SAO PAULO – The Chilean national soccer team will begin defending its Copa America title on Monday against Japan, one of the teams invited to the tournament and a young squad looking to gain experience ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games.
The Group C match at Sao Paulo’s Morumbi stadium will be a clash between a veteran Chilean squad, with an age-average of over 28 years, and the youthful Japanese.
The fact that Chile won the title twice in a row in 2015 and 2016 makes it one of the contenders in Brazil, although recently it has been immersed in a process of remodeling the team.
Having failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Argentine coach Juan Antonio Pizzi stepped down and was replaced with Reinaldo Rueda of Colombia who has the mission of bringing new blood to the team and leading his players to the 2022 World Cup.
The squad, however, started to fall apart even before Rueda arrived in Chile, as team captain and historic goalkeeper Claudio Bravo cut off his relations with the backbone of the roster in the wake of a controversy that involved his wife and mother-in-law.
Rueda called up Bravo for friendlies, but the Manchester City player refused to join the team, putting an end to his career with the national squad.
Then the Colombian coach embarked on a tour looking for young players who could be the future of the national team.
He summoned several local and regional players, some of whom play in Mexico and a few from around the world, although the results were not so promising.
In the end, Chile kept the backbone of the team untouched, although the stars of the squad are aging.
Once again, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez, who will count on the support of outstanding players such as midfielder Charles Aranguiz and forward Eduardo Vargas, who was the top scorer in the Copa America tourney in both 2015 and 2016.
Among the new players who have joined the squad are Alaves defender Guillermo Maripan and Bologna midfielder Erick Pulgar.
Chile started its camp nearly a week ago at the training complex in Itu, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Sao Paulo.
Alexis’ physical condition remains a headache for the coach as the Manchester United player joined the team with an injured ankle.
He is expected to start the game, but it is not clear whether he will be able to play the whole 90 minutes.
The Japanese national team, meanwhile, is the biggest enigma of the tournament as coach Hajime Moriyasu has only kept a few of the 2018 World Cup roster and has called up several young players who are expected to play at the Tokyo Games.
Midfielder Takefusa Kubo, whom Real Madrid signed for Castilla, is set to steal the limelight, if he plays.
Japan: Ryosuke Kojima; Takehiro Tomiyasu, Kou Itakura, Daiki Sugioka, Tomoki Iwata; Shoya Nakajima, Gaku Shibasaki, Yuta Nakayama, Takefusa Kubo; Shinji Okazaki and Ayase Ueda.
Coach: Hajime Moriyasu.
Chile: Gabriel Arias; Mauricio Isla, Gary Medel, Guillermo Maripan, Jean Beausejour; Erick Pulgar, Charles Aranguiz, Arturo Vidal; Jose Pedro Fuenzalida, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas.
Coach: Reinaldo Rueda.
Referee: Mario Diaz de Vivar of Paraguay.
Venue: Sao Paulo’s Morumbi stadium.