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Chileans flocking to Liga MX

Liga MX
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Meet Chile's 'Pitbull' -- hard-tackling midfielder Gary Medel

Gary Medel, right, plays a crucial role for Chile as the team's physical enforcer.
Gary Medel, right, plays a crucial role for Chile as the team's physical enforcer.

"If I had not been a footballer, today I'd be a 'narcotraficante' [drug dealer]."

These are the words of Gary 'The Pitbull' Medel, Chile's most formidable defensive force -- and perhaps the country's most loved player, the inspiration behind the football federation's World Cup 2014 mascot of a dog with a mohawk hairstyle.

Of the close to 300 matches of his professional career, perhaps none sum up Gary Medel better than the 2010 Super Clasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate. Having scored the opener in one of football's most fearsome derbies, the short, thickset Chilean charged toward Los Xeneizes and in a surprising reverse, the towering pitch-side fence kept a player from the fans as he leapt upon it, rattling the wire mesh and barking "Vamo'! Vamo'!" toward the delirious home support.

'Pitbull' then set to work extinguishing River Plate's attacks with full-blooded challenges, ripped a scorcher into the back of the net to make it 2-0 and was sent off after a face push and a lunge off the ball.

This ability and aggression would divide fans and coaching staff when Medel -- named after Cooper rather than Lineker as is often quoted -- moved to Sevilla in 2011. Of his seven red cards at the club, the most memorable was against Atletico Madrid when he smashed a plastic chair to pieces in protest.

His move to the more physical Premier League fit like a glove, and his participation was a bright light in a gloomy 2013-14 season for Cardiff City.

Supporters took to the rampaging defensive midfielder instantly. He bagged a player of the month award and #GaryMedelFacts trended locally as dozens of fans paid tribute to the new signing with tweets like "Superman wears Gary Medel pajamas."

Allusions to the supernatural are not far off the mark -- in 2009 doctors could scarcely believe it when Medel survived being ejected through the windscreen of a speeding vehicle in a highway wreck.

What Medel's temperament often obscures, however, is the 26-year-old's ability with the ball at his feet. Like a poor man's Xavi on steroids, the barreling ball of muscular fury consistently achieves a pass completion rate above 90 percent. He managed 99 percent against Fulham in September in a match in which he won all of his five tackles.

That's why his underwhelming imprecision that led to Egypt's opener in a friendly Friday caused murmurs only because it was an exception to his normally impeccable distribution.

Former Chile U20 manager Jose Sulantay admitted coming close to making an error in judgment when scouting the player during a youth team match at Universidad Catolica -- a club whose crest Medel has tattooed on his chest. Sulantay described him as a "brave little boy" who never stopped running -- but it was only after his assistant reported back from a second match and insisted on the player's passing ability that Medel got the call up.

Chile's golden generation -- that of Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Mauricio Isla -- was introduced on the global stage at the 2007 U20 World Cup in Toronto, a tournament in which Medel led the charge to the semifinal against Argentina. He was sent off after a quarter hour for kicking the ball into Gabriel Mercado's chest as the player lay on the ground and Chile went on to lose 3-0. Medel told Canada's National Post that he was tasered in the back during an altercation with the police outside the stadium following the match.

Coaches have often found it difficult to see eye to eye with Medel in such moments, though the ones who are successful in getting the best out of the player recognize that asking him to calm down is like asking him not to breath.

Raised in northwest Santiago's undeserved barrio of La Palmilla, Medel witnessed violence on a regular basis. He was both assaulted and had guns drawn on him after matches with local team Club Sabino Aguad.

"Even though I have millions and millions, I'll always be from the barrio," he told Chilean paper La Cuarta.

It was the birth of his twins -- Gary and Alejandro -- at age 17 that made Medel pour everything he had into the possibility of making it as a professional. He did so knowing that natural ability was not enough -- as former coach Marcelo Bielsa once said, every time he goes into a tackle, "He puts his whole life into it."

The man loves his nickname so much he has a (quite indescribably ugly) pit bull tattooed onto his left shoulder. With a notable mention to Alexis Sanchez, few players can grab a game by the scruff of the neck in the way Medel does, fueled by an insatiable desire to win, and it's been that way since the beginning.

In his senior debut in 2008, Medel scored a phenomenal bicycle kick against Bolivia in a qualifier for the 2010 World Cup. That same year he set up the winner against Argentina -- the only time Chile has defeated its biggest rival in a qualifier -- and he went on to win honors as the best player of the group stages in South Africa, according to FIFA's Castrol Performance Index.

He was a rock in a weak defensive line throughout qualifying for the World Cup 2014, and last year he scored the goal that sent Chile through against Ecuador.

Football players are often guilty of reeling off cliches at press conferences, though last week when Medel said he was targeting the World Cup trophy, it sounded as though he truly meant it.

"We're going to fight for everything on the pitch, by attacking and attacking again," Medel said. "That's our style. We're not going to be knocked out in the group stages, we're going to be winners."