VANCOUVER, BC – All eyes will be on Chile and host Brazil Saturday morning in the first game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Round of 16. And you won’t find many people paying closer attention than Pedro Morales, Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s Chilean Designated Player.
Morales, a native of Hualpen, Chile, has made 11 international appearances with the Chilean senior men’s national team. The gifted attacking midfielder hasn’t played for Chile since 2010, but he still follows the team closely and hopes of one day getting back into the mix.
Before the 2014 FIFA World Cup got underway this month, Morales told whitecapsfc.com he expected Chile to finish second in their group – and they did after picking up wins over Australia and defending champion Spain.
“I expected them to do well,” Morales said through a translator. “Their team is built with great players who play in top teams so I knew they would put in an excellent performance. And I think they’re only going to get better in the future.”
Though he’s just a fan for now, Morales said he has very fond memories of his time with the national team. He first represented Chile at the 2005 South American U-20 Championship in Colombia – a 10-team tournament that featured a 17-year-old Lionel Messi.
Morales, who was 19 at the time, found the back of the net in a 5-1 win over Ecuador and helped Chile finish fourth in the 10-team tournament. As a result, Chile claimed the region’s final berth in the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup (then known as the FIFA World Youth Championship).
And Morales made his mark again, this time scoring in a 7-0 rout over Honduras. Chile did not advance out of the group, however, finishing third behind star-studded Spain and Morocco.
“Those memories are really precious to me because it was a great experience getting to play abroad,” said Morales, who leads Whitecaps FC with six goals and five assists in 13 appearances this season.
It also helped him get noticed by Universidad de Chile, one of the country’s oldest and most popular clubs. And after impressing there, Morales earned his first call-up to the Chilean senior men’s national team under world-renowned Marcelo Bielsa in 2008.
Morales scores the goal of the tournament against Ivory Coast
That same year, Morales helped Chile finish second at the prestigious U-23 Toulon tournament in France. Not only was Morales named the second best player in the tournament, he also scored what was the voted as the best goal of the competition – a wonder strike from just inside half in the semifinal against Ivory Coast.
“The match was 0-0 at the time,” Morales recalled. “I always try to pay attention to what the goalkeeper is doing. Sometimes they tend to move further away from the goal and make little mistakes, which creates opportunities for me to score.”
Morales’ fondest memories with the national team, however, came later that year when he appeared in four qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The wins against Bolivia and Venezuela stand out in particular. Morales started both of those games and helped set up one of Chile’s two goals against Bolivia, smashing a 40-yard free kick off the crossbar before teammate Gary Medel slotted in the rebound.
Also of note, the game against Bolivia was played at La Paz Stadium, which at 3,600 metres above sea level is the highest-altitude stadium on the planet.
To put that in perspective, that is more than double the altitude of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado – the highest-altitude stadium in Major League Soccer, which also happens to be the location of Whitecaps FC’s match on Saturday.
“I wasn’t used to that kind of environment,” Morales said. “We didn’t have a lot of oxygen and flow to adapt to those conditions. Weather was not on our side.”
In the end, Chile finished second to only Brazil in the qualification table to secure their berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. As for Morales, he was named to Chile’s preliminary 30-squad, but was left off their final roster.
“I was among the best 30 players in the country who were eligible to be chosen,” said Morales, who scored three goals in 11 appearances with the senior national team. “For me, that was a privilege in itself. But as a football player of course it’s a hard moment when you can’t make it to the World Cup. I got a lot of support from my family so I feel blessed.”
Morales still has many friends on the team – he played with a number of them at Universidad de Chile – but none closer than Marcelo Diaz. In fact, Morales is the godfather of Diaz’s son and vice versa.
He’s also still very close with Medel – as is Whitecaps FC assistant coach Martyn Pert.
Pert was an assistant with Cardiff City last year when the English outfit acquired Medel from La Liga’s Sevilla for what was reported as a club record £11 million transfer fee. In fact, Pert was the one who recommended Medel when Cardiff City was looking for a defensive midfielder.
And since Pert speaks Spanish fluently, unlike most people in Cardiff, he and Medel quickly became close friends.
“We spent a lot of time together,” said Pert, who got a signed Medel Chile jersey for Whitecaps FC U-18 Residency midfielder Marco Bustos. “I helped him out with going to the dentist and all these types of things. And when we played games in Fulham, I stayed over in London with him with his girlfriend and my wife and we went out for dinner and stuff like that. I wouldn’t say I was just his coach. He’s a good guy and a good friend.”
They still keep in touch on a weekly basis. In fact, Pert said he sought Medel’s opinion when the ‘Caps were looking to sign Morales at the start of the season.
“Pedro played for Malaga and the national team so you kind of know about him already, but the character references certainly came from Gary,” Pert said. “I asked him about Pedro a lot and he spoke very highly of him.”
Thanks to his connection with Medel, the current ‘Caps assistant spent a week with the Chilean national team last year as they prepared for a friendly against England at Wembley Stadium – a match Chile ended up winning 2-0. He watched them train on a daily basis, mingled with the coaches and bumped shoulders with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal.
And he liked what he saw – so much so that he picked Chile as a darkhorse team to watch at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
“What impressed me the most was the style of play they try and instill in the game,” said Pert, who actually also spent a month with former Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa at La Liga side Athletic Bilbao. “Their pressing, quick passing and directness of their interplay is something they work on every day. I really enjoyed watching them. I thought they were very well prepared, so I knew they’d be a difficult opponent for teams.”
Pert said he suspects Morales has fallen off the Chilean national team radar because they’ve gone a little younger and boast “a lot of great players in his position.”
And those players will be in the spotlight this weekend against Brazil. Is it possible the Chileans could pull off an upset against the tournament favourites?
“People are saying history is going to repeat itself, because in the last World Cup we faced Brazil and got knocked out in the quarters,” Morales said. “But they’re going to put in a good performance. It’s going to be a tough battle.”
“I think Brazil might just have the edge, but I think it will be a close game,” Pert said. “They’re a team Brazil won’t want to play. That’s for sure.”
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