Monday 01 June 2020, 15:00

Rueda: We're trying to restore Chile's status

  • Reinaldo Rueda hoping to take Chile back to the FIFA World Cup™ after 2018 failure

  • The 63-year-old took Honduras to the world finals in 2010 and Ecuador in 2014

  • Chile placed fourth in his first major tournament with La Roja

“It was a big blow for all of us.”

Chile’s FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifying campaign should be well under way by now. La Roja were due to visit Uruguay and host Colombia in their opening two matches in March, only for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to put international football on hold and leave Reinaldo Rueda and his men sitting on the sidelines.

“I hope football comes back. We need it,” said the Colombian coach. Yet despite the layoff, the man they call El Profe has been keeping busy with his coaching staff during lockdown. He fills his days planning; keeping tabs on his players and their fitness and personal circumstances; taking part in football forums and workshops; and even taking up some old hobbies.

He has also had the time to sit down and talk to about Chile’s need to return to the World Cup following their painful absence from Russia 2018, the generational handover that is already under way in the team, and his favourites to qualify for Qatar 2022. An expert in breathing new life into teams, Rueda has an exciting challenge ahead of him and gave us an exclusive interview to discuss it. How are you coping without football?

Reinaldo Rueda: It’s a new experience. Before this all happened, I was spending a lot more of my time every day with the coaching staff. We’d meet with the various departments at the training complex, do our planning together, go through the material we work with, prepare training sessions, edit videos and things like that. But now we’re doing all that online. We’re also taking part in training seminars. We’re reading. We’re exercising to relieve the stress. And we’re helping out with the housework.

Chile's head coach Reinaldo Rueda, looks a practice session

What are you doing to fill up your time at home?

I’m working on my English and I’m also spending a bit of time on the accordion, which I’ve had a soft spot for since I was a boy, with our Vallenato folk music in Colombia. Unfortunately, the neighbours have been complaining to me (laughs), so I’ve started taking precautions and closing my windows and doors before I start playing.

How are you getting on with your players?

For the first few weeks we kept a very close eye on them, especially the ones based in Europe. We called them to check on their health and wish them all the best. We then started sending them very short videos just to refresh their memories a little in terms of tactics and build a bit of confidence, reminding them of all the good times they’ve had with the national team. And we did this very respectfully because we’re aware that every club has its own ways of working.

The qualifying competition is on hold right now. How is the team coping with the layoff?

It’s been pretty traumatic because it’s been six, going on seven, months that we’ve hardly had any contact with the players, and here in Chile we didn’t have any competitive football between October and December – the November friendlies were cancelled because of the protests across the country.

It all depends now on when the leagues start up again. It’s going to be hard to get going again after so many weeks of inactivity, no matter how hard players and coaches have tried to maintain fitness levels. And then you’ve got to get ready to compete again on a psychological level. We need to build on what the clubs where our international players are based have been doing.

Are you concerned that this extended period without football will have an especially negative impact on the members of the so-called ‘golden generation’, who are not getting any younger?

It’s very tough but they’re pretty optimistic. Chilean players usually have long careers. They’re like wine; they get better with age and as the years go by they settle down. But there is wear and tear in this profession and a six-month layoff, for example, isn’t going to affect a 26-year-old in the same way as it does someone who’s 35 or 36. It’s going to have an impact.

You just hope that our big-name players can stay healthy and stay in the frame at their clubs, especially the ones playing abroad, because they’re finding it hard to hang on to their places.

Chile's manager Reinaldo Rueda instructs his players

One of the challenges facing you is to oversee the handover from one generation to the next. Are you planning to rest the likes of Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel and Alexis Sanchez?

To create a balanced team you need the wisdom and experience of your big names and the strength and enthusiasm of the youngsters. That’s the way forward, as we saw at the Copa America last year, where young players like Paulo Diaz, Erick Pulgar and Edgar Pasos came through.

We’ll just have to wait for football to return, see which players are at their best and start mapping out the journey to Qatar with the ones who are going to be better able to meet the demands of a World Cup. There’s not much point in talking about strategies right now, but I’m not ruling out giving young players their chance, while making the most of the maturity and experience of the senior players. We have to leave a legacy and sow the seeds for the immediate future of Chilean football.

Talking of the senior players, Claudio Bravo made his return to La Roja last year. Does having an old head like him around change the way you play?

There’s no question of that. It’s amazing how influential Claudio Bravo is and the stature he has in the national team because of the career he’s had and his intelligence on the pitch. We lost him for a year through injury, when he tore his Achilles, and I just hope he can bring all his ability and talent to bear. If we can have that, then it’s going to be vital for us. It’s what we’re hoping for. Nobody wants to leave the national team and that’s what it’s all going to come down to. I hope we see him between the posts in Qatar.

Claudio Bravo #1 of Chile host the trophy after defeating Argentina to win the Copa America Centenario

You specialise in taking teams to the World Cup, something you did with Honduras in 2010 and Ecuador in 2014 and are hoping to do now with Chile. Is there something about the challenge that appeals to you?

It’s a huge challenge because of the impact that failing to reach Russia had on a generation that had brought so much happiness to the country. 2018 was a very big blow for the people of Chile and we’re trying to take that pain away. The first thing we had to do was deal with the psychological wounds so that both the players and the fans could start believing again. What we’re trying to do here is restore the status Chile has had over the last few years.

The South American qualifiers are really tough and really challenging because of all the talented players there are, the geographical complexities and the national teams themselves. They’re very strong and there’s not much to choose between them. There are no 13-0 scorelines here or anything like that.

Are you going to stick your neck out and predict who’s going to Qatar?

We’ve got the Copa America as a benchmark, though it’s a short tournament and I’m not sure how reliable it is as a guide. Look at Uruguay, a big team who didn’t even make the last four. There’s not much to choose between the teams, but apart from us I admire Argentina for the fantastic job they’ve been doing.

Fourteen of the 23 players they took to the Copa America were new faces with big futures, players who have established themselves at the highest level and are leading players in the top leagues. Then you’ve got Uruguay, Brazil and Colombia. They’re four countries with a big pool of players to choose from and they’ve all been doing a good job too.