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Arsenal, Alexis and Chile: an uncomfortable threesome

tim stillman column

Arsenal fans have their hearts in their mouths this week with the news that Alexis Sánchez has suffered a ‘low grade muscular injury’ training with Chile. He will sit out La Roja’s key World Cup qualifier against Colombia in Barranquilla on Thursday evening. More worryingly for Arsenal fans, Alexis and Chile are still trying to get him fit for Tuesday evening’s match against Uruguay in Santiago, possibly exacerbating his condition further.

With a huge league game like Manchester United away on the horizon, anxiety is obviously high and many are frustrated with the player and his national side. As Arsenal fans, we see this through a distinctly Arsenal lens and we struggle to understand why the player would risk himself ahead of a crunch league game at Old Trafford. Equally, we are angry that Chile would risk his health for their benefit, when the Gunners have their own crucial fixtures to worry about.

There are a few key things to understand here. Now, at the best of times, Alexis has a thirst to play football that verges on self-sabotage. What we have to understand is that, whether we like it or not, Alexis almost certainly prizes playing for his country over playing for his club- be it Arsenal or otherwise. This is true of most South Americans. In the October qualifying round, Alexis’ Chilean teammate Arturo Vidal played with a twisted ankle and scored twice in a 2-1 victory over Peru.

There are uncorroborated whispers of a tense rivalry between Alexis and Vidal in Chile and Sanchez would not want to be unfavourably compared to his senior colleague. But in any case, regardless of Vidal’s feats, Alexis will want to play. For South Americans, representing one’s country is, generally speaking, a much bigger deal than it is for Europeans. Typically, international level South American players leave their continent at a young age to ply their trade in Europe.

As such, there is a kind of pride that their absence expediates, having resolved to display their talents far away at a young age. International breaks also afford them a chance to go home, to reconnect with their compatriots and their cultures, which are half forgotten when with their clubs. As club fans, we make the economic argument for the welfare of our players to take priority during international breaks.

What we forget is that these players are reared and developed in their home nations. Alexis’ first pair of football boots were a gift from the mayor of his hometown, Tocopilla. His talent was nurtured in Chile, so Chile has a moral right to at least partially benefit from his gifts, as do Chilean supporters. Players are acutely aware of this and it is very likely that Alexis understands this and wants to repay that gratitude to reconnect with Chilean fans.

I hope it does not sound ‘colonial’ as a European to say that South America and its football can often feel colonised and forgotten by Europe, so increased national pride is an understandable consequence in the region. Playing for Chile against Uruguay on Tuesday night will mean an awful lot to Sanchez. Probably more than playing for Arsenal at Old Trafford. The same is probably true for Arturo Vidal as he flits between Bayern Munich and La Roja.

But one also has to understand the intense, competitive structure of South American football too. World Cup qualifying lasts for three years. All ten South American sides play in a league format, where four qualify and one goes through to a playoff. It’s not like Europe, points are far more precious. The structure is such that at least one very good nation (and one perfectly decent one) will miss out on qualification altogether. At the moment, Chile is in huge danger of being that team.

Qualifying has not gone well for them, with disappointing results against the likes of Paraguay and Ecuador. (They drew 0-0 with lowly Bolivia too, but later had the game awarded to them 3-0 because Bolivia fielded an ineligible player). Chile need a good return of points against very strong Colombia and Uruguay sides, otherwise they stare failure to qualify in the face and their manager faces the sack. Along with Vidal, Alexis is comfortably La Roja’s best player. Chile start with Eduardo Vargas upfront, who cannot get a game at Hoffenheim, just as he couldn’t at QPR.

I am often asked on social media whether Chile will ever rest Alexis. The answer is no, for the same reason Arsenal don’t rest him for big games. In fact, the answer is more pronounced because his national side does not have anything approaching his quality in reserve. While CONMEBOL qualifying is a lot more competitive than UEFA, the calendar leaves little to no time for friendlies. Because qualifying takes three years and fixtures are always played in sequences of double headers, CONMEBOL countries only tend to play friendlies in the period immediately prior to tournaments.

So, frankly, there aren’t any games when teams can contemplate resting their star players. Every game is a competitive fixture and every point counts in a closely contested qualifying group. There is a good argument to say that CONMEBOL qualifying is the most exciting league in the world. Alexis will be desperate to play against Uruguay on Tuesday night for a huge range of reasons. We might not like them, but we have no choice but to accept them.

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