This summer the Copa América will celebrate it’s 100th birthday with the Centenario tournament in the United States. However, it was in the 99th year of the famous competition’s existence that one of the continent’s most significant sporting stories occurred.
Last year Chile ended their wait for a Copa América title, a wait which had been ticking away since the oldest continental football prize was born in 1916. Romantically, they did so inside their national stadium in Santiago, the country’s capital city which rests in the settings of the Andes Mountains. The victory will have gone some way to adapting the connotations of a stadium that has hosted scenes far less jubilant than those on 4 July 2015.
Whilst the blood ran through the veins of Alexis Sánchez, presumably at an icy cold temperature, as he stepped up to cutely dink home the winning penalty of the 2015 final, the Arsenal forward not only wrote an end to Chile’s 99-year wait for the trophy, but also wrote a brighter, happier and more peaceful new chapter for the Estadio Nacional.
Unlike today, the scariest thing about the Chilean nation in the 1970s was far more terrifying than Arturo Vidal’s hair, and more alarming than even the unexplained deaths of thousands of sardines that has required a temporary ban of the fish’s consumption. Back in that decade, the Cold War cast a shadow over the country as the stern face of communism rearing from the USSR met America’s glorified capitalism within Chile’s borders. Salvador Allende was the popular, openly elected and socialist president of the country as of 1970, but his ties with communism were predictably seen as a threat to capitalism by those 5,000 miles north of him in Washington DC.
America was eager to trample any threat to democracy in Chile, for Cold War paranoia was strong even with talk of a détente with their Soviet cousins. The result was a violent and CIA-backed coup which would overthrow Allende, who had been voted to rule Chile via democracy three years earlier. Clearly fond of irony, the White House continued to back the new regime, which was led by dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The dictatorship announced it’s plans for a ‘national reconstruction’, and set about banning Marxist, socialist and all left-wing political parties which had previously made up President Allende’s coalition government. Subsequently the human rights of many citizens were violated as a means of eliminating opposition in order to retain power and fight off any perceived threat of communism. Allende, in the face of defeat and upon realisation of handing power over to the dictatorship, committed suicide.
In the months that were to follow, Chile saw its worst violence of the military dictatorship, which would last until 1990. Thousands suspected of politically opposing the new regime became Desaparecidos, disappearing from the country by force of the military junta. Also disappearing – or often being turned into ashes – was any literature which contained views not shared by Pinochet, as his soldiers burnt anything of the sort.
Football was also at the forefront of Pinochet’s brutal rule. Chile’s national team would soon be attempting to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in a playoff against the USSR, as that often talked about ‘magic’ of a cup competition conjured up a fixture riddled with political complications. It was a match where more than just bookmakers were certain to lose out, regardless of which team won.
Relations between Chile and the Eastern European superpower were already souring. Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had reduced economic support for Allende’s regime dramatically before the Coup d’état on 11 September 1973, leaving Allende’s government vulnerable. After this date, and with a USA-friendly government installed, any ties with the USSR were instantly cut.
Despite murmurs of the ill-timed match not going ahead, Chile’s squad flew to Russia with aspirations that through football they could remain neutral and apolitical. Whilst the two nations played out a goalless game in Moscow for the first leg of the tie, occurrences back in Chile were much harder to witness than the bore draw a Russian crowd had just suffered.
The Estadio Nacional, the stadium in which elite modern day Chilean footballers and Gary Medel recently lifted the Copa América, was turned into a concentration camp for political prisoners. Many would be tortured and killed inside the same walls where legendary figures of the sport in Chile such as Carlos Caszely and Elías Figueroa had compelled fans with clinical finishing and world-class defending.
Behind goalposts where supporters had shared moments of elation stood innocent citizens, fearing for their lives. Stood on terraces that 25 years later would surround the pitch as Zamorano and Salas’s striking partnership took to it, were fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters facing death by dictatorship.
With citizens starved of not just hunger but also sleep, spread all over the terraces, interrogations happening in the dressing rooms and an array of horrors going on in and around the stadium, the USSR refused to play the return leg. Whether this decision was a noble attempt to protest against the travesties in Santiago, or an attempt at communist propaganda, it prompted FIFA to assess the stadium and decide whether it was up to hosting the crucial World Cup qualifier.
Shockingly (or maybe not) FIFA saw the arena with a blind eye to the horrors going on – even in a time before Sepp Blatter and Qatar World Cup bids. Prisoners were hidden, silenced by gunpoint, as atrocities were not so much swept under the rug, but under the country’s national stadium. The match went ahead. Well, some of it did.
Only Chile showed up to the fixture as their communist counterparts refused to attend. As a result, in a manner which would’ve been comical if it wasn’t for the circumstances, Chile played against no opponent other than a set of empty goalposts.
Some years later, one of the earlier mentioned stars of the era’s Chilean side, Carlos Caszely, spoke about the match which, until last summer, was the most famous in Chilean history: “It was a worldwide embarrassment,” said Caszely, an open supporter of left-wing politics in his country. The striker who scored 29 times in 49 caps for La Roja was one of many Chileans who spoke out against the regime.
Caszely, in the same interview with an American radio station, speaks about meeting Pinochet in person when the dictator greeted the squad before they flew to the 1974 World Cup in Germany: “When we were all standing there the doors open and there comes a guy with a cape, dark glasses, and a hat. A cold shiver went down my back from seeing this Hitler-like looking thing, with five guys behind him. When he started coming closer I put my hand behind me and didn’t give it to him.”
His resistance was ballsy. But typical of Pinochet’s reign of evil, he was punished. Olga Garrido, mother of the brave footballer, was arrested and tortured by the government in events believed to be related to her son’s protest.
There was to be no change in fortunes for Caszely, or the nation as a whole, as Chile were eliminated from that World Cup without winning a single game. Back home, the 40,000 political prisoners that were contained in the Estadio Nacional over time remained subject to torture, interrogation and execution.
Forty-two years on, the misuse that the stadium endured as one of Chile’s largest concentration camp is quite rightly still remembered, most eerily I’m sure by those old enough to remember the terrors of the past on their visits to the arena to cheer the national team on today.
Yet the triumph for Chile last summer, concluding in the very stadium where such juxtaposing events took place in it’s darker past, is the pinnacle of evidence that these are brighter times for Chile and their historic national stadium.