Lara|
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