An open goal for fascism: The 1973 Chile vs USSR game that never was...

When the net bulged at Estadio Nacional on November 21st 1973, signifying Chile’s qualification for the 1974 World Cup, you could forgive the Chileans for their forlorn, awkward body language. To lift a phrase from clichéd football parlance, their opponents quite simply ‘hadn’t turned up’. In this case, in the most literal form. 

The USSR team had refused to travel to Chile, citing the coup that took place in Santiago a month prior. Ousting the first democratically elected socialist leader in Latin American history; and replacing him with a brutal military dictatorship. 

Following an era of intense economic hardship for Chile, Salvador Allende was elected on the promise of improving living standards and nationalising Chilean industries. Allende’s supporters saw him as a force for equality in a progressive Chile. In particular the textiles industry, with its large percentage of female workers, saw some of the first female directors in the country. 

Requiring a symbol of Chilean pride and unity, Allende received the Chilean football team at his residence, La Moneda. For the administration it was a fantastic photo opportunity, and one that Allende supporter and Chilean star Leonardo Véliz relished. In both football and political terms, Véliz is a left winger, who was keen to place himself at the left of Allende in the photograph. Véliz and his compatriot Carlos Caszely were two unique figures in Chilean football culture. Outspoken, political and sympathisers with left-wing socialism, they were ‘black sheep’ in a society where football was expected to be apolitical. 

By the 1970s, the Cold War was in full swing with the USA and the Soviet Republic trying to gain traction overseas in a war of opposing ideologies. With Cuba embracing communism, Latin America was a key battleground. Richard Nixon’s administration was extremely fearful of Chile establishing a socialist foothold in the continent. Senior advisor and Secretary of state-to-be, Henry Kissinger, desired a ‘confrontation’ with Allende as soon as possible. 

On September 11, 1973, the streets of Santiago witnessed such confrontation as General Augusto Pinochet’s military junta seized power of Chile. The military ordered a strict curfew on civilians, the silence of the streets a stark contrast to the Hunter Hawk fighter jets that bombed La Moneda, laying siege to Allende’s seat of power. 

Rather than face the humiliation of capture, Allende took his own life with a rifle gifted by Fidel Castro. The rifle bared the message, ‘To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals’. Prior to his death, Allende made one final address to the people of Chile proclaiming ‘Viva El Chile, Viva el Pueblo, Viva Los Trabajadores / Long live Chile, long live the people, long live the workers’. 

Salvador Allende, with his friend Fidel Castro

Allende’s choosing to pay tribute to his ‘Compañeros’ as his final words underlined his socialist principles. However, supporters and friends of Allende faced brutal consequences under the new regime. Joan Jara, wife of Chilean protest singer Víctor Jara described the coup as ‘a violence so out of proportion, so annihilating that it seemed impossible to believe a plan had been conceived in Chile’.[1] In truth, the violent removal of the left-wing government was not without international influence. The campaign was sponsored in part by the USA. Operation Condor was in its infancy, as the CIA would soon provide technical and military aid to military dictatorships across Latin America. 

The demonisation of socialist sympathisers was a key tenet of Pinochet’s rhetoric. In the general’s first address to the nation, he portrayed socialists as extremists and framed the coup as a battle between ‘Freedom loving people’s vs Marxist dictatorships’. 

The junta’s portrayal of dissenters as violent anarchists is atypical of military regimes of the time. Pinochet sought to portray the regime as a source of stability in a time of chaos, stating ‘We have arrived to an internal chaos that places the state in utmost danger’. This contrasts with the recollection of Joan Jara who described Allende’s Socialist Party of Chile as ‘peacefully trying to change their society’.[2]

Dissenters of the junta found themselves kidnapped off the streets and imprisoned in makeshift detention centres. The most famous of which was Estadio Nacional, where the Chilean national football represented the country with pride. 

Stands which once housed screaming fans now acted as holding pens for Pinochet’s enemies. Journalist Vladimiro Mimica recounts how he and other prisoners would wait in the stands for the stadium tannoy to announce who would be taken into the cells of the stadium. ‘Everyday we’d be interrogated. Beatings, interrogations, constant mock executions. Nobody was exempt. I never thought they could turn the national stadium into a concentration camp’. 

The stadium was repurposed as a rudimentary house of torture. The nearby boxing ground and velodrome was also used by the dictatorship to interrogate prisoners, in order to obtain names of fellow subversives. The velodrome became synonymous with torture as the prisoners in the stands noted the condition of the people who returned from there. 

To to keep prisoners under control, the stadium was equipped with machine guns, christened ‘Hitler saws’ due to their ability to cut people in half. 

While Estadio Nacional moonlit as a detention centre, the world of football kept spinning. The Chilean national team had a two-match play off vs the USSR to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. The first leg of which took place in the Soviet Union. 

