South America is a haven for football scouts from all across Europe and further afield. Cast your gaze across European football’s landscape and most clubs posses a South American playing a prominent role in their team. Barcelona and Lionel Messi, Manchester City and Sergio Agüero, Napoli and Edison Cavani AC Milan and Thiago Silva to name but a few.
And one South American nation, more than most, are making extra room for scouts as interest in their players increase. But it is not the traditional giants of Brazil and Argentina or even Uruguay who have achieved so much with such a sparse population. It is Chile. The land of Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamarano, the Andes and Atacama, Colo Colo and Universidad de Chile.
It is a breeding ground of talented – and temperamental – footballers. The success of the Chilean national team in the last few years and more recently Universidad de Chile has brought attention to the world’s longest country. And within it there are a number of talented footballers waiting to break-out and join Mauricio Isla, Mauricio Pinilla, Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal, Jean Beausejour, Sebastián Pinto and more in the epicentre of football.
And already this summer one player with little playing time in the Primera División has been whisked away to La Liga by his representatives and the lure of European football. Despite reported interest from Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, Colo Colo’s supremely gifted forward Bryan Rabello opted to sign for Sevilla after his contract expired at the end of June, on the recommendation from his representatives who did not want the player to suffer at the hands of Colo Colo’s instability.
Even though Rabello has only played 20 first team games for Los Albos Sevilla have emerged with a significant coup considering they will pay around £400,000 for the 18-year-old; a prototype modern-day attacking midfielder. Standing at meagre 5ft 4in he has the low centre of gravity that is sought in playmaking midfielders.
He became the second youngest player to appear for Los Albos at the age of 16 and could be seen causing havoc to opposition defences with the Chile under-17s who he captained.
Despite his slender frame he is incredibly strong and with a rapid acceleration – with and without the ball – helping him dodge legal and illegal challenges. Playing for Chile’s youth teams he found himself positioned as a number 10 with freedom to roam the pitch, taking advantage of that pace, crossing ability and vision. But it is not just pace that helps him beat a defender he can throw them with a shake of the shoulders and shuffle of the hips.
Stationed on the left for his El Cacique Rabello is happy to take the ball surrounded by opposition players or with his back to goal. He is clearly not fazed by pressure as shown by his performances in the first-team since being reintroduced by former interim boss Luis Perez and rewarded with a recent call-up to Chile’s senior squad.
There have been comparisons to ex-Colo Colo creator and South American player of the year Matías Fernández. But Perez claims he is more dynamic and could be even better. An astounding thought.
Even with Rabello gone from the league there are still players with the talent to excite and light up the Primera Divisón Clausura. Two of which are Bryan Carrasco and the wonderfully named Kevin Harbottle.
The latter is the oldest player mentioned at 22 but arguably the most captivating to watch. Universidad Católica are Harbottle’s fifth side in four years and the player, who is similar to Rabello, was tipped to be one of the stars of the Apertura; 2012 being the year he finally illuminated the Primera División on a consistent basis rather than flickering sporadically. Yet it did not quite turn out as forecasted.
A fine showing in the opening game against Palestino where he was devastating, appearing in a number of attacking positions hinted at what was to come. But the wining goal was the only one he would score as Universidad Católica began to slowly but surely underachieve in the Copa Libertadores and Apertura with coach Mario Lepe criticised for negativity.
Harbottle would drift in and out the team whether it was due to poor performances, Lepe’s questionable selections or injuries as players such as 19-year-old striker Nicolás Castillo jumped ahead of him. A far cry from the player that exploded onto this writer’s radar with electrifying performances towards the end of the 2011 Clausura as Católica attempted to stop the Universidad de Chile juggernaut.
A diminutive figure – with British ancestry – and the most skilful on the list, he is of a similar stature to Rabello with a low centre of gravity and the ability to play in a number of attacking positions. His dribbling with his left-foot is Messi-esuqe, acting as a magnet to keep the ball close allowing him to weave in and out of challenges.
A goal apiece in the Clausura semi-final play-offs against rivals La U emphasised the different sides to his talent. One a ferocious shot from an acute angle the other a finesse pass guided into the corner.
If he can rediscover his promise and ingenuity under new Católica boss he can propel himself into the thoughts of European scouts and adding to his single Chile cap.
