‘Fuera Borghi’ (Borghi out) was the message scrawled onto Chile’s Juan Pinto Durán training complex in Macul after the 3-1 defeat to Ecuador in the World Cup qualifier. Accompanied by ‘Vergüenza nacional’ (national shame) and ‘Ladrones’ (thieves), the message was clear: changes needed to be made as Borghi’s reputation had hit an all-time low amongst fans.
The messages appeared after that defeat to Ecuador and before the game against Argentina. La Roja went out against Argentina like a team possessed; hunting down the ball when they didn’t have it and rampant when they did. They moved the ball, down the wings, at electrifying speed, bombarding the Argentina rearguard with crosses. Yet their intense first-half pressure did not yield results, instead they trailed two goals to nil; the defence picked apart by what can only be described as a ‘dream’ frontline: Ángel di María, Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero and Lionel Messi.
The game finished 2-1 and Chile dropped out of CONMEBOL's World Cup play-off place, behind Venezuela and Uruguay on goal difference.
Rumours had surfaced before the match that Borghi had already decided his fate, that, win or lose, he would resign. Speculation continued in the days that followed. A large group of players, the ringleaders being Gary Medel, Matías Fernández and Alexis Sánchez, were said to have persuaded ‘Bichi’ out of quitting and promised the ANFP (Chile’s football federation) that they would qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.
Sergio Jadue, the ANFP’s president, is a firm supporter of Borghi but others within the federation felt differently. Before the ANFP had made an announcement, Borghi spoke to an Argentine radio station dismissing the rumours he was set to leave while vowing to improve La Roja’s situation. A statement from Jadue giving Borghi his backing soon followed.
But what about the Chilean press? Borghi arranged a press conference for 10am on Friday 19 October where he claimed he had to do so because the press got jealous and criticised them for never asking him questions about football; his feelings for the Chilean press can only be described as contemptuous. He begun the conference by telling the eager press pack, “My resignation never happened, I am tired of all your lies.” Before defiantly stating, “I have no doubt that we will qualify for the World Cup.”
Since replacing Marcelo Bielsa in February 2011, Borghi’s spell in charge has been fraught with controversy, both on and off the park. He has overseen 26 games, winning 11, drawing five and losing 10. However the last four games have brought four defeats, three of which have been competitive qualifiers; the first time Chile has lost three successive competitive games since 2001.
Anyone that witnessed Chile under Bielsa would have been left with a positive image of La Roja. ‘El loco’ transformed Chile into one of the most respected and enjoyable national sides in the world; finishing second in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. No mean feat considering the previous finishes had been last and seventh for the 2002 and 2006 editions respectively,
At a mundane World Cup Chile excited viewers playing a high-tempo brand of football based around pressing and attacking. Despite being knocked out by Brazil in the round of 16, Chile could return to Santiago with their heads held high. Chile fans celebrated the workings of Bielsa; rejoicing that the national side finally had an identity.
Despite spending a number of years playing and coaching in Chile – he coached Colo Colo to four consecutive league titles and a Copa Sudamericana final – Borghi has had a very tricky time working in the eminent shadow of Bielsa.
Question time: Bichi isn't enjoying the best of relationships with the local press
The 2011 Copa America presented the ideal moment for Chile to win their first tournament at senior level with Argentina and Brazil both going through transitional periods. Yet they were knocked out by Venezuela at the quarter-final stage.
Borghi had moved Chile from a direct side which seemed to play with a sense of organised chaos to a more patient approach, but with the onus still on attacking. You could say luck deserted La Roja in the Copa America, especially in front of goal, but it has become evident that the problem is still there, as witnessed in the defeat to Argentina.
‘Bichi’ has experimented. Not in friendly matches but competitive matches. In the away game against Argentina he showed naivety by going out to attack La Albiceleste, playing two strikers and two number 10’s. A heavy defeat was unsurprising. Then in Ecuador he played Alexis Sánchez as a lone striker. Both instances saw disorganised chaos.
The defence appears to be regressing, leading Bichi to lament the loss of Waldo Ponce through injury. The Universidad de Chile defender is seen by Borghi as the libero in his three-man defence. Therein lays one of the problems since taking over: selection issues. For the recent defeat to Argentina, Chile were missing four key centre backs; both through injuries and suspensions. Is it any wonder they have the joint-worst defensive record in qualifying?
Despite the selection problems he played West Bromwich Albion’s Gonzalo Jara at centre back alongside Marcos González, but with two attack-minded full-backs who left their defence exposed.
However, it hasn’t been his tactical mistakes that have brought about the fiercest criticism from journalists and fans, but the lack of discipline amongst the squad. Discounting the indiscipline on the field – five red cards in the 13 competitive games – which has had an effect on results, it’s the indiscipline off the field which has been most disconcerting.
Catch me if you can: Leo Mesi gives Chile the runaround
There have been a number of issues that crept up in the last 18 months but none bigger than the ‘Bautizazo’ scandal that prompted the 10-game suspension of five players. The five players in question – Jean Beausejour, Arturo Vidal, Carlos Carmona, Jorge Valdivia and Gonzalo Jara – were allowed to attend the christening of Valdivia’s son but returned late, possibly drunk. All but Valdivia, who accused Borghi of lying, apologised and has been frozen out of the national side which brought about an exchange of words between the two parties in the press during the build-up to the Ecuador match.
The Chilean press have suggested that Borghi needs to be stricter with his players due to the reoccurrence of indiscipline. A point that struck a chord with Borghi in his press conference: “You want me to return to a dictatorship. I will not do a military regime.”
Whilst Borghi is correct and the players are adults, the press were not just talking about the players’ behaviour. The national team are together for merely days and with little time between games it was a surprise that Borghi gave his players a day off between the defeats to Ecuador and Venezuela - not exactly the message fans and the press want to be seeing after such a terrible defeat.
But despite all the criticism, Borghi retains the fervent support of his players to the point that Arturo Vidal announced that he’d consider not playing for Chile if Borghi was sacked. While other players have not taken it that far they have pleaded for Borghi to stay.
How would a new man fare taking over La Roja with the country out of the qualifying places, a squad still in support of the previous manager and possibly missing a player like Vidal?
Without a special replacement available – think Jorge Sampaoli, Manuel Pellegrini and, dare I say it, Marcelo Bielsa – it is the sensible decision for the ANFP to support their manager but with appropriate conditions.
The conclusions gathered from a recent meeting with the ANFP board have not been made public but it’s expected that Borghi has been told to improve relations with the press – now at an all time low after he called them liars – and to improve the discipline within the squad.
If Borghi can find a better balance between the freedom he wants to give the players and a more authoritarian style, Chile can attempt to shake off the stigma of troublemakers and begin to live up to the potential everyone saw at the World Cup in South Africa.
His aim is to get La Roja to Brazil for the World Cup, and despite recent set-backs it is achievable in the last seven games – four of which are at home. There have been good results under Borghi, including away wins in La Paz against Bolivia and Venezuela. What is needed on the field is a settled side with a competent defence based around the qualities and pace of José Rojas. If that happens the quality in attack will score goals and Chile AND Borghi will be in Brazil in 2014.
Joel Sked is a journalism graduate, aspiring sports journalist and Chilean football enthusiast. Find all your football needs from the Andes to the Atacama at 'The Red One'.