2011 has been a year that has seen a real re-evaluation of the traditional beliefs about South American football.
The Brazilian league may be by far the richest, and the Argentine league may export more players than any other country in the world, but each side could only boast one team apiece in the quarter-finals of the Copa Libertadores – the continent’s showpiece club competition.
Similarly, the Copa America points to the progression towards a level playing field; whilst there were the inevitable cries of disappointment and anguish from the Argentine and Brazillian perspectives, the real story was the development elsewhere – the advancement of nations like Venezuela and Peru.
Despite their marvellous showing at the 2010 World Cup, Chile have never won a Copa America. Considering the likes of Colombia, Peru and even Bolivia have, this is a source of embarrassment for fans of La Roja.
Fortunately, their national league is giving them increasing reason to be proud, just like the golden generation of the current national team is.
Perhaps due to the emergence of the special crop of Chileans like Arturo Vidal, Mauricio Isla and Alexis Sanchez; we have seen an increase in the amount of players from the Chilean league being picked up by richer leagues elsewhere.
Of course, talented Chileans are always going to end up moving abroad after impressing in their own league but there is an emerging trend of non-Chilean players using this league as a stepping stone having seen the successes of others.
Dario Conca may not be a household name with most fans of European football but he is in fact one of the top ten paid footballers on the planet, having recently moved to Guanghzhou Evergrande in China. He caught the eyes of the ludicrously bankrolled far-eastern outfit for his performances in Brazil, where the Argentine midfielder was named as best player in the Brazilian campeonato in 2009 whilst at Fluminense. He arrived in Brazil though, via a two-year spell with Universidad Católica in Chile, and shortly after him, compatriot Walter Montillo took the same route to Brazil – albeit via city rivals Universidad de Chile.
Recently, the best-known name to go to via Santiago to Europe would probably be Bundesliga champion Lucas Barrios. Born and raised in Argentina, he failed to score enough goals, even in the second tier of his homeland, and ended up in Chile with Cobreloa. Following a spectacular season of goalscoring with the mineros he was bought by Atlas in Mexico where he never really settled.
His return to Chile was with the league’s most successful club, Colo-Colo, where he blossomed into the feared penalty area striker he is known as now. Barrios scored 44 goals from 67 games in 18 months with los Albos and was signed by Borussia Dortmund where he led the line as BVB won the 2010/11 Bundesliga.
Tales like those of Barrios – a failure who came good - seem to be common for the Chilean league. Not even the most patriotic Chileno would claim it to be a really strong competition; it is heavily dominated by the big three – Universidad de Chile, Universidad Católica and Colo-Colo – but players who struggle in the other South American leagues have found themselves playing and succeeding there owing to a slightly different style of play.
The latest player to make the European move is Argentine striker Lucas Pratto, who despite not initially impressing at Universiad Católica (on loan from Boca Juniors), found some Copa Libertadores form that saw him finish level on goals with Neymar in tied 3rd place and he scored some vital domestic goals as UC finished top of the Apertura. With the Argentine giants awaiting his return to replace retiring legend Martín Palermo, la Católica exercised their option to purchase only to sell him to Serie A side Genoa the following day.
Pratto may or may not be a success in Italy, but what his signing shows is that European clubs are scouting the Chilean league as an untapped market. The subsequent income and investment in their domestic setup looks likely to only benefit the game on a national level and eventually, perhaps La Roja can capture that elusive Copa?