Copa América: Chile revived after missing World Cup

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              Chile's players, from left to right, Esteban Pavez, Arturo Vidal, Guillermo Maripan, Eduardo Vargas and Erick Pulgar celebrate beating Colombia 5-4 in a penalty kick shoot-out in a Copa America quarterfinal soccer match at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, June 28, 2019. Chile qualified to the semifinals of the South American soccer tournament. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
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PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) — Most thought Chile’s glory days were over when it failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Its golden generation was considered done and few expected “La Roja” to be capable of adding to the two Copa América titles it won in 2015 and 2016.

But nearly two years after Chile’s demoralizing elimination in World Cup qualifying, a squad with many of the players who participated in the team’s successful run has put Chile back in the hunt for a title.

Victory against Peru in Wednesday’s Copa América semifinal will leave Chile a game away from its third straight South American title, a feat no team has achieved in more than seven decades.

Chile has been under pressure since the day it failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia two years ago.

The team’s performances in friendlies under new coach Reinaldo Rueda were disappointing, and criticism grew in the lead-up to the Copa América, with local media and fans carrying few expectations ahead of the tournament in Brazil.

But the veterans from Chile’s consecutive Copa América triumphs — among them Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Alexis Sánchez — showed there was still more to come from that squad.

“We knew the best of Chile would eventually come out,” said the 32-year-old Vidal, who converted one of the penalties in Chile’s 5-4 shootout win over Colombia in the quarterfinals on Friday. “This generation is hungry to continue achieving great things.”

Chile is trying to become the second team to win three consecutive South American titles since Argentina from 1945-47.

Chile has 12 players from the squad that won the title in 2016, and nine were in the 2015 team that triumphed at home.

“Chile has consolidated this group of players who know how to be winners,” said the 62-year-old Rueda, a Colombian who took over the Chilean squad in the beginning of 2018 after having led Honduras in the 2010 World Cup and Ecuador in the 2014 World Cup.

Rueda made some changes that are finally starting to pay off, including the switch from a high defensive line that was setup far from the area to one that holds back more often and allows the team to be more dangerous while attacking through the flanks.

The team’s only loss in four matches at the Copa América came against Uruguay in the final group game, when Rueda rested some of his regular starters. In the quarterfinals, Chile got past a Colombian squad that had finished with the best group-stage campaign.

The Copa América results has helped Rueda gain the confidence of most Chilean fans, and only increased the support from his players.

“No one in the Chilean press believed in us,” Medel said. “This is all happening because of Rueda. He is a soccer master. He knows a lot, there’s a reason why he has won so much in his career. We are by his side until the end.”