Q & A
Football's biggest stars in the hot seat
You were born in Durban. How does it feel to be returning to your country of birth?
Very special. I was born in Durban and then lived in Johannesburg until I was 10, when we returned to Chile. I still have friends and family there. Many of them, like my dad’s sister and mum’s sister, came from Chile when I lived there and stayed. I took my holidays in South Africa last year and saw some of the stadiums. It will be wonderful for the country because people will have the chance to see how beautiful it is.
I was born in South Africa because my dad was a soccer player there. I have very happy memories of South Africa. The life is quite different in comparison with Chile. Everything is so far apart in South Africa so life revolved around the home, where we had a swimming pool and lots of games. I could never get bored there. In Chile, we played out in the street. We did not have as many presents, but we had many friends and played lots of football in the street.
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Did you ever consider playing for South Africa?
Not especially. They told me that I had a choice and that I could only play for one country. It was obvious to me that I was Chilean and so was my family. I have a special feeling for South Africa, but I’m Chilean.
What’s your earliest World Cup memory?
I can remember 1994, but 1998 much clearer because it was the last World Cup for which Chile qualified. We drew 2-2 against Italy in the first match. It was a great game and Marcelo Salas – a legendary Chilean player – scored both goals. We should have won – he referee made some mistakes.
We drew the second game against Austria and the third against Cameroon. That was enough to put Chile in round two, where we met Brazil. Chile lost 4-1, but if you’re going to go out against any team, it may as well be Brazil.
What are the expectations in Chile ahead of the World Cup?
They are very high because of the way we qualified. We finished second only to Brazil in a group of ten very strong teams. We have a fit, young side. We are confident that we can compete with the best in the World Cup. We’re expecting it to be more physical.
Chile have never beaten Spain, who play in your group.
Beating Spain would be very, very important. To get three points nobody expects would be heaven sent. It will be very difficult and I know how good Spain are because I’ve played so much in Spain. We know that they are the strongest team in the group, but we have nothing to lose.
We also play Honduras and Switzerland. People may think that we will qualify for the second round, but I think all three games will be very tough. Honduras have a lot of players who are playing in England. We play them first and it’s very important for us to win that game.
You have an Argentinian coach, Marcelo Bielsa...
People think he’s crazy, but in a special way. He’s a nice guy, but we never know what he is thinking. He can say hello to you and then not speak to you for days. He’s very dedicated, professional and strict in his approach. That’s important. He has completely turned around the fortunes of Chile and got us to a first World Cup finals in 12 years. He’s very popular in Chile because of this.
Which Chilean players should we watch out for?
Everybody is talking about Alexis Sanchez. He was a winger who became a striker. I think people will be talking about him after the World Cup. He’s still young and gaining in experience.
Who else? Hopefully me, man. I want to have a good World Cup and score some important goals.
What’s your lasting memory of your time in Liverpool?
I have nice memories of the Champions League, even though we lost the final against Milan. I’m proud to say that I played for Liverpool. I was not the player that I am now. I’m always thinking how life would be for me if I was still at Liverpool playing the way that I am now. I didn’t have the experience that I have now and I didn’t use my speed as I do now. That’s football. I had my chance and maybe I didn’t take it like I should have done, but I learned a lot from the experience. My team-mates were very good with me, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher especially.
You are nicknamed Speedy. How fast can you run 100 metres?
Everyone asks me that. I’ve never timed myself, but I remember that I was the quickest at Liverpool over 20 metres. I also held the Chilean record over 40 metres in the squad there. I would like to do 100 metres to know how fast I am.
How do you think England will do in South Africa?
They have always been one of the great teams in world football. They have underachieved, but I think they have improved a lot. I would not be surprised if they reached the final.
I know Stevie Gerrard and how good he is. He’s a great player; a leader who trains as he plays. For a footballer of his stature, you might expect him to be calm in training. No chance. He’s the best trainer at Liverpool.
Interview: June 2010.
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