While Harbottle attempts to write his name into European scouts’ notepads the name of Bryan Carrasco will most likely have already featured. Destined to join Udinese in 2013, the Serie A side pulled out of the deal concluding a disappointing first half of 2012 for the 21-year-old Audax Italiano winger.
Football fans with a penchant for wacky YouTube videos may have come across Carrasco before; witnessing/laughing/cringing at this video. Playing for Chile’s under-20 team against Ecuador Carrasco grabs a hand of an opposition player and inexplicably punches himself in the face. An appealing ‘por favor Carrasco’ and the ensuing laughter from the commentators highlights the ridiculousness of the moment.
Yet away from the self-harm there is a raw and talented winger in Chile’s ranks. One who is fast and positive, when in full flow he resembles an old-fashioned winger; collecting the ball on the touchline before heading of on a direct run putting the opposition full-back on the back foot in an attempt to get to the by-line and swing a cross in with pace and added treachery.
Los Tanos often set-up in a 3-4-1-2, Carrasco playing on the right of the ‘4’ meaning he has greater defensive duties than a normal winger which has an effect on his attacking qualities. It is not to say he cannot play as a wing-back as he has the pace and stamina to cover a flank akin to Mauricio Isla and Matías Rodríguez. But he is at his best on the front foot as seen with the Chile under-20 side. If taking the full-back down the line is not an option he is comfortable going on the inside of the full-backs using his pace to avoid challenges as he keeps the ball firmly on his right-foot.
He is likely to stay in Chile for the rest of the year. But if he can find the form that accelerated him into the hands of Udinese there’ll be no short of offers from teams looking to freshen their side up in January.
Igor Lichnovsky is proving that it is not all about exciting, precocious attacking talents in Chile. Like Carrasco the 18-year-old defender has played his way into the interests of Serie A sides with Juventus and Inter Milan scouts impressed with his fleeting but solid displays in defence for Universidad de Chile.
‘The Pole’ – he is of Polish heritage – is a classy yet understated defender - the latter a feature that should be eminent in centre-backs. He has neither the background nor chutzpah of the others but what he does harness is a calmness which suggests there is an older head on his young shoulders.
He may not have played as many minutes as the other four players but he has excelled in many of the games he has featured – La U have won all nine Apertura games in which he has started.
In terms of his attributes he holds his position in the back three of La U very well while knowing exactly what is expected of him in terms of the team’s dynamic. He’s comfortable in possession, springing from defence and initiating attacks while never looking in awe when presented with difficulties, whether it is a strong forward or a quick and nimble one.
A future corner stone of the national team’s defence and sooner or later he could be joining the league that has served two of his favourite players – Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini – so well.
However most excitement in the Andean nation is reserved for 18-year-old striker Ángelo Henríquez. After all not every player has a first option clause in their contract with Manchester United; a deal worth £2.4m to La U and lasts until the end of 2013.
Having only turned 18 in April it would be reasonable to think that Henríquez would be used intermittently by La U coach Jorge Sampaoli as La U juggled domestic and continental competition. However with his talent it would be redundant. He is that good.
With Gustavo Canales and Eduardo Vargas leaving for pastures new in the winter transfer window La U needed someone to fill the void. Soon there was no need to worry as at 17 years of age Henríquez appeared from the bench in the Copa Libertadores against Argentines Godoy Cruz and thundered in his first goal for the club.
From that point onwards Ángelo would go on to show on a weekly basis exactly why there has been such interest in the player, scoring 14 goals in 24 starts.
In the last five months he has showed maturity and intelligence beyond his years. He is adept at dropping deep and involving himself in the team’s build-up which is essential in La U’s high tempo football and when out of possession he helps with the defensive side by closing down and pressurising the opposition. His eagerness can be taken too far as he tracks back further than is necessary.
But he is at his best in and around the box with his instinctive and expert movement. Superb at getting in front his marker in the box and also peeling off opposition defenders to get himself into a prime position to receive a ball played through the centre from the advanced or deep-lying playmaker.
A true bearing of his quality is the way he has not been overawed when playing in the Copa Libertadores. Instead, excelling in certain games and scoring four goals in the tournament.
Charles Aránguiz may be the Prince but Ángelo Henríquez will soon be the King of Chilean football.