The Chilean teams’ chartered flight to Moscow from Santiago was the first flight to leave Chile since the junta seized power. Relations between the two states had collapsed in the wake of the coup, with any diplomatic or economic relationship now completely frozen. 

The players themselves received a cold reception in Moscow, ostracized and ignored; they were viewed as puppets of Pinochet’s regime. Leonardo Velez – supporter of Allende recalls – ‘I feel like I was a Harlequin used by a totalitarian system’. These were the same players who, prior to the coup, Allende had paraded as symbols of pride and unity for the new socialist Chile. 

A talented Chile side held the formidable Soviets to a 0-0 draw on their own patch, a result that was portrayed as heroic by the Chilean press. 

The return leg was due to take place on November 21st, 1973, at the National stadium of Chile. News of the atrocities taking place within the stadium had reached beyond Chile’s borders and the USSR sent a formal letter to FIFA, protesting the morality of staging the game in the stadium. It was mooted that the game be moved elsewhere in Latin America.  

The dictatorship however refused to accommodate the USSR’s misgivings, and insisted the game had to be staged in Chile. The junta were aware of the opportunity to promote and image of peace and stability domestically by staging a huge football game; a clear example of ‘sport-washing’ before the term was widely known. 

Francisco Fluxa of the Chilean Football Federation took a delegation from FIFA on a tour of Estadio Nacional, and after a 10-minute sweep of the field and a tour of the stadium, delegates were satisfied with the facilities in the changing rooms and standards of the showers - and the performative farce was over. FIFA were appeased, and the consequences were clear in the newspaper headlines - ‘Come to Santiago or forfeit the game’.  

Fluxa later conceded, ‘There were no political prisoners because we’d hidden them. The whole world knew’. Prisoners were able to see the delegation through fences in the bowels of the stadium, but were unable to alert the delegation of their presence, as the soldiers had guns pointed at their heads. The delegation left without spotting any of the detained. 

With FIFA and the Chilean authorities satisfied, the game would take place. However, the USSR remained steadfast with their boycott. Fluxa broke the news of the boycott to the Chilean squad on the eve of the match. Caszely recounts how their euphoria at securing their place in the World Cup by default was quickly tempered when they were informed of FIFA’s strange condition. The team would need to take the field, against no-one, and score a goal into an empty net. ‘That’s when we became part of the farce’ laments Caszely. 

The next day, the stands that had previously held political prisoners was sparsely populated with curious spectators. They watched the Chilean forwards briefly pass the ball amongst themselves before captain Francisco ‘Chamco’ Valdés apologetically kicked the ball into an empty net. Bringing an end to the bizarre spectacle engineered by the junta and FIFA. 

 Francisco ‘Chamco’ Valdés kicks the ball into an empty net

Chile had qualified for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. The talented side were, however, humbled on their return to Europe. Unable to win a game and only scoring one goal, they were eliminated in the group stages. Carlos Caszely himself would achieve infamy by becoming the first player to receive a straight red card in the World Cup finals.  

Caszely can be forgiven for perhaps being distracted at this time, as it was later revealed his mother had been abducted and subjected to horrendous torture prior to the team’s departure for West Germany. Caszely spoke of his revulsion at the brutality regime as his mother revealed marks on her torso where officers had stubbed cigarettes on her. He believes this attack was a warning to him as an outspoken opponent of the junta, not to criticize the military when abroad. 

In an act of defiance, Caszely refused to shake hands with Pinochet prior to the team’s departure. He would not return to Chile after the world cup, instead signing for Valencian club Levante UD, and later representing Espanyol. 

Caszely would get his chance to play the USSR in a genuine fixture as he represented the Catalunya national team in a 1974 fixture in Barcelona. The Catalan side also featured FC Barcelona’s Johan Cruyff. 

Estadio Nacional still stands. Where prisoners were once transported through a hatch, the Chilean FA have preserved a section of old wooden seats named ‘Escotilla Ocho’. The wooden benches mark a stark contrast to the rest of the modern stadium, still the largest in Chile. They stand there to pay tribute and remember the 40,000 detainees that were once held within the walls. The stadium still bears the scars of Pinochet’s regime, as does the country itself, in memory of the 2,279 people murdered, 27,000 victims of torture and the thousands more disappeared. 

[1] Joan Jara, ‘Victor: An unfinished song’, 1998
[2] Ibid.

By Rhys Richards - Check him out on Twitter here: @RhysWRichards & follow The Football History Boys: @TFHBs

Find Rhys' other article for The Football History Boys, all about the 1978 World Cup - 'Blood on the Crossbar'.

©The Football History Boys, 2021
(All pictures borrowed and now owned by TFHB)


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