The Phantom Match and The Bloody Stadium

The following article is an edited excerpt from a much longer article I wrote as my undergraduate thesis my senior year at UNC – Chapel Hill. The topic of that paper is FIFA’s relationship with the Cold War during the 1970s. Should you wish to read the whole thing, it can be found here. I used three different case studies to illustrate my point, the first of which being the World Cup qualification play-off between the Soviet Union and Chile in November 1973. This case study will be found below, edited to be less academic and more accessible.

On November 21, 1973, the Chilean and Soviet teams were due to meet for the second leg of their home-and-home play-off for one of the final spots in the next year’s FIFA World Cup. The two countries met in Moscow on September 26 and played to a scoreless draw. With the result still undecided and a spot in the World Cup on the line, the second leg promised to be a fiercely contested match. Only the Chilean team walked out for the national anthems, however. In front of several thousand confused spectators, the Chileans took the field and kicked the ball into an empty Soviet net. The Soviets refused to play in the match so, “in accordance with the regulations, Chile were awarded victory,” sending its team to the World Cup. 1)This quote is pulled from FIFA’s official website.

Why did Soviets waste their opportunity to qualify for the World Cup? FIFA notes that “the Soviet Union refused to travel to the Chilean capital for the return fixture for political reasons.” 2)See the above footnote. There’s a lot of history behind that sentence, though. Soviet-Chilean relations fluctuated wildly in the first half of the 1970s. Socialist Salvador Allende’s political victory in 1970 gave the USSR an opportunity to “develop solid and more stable links” with Chile. The Soviets never seized that opportunity, however, fearing economic repercussions. Allende wanted more economic aid than the Soviets were willing to give, which created tension between the two countries. Soviet-Chilean relations later permanently fractured on September 11, 1973, when Augusto Pinochet and his junta ousted Allende. 3)The role of the United States in this coup, reprehensible as it was, will not be addressed in this article. The Soviets had no qualms welcoming the Chileans to Moscow just over two weeks after the coup, though the meeting was tense, as the scoreless draw illustrates. Traveling to Chile, however, became something different entirely for the Soviets, due to the Chilean choice of venue.

Pinochet’s regime had used the Estadio Nacional—the stadium that would host the second leg of the play-off—as an internment camp for thousands of political prisoners: “Between 12,000 and 20,000 Chileans and foreigners were detained in the Stadium for periods ranging from two days to two months.” 4)Source. At times, Pinochet’s soldiers used the stadium as a slaughterhouse, executing suspected political opponents within the confines of the arena. In 2002, the Chilean government released the Report of the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, a document that, among other things, went into great detail to expose the human rights violations perpetrated by the Pinochet regime. You can read it here, but it is over 1,100 pages long. This document confirmed that blood had been spilled on the pitch of the Estadio Nacional. It concluded that multiple prisoners that were held in the stadium were also executed there, such as Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi, who were both United States citizens. Both Chileans and foreigners were held and executed in the Estadio Nacional.

In addition to interning and executing suspected political opponents, Pinochet’s junta also routinely tortured prisoners at the Estadio Nacional. 5)The last several sentences of information is pulled from the Report. The Soviets at the very least were aware of these conditions. They made no secret of their hostility towards Pinochet’s regime, denouncing it as fascist and formulating ways to eliminate Pinochet’s junta, be it through violence or non-violence. The conditions in Chile made it seem like it would be impossible to host a World Cup playoff at the Estadio Nacional, so FIFA sent delegates to Santiago to ensure nothing was wrong. Their language was strong: “If even one prisoner is interred in the national stadium, this return match will be played in Lima, Peru; Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Montevideo, Uruguay.” 6)Rene Courte, quoted in a contemporary Washington Post article. On its face, this quote suggested that FIFA would adopt a zero-tolerance policy for human rights violations in Chile, which fit with their pro-neutrality stance. The inspection would go on without bias and any issue would be severely punished by moving the match to a neutral location.

Something strange must have happened during that inspection, because Chile passed. The evidence against them is obviously greater now than it was then, but it was remarkable how the Chileans hid evidence of prisoners being interred, tortured, and executed in the venue where the match was to be played. It was so remarkable, its plausibility is very doubtful. FIFA’s careful choice of words shouldn’t fly under the radar here. Their use of present tense (“is interred”) indicates that they do not care about whether or not any prisoners had previously been interred in the stadium. This suggests an apolitical stance; regardless of Chile’s political situation, the match must go on. It is also amoral; regardless of the human rights violations, the match must go on. FIFA adopted a bizarre “out of sight, out of mind” strategy in dealing with how to host the match in Chile. As long as it didn’t look like an internment camp, it was perfectly fine as a football venue. FIFA had their own agenda to pursue—they eventually were forced to pay out $200,000 to Chile due to FIFA regulations covering games that go unplayed. 7)Pulled from another contemporary newspaper article, this one The New York Post.

Over the summer, in preparation for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, ESPN aired a subseries of their 30 for 30 documentary series: 30 for 30: Soccer Stories. One of these shorts was titled The Opposition, about the very incident this article is concerned with. From interviewing Chilean players and political prisoners, it revealed that yes, prisoners were actually being interred at the stadium during the FIFA inspection. They were hidden below the pitch where no one could see and held at gunpoint. If they made any noise or cry for help that would reveal there were prisoners being held, they would be shot without hesitation.

