Jury still out on Chile's adoption of Euro calendar

Posted by Tim Vickery

Esteban Garay/Getty ImagesUnlike their South American counterparts, Igor Lichvnosky and La Universidad de Chile had their fill of December and January fixtures.

The other European leagues are getting back to work, and English football is no longer the only show in town. It was for a while, though. Those Christmas and New Year games are an important part of the local tradition.

Some argue that it would be preferable to have a mid-winter break -- so that English clubs (and the national team) can suffer at the end of the season as a consequence of the lack of mid-campaign rest. It is certainly a point worth bearing in mind, though there are also clear marketing advantages in playing on while the competition is putting its feet up and opening the champagne. Anyone who wanted to watch football over the last couple of weeks had a choice of the Premier League and not much else.

And anyone who wants to watch first division football in South America at the moment only has one option. Usually there are none. January is high summer. Anyone who can gets out of the big cities, the hotbeds of football, and heads for a quieter coastal resort. Chile, though, is doing things differently.

The 2013-14 season is the first in which Chile is following the European calendar. The campaign continues to be divided into two separate championships: the Apertura (or Opening) played from mid-July until late December, and the Clausura (Closing), which kicked off on Friday and will go through to the end of April. This is a traditional South American scheme, aimed at ensuring a high level of interest throughout the year. If your team is not in contention for the first title, it is not long before another chance comes round. That, though, is where the tradition ends.

There is no longer a big January break. Indeed, the Chilean championship was the last on the continent to finish in 2013, with the final game in the play-offs taking place on Dec. 22. And it is by some distance the first to get going in 2014, a full month before the big kickoff in many of its neighbours.

The players, then, have lost out on any plans for a lengthy summer holiday. But has Chilean football gained much in return? There should be benefits once the Copa Libertadores -- South America's Champions League -- kicks off (the qualifying round begins on Jan 28, while the group phase proper gets going two weeks later). Ring rust is usually apparent in some of the early games. The Chilean clubs, meanwhile, should be up and running at full rhythm.

And the change also comes in a context where Chilean football has been making significant advances. The highly successful spell of Marcelo Bielsa as national team coach has had a spin-off effect on the club game, with his assistants and disciples playing prominent roles, allowing the country to develop a footballing identity it never had before.

Moreover, in comparison with a decade ago, stadiums and club administration are in a far better state. But there are no panaceas here. Following the European calendar does not automatically transform the Chilean championship into a rival for the big leagues on the other side of the Atlantic. Significantly, the big headline on the opening weekend of the Clausura was the hat-trick scored by Alexis Sanchez, Chile's finest player, in Barcelona's La Liga rout of Elche. The big names will continue to be lured away.

An example of the challenge ahead is supplied by the recent experience of club Huachipato, from the Talcahuano port in the greater Concepcion city, south of the capital of Santiago.

Just over a year ago, Huachipato won the championship -- only their second title in history. It qualified them for last year's Libertadores, where they failed to make it out of their group, but they nevertheless enjoyed some wonderful moments, winning and drawing away to Brazilian giants Gremio and Fluminense, respectively.

If they were operating in the context of Europe's Champions League, Huachipato could have counted on enough of a financial boost to keep them competitive. But the South American reality is different. Success comes at a price that is not always possible to pay. The club needs to dig deep to meet bonus payments, while its best players are in the shop window and are inevitably lured away. Performance suffers.

A year after running the lap of honour, Huachipato finished the 2013 Apertura on the bottom of the table. Their task in the recently started Clausura is to pick up enough points to avoid relegation to the second division, a quest which began badly on Friday with a 4-2 defeat to Santiago Wanderers.

Such roller-coaster instability might be exciting, but it speaks volumes for the lack of financial solidity of South American club football.

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