|ESPN.com: World Cup 2010||[Print without images]|
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- The best way to describe Mark Gonzalez's attitude after his team's historic win against Honduras last week was cautiously optimistic.
"I'd be lying if I said we were going to be champions," said Chile's Gonzalez, who was born in Durban, South Africa.
After Chile defeated the Swiss 1-0 on Monday on Gonzalez's game-winning header in the 75th minute at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Gonzalez has permission to readjust his goals. Before this tournament, Chile hadn't won a World Cup match in 48 years, and now after two victories, the Chileans seem virtually assured a spot in the treasured final 16. Chile, at worst, will head into its Group H finale against Spain needing just a point to secure a place in the knockout stages, depending on the outcome of the Honduras-Spain match. The Chileans haven't ventured deep into World Cup play since 1962, when the South Americans earned a third-place finish -- their best in World Cup history.
The Chileans have become quite a story -- maybe even the best story of the tournament. An earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country in February, causing an estimated $1 billion in damage. Nearly 700 lives were lost, and two million people were displaced. That has not prevented thousands of Chileans from coming to South Africa to support their team, as was evidenced by the several thousand that traveled to Port Elizabeth.
And judging by the way the South Africans staunchly supported Chile in Port Elizabeth, maybe they will become South Africa's adopted team, since their beloved Bafana Bafana appear to be on the way out.
That Gonzalez was the one to continue Chile's improbable World Cup run is especially fitting. It was an unlikely goal, from an unlikely contributor, against a most unlikely team. Before Gonzalez's second-half score, the Swiss had not surrendered a goal in a record 559 minutes.
Until Monday, Gonzalez's professional career had been largely rocky and nondescript.
The last time Gonzalez played with the Chilean team, his contributions were less than memorable. Thought to be a promising player, he retired in protest from international soccer at just 21 years old after being expelled from Chile's team for having women in his hotel room after a match against Ireland.
Gonzalez played one year in the Premier League, but the results were far from satisfying. He was coming off an ACL injury when he arrived at Liverpool's club, and there he suffered other nagging injuries that eventually led the club to dismiss him after a mere 11 months.
Helping Chile make it this far, under these circumstances, is vindication for Gonzalez, who lived in Africa until he was 10 years old before moving to Chile with his mother. Now with his native country watching, and the Chileans looking to their national team for inspiration, Gonzalez has secured a place in the history of Chilean soccer.
"This team can do important things," Gonzalez said after beating the Hondurans.
With what they've shown so far, there is more than enough reason to believe they can.Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.