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Wednesday, June 16, 2010
A long time in coming, in many ways

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

NELSPRUIT, South Africa -- Will all due respect to the host country, Chile just made an impressive case for replacing South Africa as the World Cup's sentimental favorite.

The young Chileans beat Honduras 1-0 at Mbombela Stadium. It was Chile's first World Cup victory in 48 years and served as an inspirational moment for a country that was ravaged by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in February.

"It's extra motivation for us, knowing we have a whole country behind us," said midfielder Mark Gonzalez, who was born in Durban, South Africa. "Many people in Chile have lost their houses. They're suffering, and for us it's excellent motivation."

Consider this one of those special times when something as simple as sports can give an anguished country a much-needed dose of amnesia, and a reason to rally together.

Despite the enormous damage Chile suffered -- more than 700 people killed, nearly two million displaced and an estimated $1 billion in damage -- thousands of Chilean fans still made the trek to Nelspruit to support the national team, turning Mbombela Stadium into an imposing cascade of red. And if you count the number of South African fans who joined forces with the Chileans as the national team closed in on history, Mbombela was unabashedly pro-Chilean.

"We were very impressed with how many supporters came from Chile," Gonzalez said. "We felt like we were right at home."

It was difficult to gauge what to expect from Chile, even though the national team defeated Argentina in World Cup qualifying and finished a mere point behind powerful Brazil.

Once Chile was a lock for the World Cup, its preparations were understandably interrupted by the disasters, forcing it to cancel two games in March. With the country in the midst of such a challenging rebuilding process, no one could have faulted the Chilean players if they had been distracted. Likewise, no one would have faulted their fans if they had decided to sit this World Cup out after the earthquake, which registered as 700 times stronger than the quake that struck Haiti in January.

"We're a very young team," Gonzalez said, "but step by step, we've been making history."

Chile Earthquake
The February earthquake devastated Chile.

Chile's appearance in this World Cup broke a 28-year drought and ended the longest active winless streak at 13 games.

Not that an earthquake should ever be considered a good omen, but the most recent time Chile won a World Cup match, it was also dealing with a devastating quake.

In 1960, the country was ravaged by an earthquake that measured 9.5 on the Richter scale -- the most powerful one ever recorded. Complicating matters was the fact that Chile was slated to host the World Cup in 1962. The country not only kept the tournament but secured a third-place finish, its highest ever.

Might something similar happen again?

"I'd be lying if I said we're going to be champions," Gonzalez said. "We just want to reach as high as possible and do our best in the games."

Certainly the emotional fuel provided by the Chilean fans is an impossible intangible to measure, but judging by their passionate showing Tuesday, it can't be underestimated.

"This is like hope for us," said Chilean fan Felipe Molina-Marisio, who has burn marks sustained during the quake visible on his knuckles and forearms. "This World Cup is like a break for all the people in Chile. It's helping us pass a bad time."

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com