Chile has a reasonably well established football history; the national team participated in the first ever World Cup in 1930, and in the 1962 tournament they finished in third place. Even so, you’re always up against it if you’re a South American nation that isn’t Brazil or Argentina. What gave Chile a fighting chance was that in Zamorano and Salas they had a strike force who were unfairly good at scoring goals. This was strictly an international partnership – they never partnered each other at club level – but, to put their quality into context you need to reflect on their domestic exploits.
I was watching quite a bit of Serie A football during the mid to late 90’s (we didn’t have Sky, so it was that or the Endsleigh League – Roberto Baggio or Ricky Otto – your move). Inter featured regularly, and although Ronaldo was the main attraction, Zamorano also stood out due to a remarkable display of pragmatism on his part. When Inter signed Ronaldo they gave him the number nine shirt, which had been Zamorano’s. A more fragile ego would have kicked up a fuss, but Zamorano decided to wear eighteen, with a plus sign inserted in between the numbers, like this: ‘1+8’ . There was no sulking, he worked tirelessly for Inter and scored some wonderful goals. Oh, and before Inter he spent four years at Real Madrid, which included a La Liga title. Not bad, eh? Over to, you Marcelo.
I first heard about Salas (career total: 248 goals in 453 appearances) when he was making a name for himself at River Plate (probably courtesy of some brief highlights on legendary 90’s programme, Trans World Sport). He was easy to remember due to his fetching nickname, El Matador – which sounded quite exotic, certainly not the kind of nickname you came across in England. Here, he’d have been called Salasy. His exploits for Chile and River Plate earned a move to Lazio in 1998, which was a pretty big deal at the time – this was the era of Nedved, Nesta, Veron, Vieri, and Crespo (it was, of course, followed by the era of bankruptcy). Salas definitely joined at the right time, before the money tap was turned off Lazio enjoyed the most successful period in their history, capped by a league and cup double in 1999-2000. Then he was off to Juventus, which should have been another memorable chapter, but was ultimately forgettable as injuries and poor from restricted his opportunities.
But, never mind that, this piece is about them as a pair, not as individuals. Zamorano was captain and leader of the national team, winning 69 caps and scoring 34 goals. And Salas was their lethal hit man threat, scoring 37 goals in 71 appearances. It was the 1998 World Cup that presented Chile with an opportunity to test their goal scorers on the biggest stage. The national team had been banned from qualifying for the 1994 tournament – apparently for trying to get a crucial qualifier for the 1990 tournament abandoned. So, the tournament in France must have been a long time coming, especially for Zamorano, who made his debut for Chile in 1987 (Salas is seven years younger and debuted in 1994).
Chile entered the qualification round for the 1998 tournament with Salas and Zamorano leading the line, and the pair didn’t disappoint. They qualified ahead of Peru on goal difference, but it wasn’t marginal – Chile finished with a difference of +14, the best of all the South American sides, while Peru’s was -1. That was the difference these two made to their team. In the space of a couple of games Salas scored a hat-trick against Columbia, and Zamorano hit five against Venezuela.
They warmed up for the World Cup proper with a visit to Wembley in May, 1998, and left with a ‘shock’ 2-0 win over England at Wembley. Salas scored both goals, one was a penalty, but the other was sensational. He beautifully controlled a long pass, taking the ball perfectly in his stride, then smashed a low volley into the corner, all in one movement. Check this out and watch the replays – hilariously good:
Salas continued his good form at the tournament in France, firing his side into a 2-1 lead against Italy in their opening group game, but a late penalty from Roberto Baggio salvaged a point for the Azzuri. It set the tone for their tournament – three games and three draws saw them scrape through in second place to face Brazil in the last sixteen. That didn’t work out so well (a 4-1 defeat), but Salas had netted four goals in four games, winning the Bronze Shoe (I didn’t know such a thing existed).
I’ll be honest, I have no idea what other talented Chilean players were around at the time, but the reason I watched Chile games in 98 was to see these two. The best thing about this partnership is that they both loved scoring goals – none of that Theirry Henry too cool to smile celebration for them. They celebrated goals like they mattered. They were the identity of their team and massively raised the profile of Chilean football.
Zamorano finished at Colo Colo, the club he supported as a boy, retiring in 2003. Salas finished his career at Universidad de Chile, his first club and the main rival of Zamorano’s Colo Colo; he retired in 2008. Never united at club level, but devastatingly prolific when partnered for Chile. They were as good a pair as you will see in international football.
So, here are some video highlights to showcase the magnificence of these two goal machines. I did find a video with goals from both strikers, but the creator had inexplicably chosen to use Scatman John as the soundtrack. I should warn you that the Zamorano video features a tedious Italian ballad, but for some reason I don’t mind that as a compliment to some football highlights, so maybe I’m the problem here? You can always hit mute. Enjoy.