The Soviets objected vehemently to playing at the Estadio Nacional and in Chile in general. Their intent not to play was made clear as early as November 6, more than two weeks before the scheduled match date. That day, a Soviet cable sent to FIFA read: “FIFA decision about venue of match not acceptable for Soviet footballers who confirm their refusal to play game in Chile. Regret that FIFA did not follow common sense and not reconsidered its decision.” The Soviets’ use of the phrase “common sense” is telling. 8)And they were correct in using it, which may come as a shock to people raised to believe everything the USSR did was wrong. FIFA strongly insisted on the match being held in Chile. A neutral location somewhere else in South America—which the Soviets heavily insisted on—was nowhere near out of the question. 9)The precedent was set during the very same qualifying sequence in 1973. All of Northern Ireland’s home qualifying matches were relocated to England due to The Troubles. However, FIFA’s President at the time was, of course, the English Sir Stanley Rous. The Soviets specifically pointed to Northern Ireland as an example. Chile even suggested moving the match to another location in Chile, but the Soviets still refused. The situation escalated from the Soviets objecting to playing in the Estadio Nacional to the Soviets objecting to playing in Chile at all. The USSR naturally did not want to play in a stadium so marred by violence and bloodshed, but their issue with the match was of a far greater scope. No stadium in Chile would do because the Soviets took issue with not just the Estadio Nacional but Pinochet’s entire regime.

FIFA’s intense desire for the match to go on as scheduled in Chile seemed like a result of their desire to remain apolitical. In doing so, however, FIFA became political. There were hints of this when protests from Bulgaria, East Germany, Poland, and Hungary turned into rumors of a potential Eastern Bloc boycott of the World Cup. 10)Nothing came of this. It became explicit when, in January, the Soviets were officially ousted from the World Cup by a vote of 13-5, with only East Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Finland, and the Soviet Union voting in their favor. The Soviets were perhaps doomed from the start, however—eight Latin American countries participated in the vote and all voted in favor of Chile.

That inspection of the Estadio Nacional, however, presented FIFA with an opportunity to move the match to a neutral location. The possibility of discovering something that could feasibly result in a relocation of a match was very real. That decision would not have been surprising, as the Chileans opened the doors of the Estadio Nacional on September 22 in a misguided attempt to assuage the fears of the international community. It backfired. With evidence of the poor conditions of the Estadio Nacional now in the international media, FIFA could determine that it was an unfit venue without sending anyone to inspect it.

The official inspection report indicates that the inspectors (FIFA’s Vice President and General Secretary) had multiple opportunities to notice that something was amiss. During their inspection of the stadium itself, they noted that “the stadium is at present being used as a ‘clearing station’ and the people in there are not prisoners but only detainees whose identity has to be established.” More importantly to them, “the grass on the pitch is in perfect condition as were the seating arrangements.” 11)Both of the quotes come from the Rous papers in the Sports Cultures Archive for Investigative Research (SCAIR), Sport and Leisure Cultures, School Research Centre, University of Brighton.

On a larger scale, Chile’s Latin American neighbors likely influenced this decision. Mexico had hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1970, and Argentina was due to host it in 1978. Brazil was the most successful country in FIFA history at that point, having already won three World Cups. Uruguay had won two. Plus, the Brazilian Dr. João Havelange’s influence was growing as he lobbied worldwide during his campaign for the FIFA Presidency, which he would win at the 1974 FIFA Congress. With such a tremendous amount of influence and history coming from Latin America—an area that would overwhelmingly support Chile—FIFA almost had no choice but to turn a blind eye to Chile’s human rights violations. On top of all that, West Germany were the hosts of the 1974 World Cup and any pro-Soviet decision would not have sat very well with them.

Ousted from the World Cup with little to show for their troubles, the USSR could at least take solace in sticking to its ideological principles. Chile’s anti-Soviet rhetoric reached unprecedented levels after Pinochet’s coup. The use of the Estadio Nacional as an internment camp and execution chamber gave the Soviets a perfect opportunity to publicly voice their concerns. After all, the stadium was not the only place where people had lost their lives because of Pinochet. Though no country or entity truly came to their aid, the USSR’s decision at the very least publicized what was going on in Chile.

Regardless, FIFA’s Chilean bias resulted in an impasse for the Soviets. They wouldn’t participate in a continental competition until 1982. FIFA’s struggle to keep its constituent football associations independent from the politics of their respective countries had failed. The party lines that divided FIFA had become obvious, though no one truly cared but the Soviets, who protested FIFA’s decision as long as possible.

Notes   [ + ]

1. This quote is pulled from FIFA’s official website.
2. See the above footnote.
3. The role of the United States in this coup, reprehensible as it was, will not be addressed in this article.
4. Source.
5. The last several sentences of information is pulled from the Report.
6. Rene Courte, quoted in a contemporary Washington Post article.
7. Pulled from another contemporary newspaper article, this one The New York Post.
8. And they were correct in using it, which may come as a shock to people raised to believe everything the USSR did was wrong.
9. The precedent was set during the very same qualifying sequence in 1973. All of Northern Ireland’s home qualifying matches were relocated to England due to The Troubles. However, FIFA’s President at the time was, of course, the English Sir Stanley Rous. The Soviets specifically pointed to Northern Ireland as an example.
10. Nothing came of this.
11. Both of the quotes come from the Rous papers in the Sports Cultures Archive for Investigative Research (SCAIR), Sport and Leisure Cultures, School Research Centre, University of Brighton.

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