Chile makes most of it

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

EDMONTON -- Their anthem was inadvertently cut short at every venue.

They had to traverse the country on four occasions -- more than any other team in the tournament.

They were on the wrong end of questionable officiating decisions in the semi-final, then got into an altercation with Toronto police boarding the team bus.

Yet for all their adversity and recent bad press in Canada, to Chileans both in this country and in South America, they'll be remembered as heroes.

A group of 18, 19 and 20-year-old players who united an entire population in their quest for a world championship.

They gave Chileans a reason to stand up and be proud.

"What we wanted to do here is give Chileans -- some that have not been back in over 30 years -- a little piece of the old country," head coach Jose Sulantay said early in the tournament. "We want them to experience something they can't experience here. Before this tournament started, we told all the players that they were not just representing those Chileans back home, but those who had to flee their homes and are now living here in Canada."

This team accomplished that.

The excitement in the fans was evident in spectacular displays of sight and sound everywhere Chile played, whether in Edmonton, Toronto or Montreal.

One of the big reasons for the success of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup was the Chileans, both on the field and in the stands.

Unfortunately a large part of it was ignored by some local media -- particularly in Edmonton -- who turned their backs on the event because it wasn't hockey.

Chile finished the tournament with five wins, a loss and a tie. They played some of the best soccer ever witnessed in this country. They played with flare, skill and a desire to continue scoring goals regardless of the situation.

This was supposed to be their year.

Heading into their semi-final against Argentina, the game was touted as one between heated rivals.

In reality, a rivalry occurs when both teams have traditionally shared the spoils. This instance was more comparable to little brother believing he could finally take on big brother.

The Boston Red Sox believing they could finally defeat the New York Yankees if you will.

That's why when Chile had a player sent off -- perceived unjustifiably -- 15 minutes into the semi-final, fans felt cheated out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The feeling escalated with every call that went against the team.

That's why players and coaches surrounded the referee after the game. That's why the officiating crew had to make a run for it to get past a hostile crowd -- which not only included Chileans. Neutrals were disappointed in the officiating.

Unfortunately many Canadians will remember Chile for the incident that occurred over an hour after the game as they boarded the team bus.

According to eyewitness accounts, it started when a player went to greet a group of fans behind a fence and ignored an overzealous security guard's orders to get on the bus.

Then after he was tackled and piled on, his teammates poured off the bus sparking the melee which resulted in one player being tasered and others pepper sprayed.

The event sparked an international incident, one that the Chilean community hopes doesn't get swept under the rug by the local police.

As a Chilean-Canadian, their outrage is understandable. It's the same outrage Canadians would have if the World Junior Hockey team was involved in an altercation with police overseas and one of their players was tasered while others were pepper sprayed.

Regardless, Chile was still able to bounce back and earn the bronze medal three days later.

It wasn't what they came after but it may ease the pain of falling short of the original goal.

"This was the minimum that we wanted to achieve," defender Nicolas Lorrondo told Chilean radio following their 1-0 win over Austria on Sunday.

"We're still upset about losing to Argentina in the semifinal, but we wanted to give something back to all our fans that have supported us here and in Chile. To us the goal was to make it to the final. It didn't work out that way but this is a bit of a consolation prize for us."

With World Cup qualifying just around the corner, Chileans believe this is a sign of things to come. The country has not participated in a World Cup since 1998 and this team has given them hope for 2010.

"This has been a long battle for us but we came out of it with some concrete lessons," Sulantay said. "We learned that you have to be prepared for a lot of things when playing in a tournament like this and realized the amount of strength you have to have both physically and psychologically.

"I think my players, the majority of them who play professional soccer, have earned a great deal of experience in this tournament."

It was a tough lesson to learn. But thanks for the memories.

Viva Chile.


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