China Cup title hints at promising future, sustained success for Chile

The past few years have been a golden time in the history of the Chilean national team. At last they have something to put in their trophy cabinet, winning both the 2015 Copa America and last year's Copa America Centenario. Before that the World Cups of 2010 and '14 were their top moments, with the exception of 1962 World Cup which they hosted and finished third at.

There are two explanations for this spell of success.

One is the idea of play introduced by Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine coach who took charge of the Chilean national team in 2007. Some three years earlier Elias Figueroa, one of Chile's all-time greats, explained to me that his country's football had a huge problem -- a lack of identity.

At different times they had tried to copy Argentina, or Brazil, or Germany. Starting in 2007, they began to be Chile. Bielsa's model of play -- bold, aggressive, high tempo football, constantly looking to create two against one situations down the flanks -- proved an excellent match with the type of players that Chile produces. They embraced the Bielsa plan as their own. His compatriot and disciple Jorge Sampaoli brought continuity and, with some refinements, led the team to that historic 2015 Copa win. His successor Juan Antonio Pizzi, also an Argentine, is a more conventional figure. But there is still plenty of the Bielsa/Sampaoli philosophy in La Roja's DNA.

The other explanation is that Bielsa took charge at exactly the right time. Chile had just reached the semifinals of the 2007 Under-20 World Cup in Canada. He was able to mould a generation of highly gifted players -- Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel, Mauricio Isla -- who remain the backbone of the national team. It is without doubt Chile's best ever generation. But therein lies the problem. What comes next?

The history of South American football is littered with sides that flowered only to shrink back because they were unable to replace an excellent group of players. Peru have never adequately replaced their 1970s generation, nor have Bolivia found substitutes for they key players who took them to USA 94. Colombia needed two decades to build a side as good as that of the late 80s and early 90s. And Chile are now approaching the same moment of truth. Come Russia 2018, assuming they qualify, Sanchez will be one of the very few key Chilean players under the age of 30. The time to think about renewal is arriving, and Sanchez is among those worried that his country will fall back as the likes of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia did before them.

Hence the importance of the China Cup, which Chile won on Sunday, first beating Croatia on penalties, before claiming the trophy with a 1-0 win over Iceland.

Coach Pizzi had been quick to accept the invitation to go to the Far East because he relished the chance to have a look at some fringe players and promising youngsters. With so many competitive games in South America over the last 18 months there has been little time for experimentation. He took a handful of experienced players with him -- left back Jean Beausejour, wide midfielder Jose Pedro Fuenzalida, central midfielder Carlos Carmona and striker Eduardo Vargas - to help provide some structure for the newcomers. And Pizzi is entitled to make the long flight home happy with what he has seen -- and not just because his team won the trophy.

True, there is little sign of a new Alexis Sanchez or Arturo Vidal. But Chile can now count on more strength in depth at centre-back, something of a problem position. The 22-year-old pair of Paulo Diaz and Guillermo Maripan did well. The classy Diaz has long shown promise but for a while found it hard to establish himself at club level, while the imposing Maripan only really made his club breakthrough last year. In these two games in China they did well both individually and as a pair. At 26, Oscar Opazo is too old for the "promising youngster" tag. But he, too, took his chance well and can now challenge Mauricio Isla for the attacking right-back role.

In central midfield Esteban Pavez looked solid and Pablo Galdames, who just turned 20, confirmed his promise. The two goalscorers will also look back on the tour with pleasure. Left footed Cesar Pinares scored with a wonderfully struck cross shot against Croatia, and the winner against Iceland came from a well-judged Angelo Sagal header.

Pizzi, then, has gained more options, and will be tempted to have a further look. Another chance is approaching. This June, Chile will be representing South America in the Confederations Cup, the dress rehearsal for Russia 2018.

The coach may well be tempted to rest some of the old guard. After all, his ageing squad have appeared in summer tournaments in each of the past three years, and Chile trust they will be back in action in the next World Cup. So it might make sense to give some of his stalwarts a proper summer break, and give another opportunity to those who went to China. His experimental team did well -- against a rookie Croatia side and Iceland. How might they fare in June against the African champions, Germany and Australia?