Political Hijack – Pinochet & The Soviets in World Cup War

It is often said that football and politics don’t go hand in hand. Authority and agenda tend to ruin the brilliance of the beautiful game. One such case was in Chile, in 1973, where sport and the general view of South American football was tarnished due to the heinousness of one man. September 11th is a black date in world history. The dark events the came to pass in New York in 2001 being the most obvious case. However, 28 years’ prior, Augusto Pinochet, along with the Chilean Armed Forces, over threw its leader, Salvador Allende, and seized control of the country. For the next 17 years, his dictatorship would rule with an iron fist. At the height of the Cold War, Pinochet chose to aggravate the Soviet Union, and just eleven days into his governance, those relations would cease completely.

But it was the football that saw the worst of Pinochet’s aims of leadership, and that was greatly evident when Chile played the Soviet Union in a crucial qualifier for the World Cup which was to be held in West Germany in 1974. Both countries had bumpy qualifying campaigns and were set to square off in a two-legged encounter to determine the final country that would participate for the greatest prize in football. The first game in Moscow finished goalless, amidst freezing temperatures. With everything up for grabs in the second leg, both teams were determined to make it through, but the Chilean people had a bigger problems to contend with.

Pinochet and the Chilean military were a much sterner government than that of Allende, and changed many of his reforms. In the most abhorrent of actions, Pinochet would initiate a brutal campaign against those who opposed his views that led to the deaths and disappearances of many. Santiago’s National Stadium – the country’s most prominent footballing arena, was used as the biggest detention centre in the country.

Torture inside the stadium was frequent; reports of blood, murder and broken bodies leaked out every day. It became synonymous with everything but the spirit of sport and friendship. News of the national stadium’s new purpose spread around the world and bought negative attention to Pinochet’s regime. The image of the nation was tarnished, but the new leader and his violent henchmen took no notice.

Just two months after taking control, the junta, led by Pinochet, thought it would be appropriate to host the return leg of the deciding World Cup qualifier in Santiago, just to prove to the watching world that the situation in the city was stable. There was talk of moving the game to the Estadio Sausalito in Viña del Mar, but the government was adamant that the game be held at the National Stadium.

The Soviet Union, on moral grounds, decided against travelling to the South American nation to play the game unless the whole situation was resolved and their safety in the country was guaranteed. They protested at being forced to perform in a stadium that was “stained with blood”. They protested vehemently.

FIFA’s rightful response was to send a delegation to check on the state of the ground. But what was to follow was even more damning than the slaughter committed by Pinochet. The delegation consisted of FIFA vice-president Abilio d’Almeida and General Secretary Helmuth Kaeser, who evaluated the stadium and general state of the city in late October. The military did their best to hide any evidence of crimes being committed in the stadium, and used methods such as hiding the detainees in locker rooms or transferring them elsewhere temporarily as the officials assessed the stadium. Jorge Montealegre, one of the detainees, recalls the events of the day FIFA arrived: “They kept us down below, hidden in the locker rooms and in the tunnels, we were kept inside, because there were journalists following the FIFA officials. It was like we were in two different worlds.”

Chile v Russia, 1973

Despite the presence of potentially thousands of captives present in the stadium, FIFA shockingly gave the stadium the green light to host the game, much to the amazement of the world’s media. It is still up for debate as to whether FIFA chose to ignore the fact that the seriousness of the situation, or whether Chile were just so good at their task of deceiving world football’s governing body. Ultimately, the decision was wrong, monstrous and disgraceful to the sport, the country, and the great footballing heritage of the continent.

The game took place in outrageous circumstances. The Soviet Union team never travelled on humanitarian grounds, and on November 21st 1973, the Chilean team arrived on the pitch, alone. Why they weren’t given the default 3-0 success is unclear, but the fact that there was a game that day was an embarrassment. The stadium was barely attended, and the players seemed ashamed to be there – but such was the political influence. The game kicked-off in farcical circumstances; Chile passed the ball around a little bit, dribbled up to the goal that should’ve had a Soviet goalkeeper in and scored in the vacant net. Up in the stands stood a scoreboard that read Chile 1, Soviet Union 0.

Chile were through to the World Cup in the most dubious circumstances – and through no clear fault of the football team. Politics had once again hijacked sport, with shameful consequences. Chile’s performances in West Germany were uninspiring, and they would return home from the World Cup having exited in the group stages winless after a loss to the hosts and draws against East Germany and Australia.

Chile’s captain at the time, Carlos Caszely, who was a national icon and unsparingly had his mother detained and tortured by the junta, was one of the first people to protest against the Pinochet regime. In a bold act just before the team’s departure to West Germany for the World Cup, he acted in defiance against the dictator. In his words: “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.”

To this day, the situation in Chile in the early-70’s was one of the most horrific incidents in world history that led to one of the most awful incidents in sport. The Chileans would have to live on under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship until 1990 when he finally decided to step down after 17 dreadful years. Chile will forever be remembered for participating in the most disgraceful footballing game of all time – all because of one man.

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