La U accomplishments unforgettable despite defeat
It is finally over. After 36 games, the unbeaten run of Universidad de Chile came to an end last Thursday when they went down 2-1 to Santiago rivals Universidad Catolica (an interesting side themselves - look out for right-back Stefano Magnasco and left-footed striker Kevin Harbottle).
The long awaited defeat of 'La U' (the previous one was in July) came in bizarre circumstances. At 1-1 and with the game in stoppage time, they looked in total control - until the usually excellent midfielder Marcelo Diaz misplaced a pass out of defence and Catolica's Jose Luis Villanueva fired in a cross shot to win the game.
Apart from ending the run, the goal was irrelevant. It came in the second leg of the semi-final of the Chilean championship, and was not enough to prevent La U marching into the final against Cobreloa, with first leg on Boxing Day and the return match on Thursday.
In truth, losing the unbeaten run was not a complete shock. La U achieved their main objective nearly two weeks ago, winning the Copa Sudamericana (Europa League equivalent) to claim their first international title. Perhaps inevitably, as the end of the season approaches the standard of their play has dropped.
They are strong favourites to overcome Cobreloa and win a 15th domestic championship, but opposing coach Nelson Acosta is a wily old fox, and will be planning a surprise or two.
In a way, the outcome hardly matters. What La U have done this year will not be forgotten in a hurry, and will surely be studied all around the continent.
The Universidad de Chile"s players show their Copa Sudamerica trophy to fans, as they stand on a balcony at La Moneda government palace in Santiago, Chile.
Earlier this month I was in the audience when Jordi Mestre, Barcelona's director in charge of youth development, gave a lecture at a conference of Brazilian coaches. What he had to say set the tone for the entire two days of the event, and his message takes on even more significance after the massacre of 18 December, when Barcelona barely broke sweat as they swatted aside South American champions Santos in the final of the World Club Cup.
Discussion after Mestre had spoken centred on some of the differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. He had outlined Barcelona's commitment to imparting humanistic values, which not only helped the future development of the many who do not make the grade at the highest level, but also helps ensure that those who go on to become stars do not behave like stars.
"We have a lot to learn from that," said Brazil national team coach Mano Menezes, who was also struck by another key plank of Barcelona's philosophy of formation.
Mestre made it clear that match results do not matter in youth development. From the youngest age group right the way up to the Barca B side, winning is never the priority.
"We can't live without results, even with our youth sides," said Menezes. The explanation for this is clear - youth coaches are badly paid in Brazil, and are looking to win titles to attract attention and move up to something more lucrative.
This ties in with another major difference identified by Menezes - Barcelona's work is long term. They have a way of playing and a philosophy of play that has been decades in the making. Mestre dated it to the late 1980s when Johann Cruyff took over as coach.
The club have a collective project. Menezes lamented that in Brazil there is no such thing. Projects are individual, depending on the philosophy of the coach. Then he gets sacked and a new direction is sought.
All of this makes Barcelona a difficult reference point for South American clubs. Conciliating the long term with the short is always a big problem in the management of a football club. Culture and conditions in South America will always give priority to the short term. How to make an impact now?
This is where Universidad de Chile come in, because Barcelona's humbling of Santos was not the only emblematic result involving a South American club in 2011.
That 36-game unbeaten run of La U includes wins against opponents from Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador. The most astonishing of which was in October, when they won 4-0 away to Flamengo of Brazil, and could easily have doubled the margin of victory.
Up against much wealthier and more prestigious rivals, La U destroyed them with a collective philosophy of play. In general terms, a good pass in football is one that gives the man receiving possession the option to play a first-time ball. This does not only need precision of passing, it needs the team to be compact.
Most of La U's passes fit this criteria. At full steam the team is one living, breathing unit, not broken up into attackers and defenders but with everyone participating both with and without the ball.
The quality of La U's play earned them the nickname 'the Barcelona of South America' - an exaggeration, but one which pays enormous tribute to electric little Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli. Unlike Barca boss Pep Guardiola, he is not the inheritor of a club philosophy.
True, Universidad de Chile seem to have a solid base behind them. After flirting with bankruptcy, they and some other Chilean clubs are now being run on business lines, and results have improved. Last year La U became the first Chilean club to reach the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores since 1997.
But that was a very different team with a very different playing style - Uruguayan coach Gerardo Pelusso played a counter-attacking game. After the Libertadores campaign key players were sold, results suffered and Pelusso left.
Sampaoli walked in and in a short space of time, with players he inherited, was able to mould his side to play in a completely different manner, one which has lit up the continent not just for the results it has produced, but for the eye-catching, swashbuckling style in which they have been achieved.
What he has done, others should be able to. The bar has been set for South American teams in 2012.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) Now that the Colombian national team manager has been let go, what are your thoughts? Is it too soon? They have a wonderful team, capable of winning against any of the other teams on a given day, but they lack consistency and surely a coaching change like this will add to the instability?
A) Lionel Alvarez has been sacked after one bad game, or perhaps one bad half - the second 45 minutes at home to Argentina last month. As his old mate Carlos Valderrama commented, all the Colombian FA seem to know how to do is sack coaches.
Valderrama and all the old timers seem to be agreed on one point. Colombia lack an identity, a collective philosophy of play. Changing coaches every three months is not the way to find one.