This is the story of an international football match causing an international incident, which had ramifications for many years after.
World Cup qualifying often contains a play-off match between two countries from opposing Confederations to claim the remaining place in the finals.
For the 1974 World Cup in West Germany this produced a political stand-off when Chile was pitted against Soviet Union.
The European section of qualifying saw the 32 teams drawn into 9 groups. Eight group winners would progress automatically to the finals, with winners of Group 9 going into a play-off.
USSR, France and Republic of Ireland were in this group. After losing in France, USSR won their other three matches to top the table.
In the CONMEBOL section 9 teams were drawn into three groups. Brazil had already qualified as holders, and they would be joined by the winners of the first two groups. Group Three winners would go into the play-off against USSR.
Chile, Peru and Venezuela were in this group. Venezuela withdrew leaving Chile and Peru to meet each other home and away. Both games went 2-0 in favour of the home side, resulting in a further play-off on a neutral ground. In Montevideo, Uruguay, Chile came from behind to win 2-1.
Chile had earned the right to meet the Soviet Union in a play-off to claim the final qualifying place.
The play-off was over two legs, with the first in Moscow at the end of September 1973. The second would be in Santiago in November.
So far so good.
Two weeks before the first leg there was a coup d’etat in Chile. President Salvadore Allende was killed, the military took over and General Pinochet installed as leader. Allende had come to power in 1970 after being democratically elected. The Nixon administration in Washington were rumoured to have worked to create conditions for the coup
South America had suffered many years of military juntas. Governments of Argentina (1966), Bolivia (1969), Brazil (1964) and Peru (1968) were all overthrown in coups and replaced by military administrations. In June 1973 Uruguay followed suit. Chile had long been held up as a beacon of democracy, and yet here they were falling foul of the same political upheaval.
Although the CIA may not have been complicit in the actual coup itself, there’s evidence they knew it was being planned yet did nothing to discourage it, despite possibly having the influence. There are recordings of conversations between President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger which suggested they were secretly pleased with the result.
When Allende won the election in 1970, Nixon was to say he feared Chile could end up as ‘another Cuba’. As in turned out Allende became friendly with Cuban leader Fidel Castro as the two became allies.
For the Chilean public once the junta were in command things changed immediately. The military killed thousands of ‘leftists’, both real and suspected. Plus, there was the process of ‘disappearance’, a method which became infamous in Argentina and Peru. This was where people were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and never seen again.
Naturally, the communist Soviet Union was in favour of Chile’s socialist leanings. Thereby creating tension in a time of ‘the Cold War’.
But what finally crossed the line was when 40,000 people were imprisoned in the National Stadium (Estadio Nacional) in Santiago. They were tortured and murdered in the same ground which was supposed to be hosting the vital World Cup play-off a few months later. It’s the same ground which hosted the 1962 World Cup Final.
This is what did it for the Soviet government.
There were concerns over whether either leg would take place. The new regime in Santiago had banned all Chileans from leaving the country. In addition, they certainly weren’t keen on people setting foot in the Soviet Union, a communist regime they were utterly opposed to. The Kremlin had condemned the coup and stated it did not recognise the new government.
In the end Pinochet let the team make the trip on condition no one made political statements. Two of the squad, Leonardo Veliz and Carlos Caszely were known to be close to the Allende government yet expected to keep quiet.
When they touched down at Moscow airport there was no Chilean authority to greet them. The Soviets had broken off diplomatic relations with the country.
“The reception was very cold. There was no protocol or diplomacy at all”, recalled Veliz.
Elias Figueroa and Caszely were detained by immigration over alleged irregularities with their passports.
“When we arrived in Moscow, Elias Figueroa and I were not allowed to enter, because supposedly we were not the ones in our passports. Elias in the passport had short hair, but he now had long hair. In my picture I had a moustache, but now I didn’t have it”, recalled Caszely.
Eventually they were allowed in and on 26th September the first leg took place in Moscow, two weeks after the coup. The Soviets banned journalists and cameras from attending the game, which only served to ramp up the tension. It ended 0-0.
“We played a great defensive game”, said Caszely, “they were the current European Champions and we rescued a draw that was quite convenient for the second leg”.
This was a humiliation for the Soviets as they expected an easy win, given the home advantage and pressure their opponents must have been under.
They began to make noises about wanting the venue for the second leg switched, ideally to a neutral country. They couldn’t possibly sanction their players playing in a stadium which had been used to torture and murder civilians, particularly those sympathetic to their own political ideals.
The Chilean FA too made alternative suggestions, but the military junta were unmoved. They saw it as a sign of weakness to give in to a communist regime, and they wanted to improve public opinion. The Soviets wanted a neutral country to which both Chile and FIFA refused.
FIFA sent a delegation to inspect the stadium. There were rumoured to still be around 7,000 detainees there who were hidden in the stadium so the FIFA inspectors had a look around and decided there was nothing wrong and the game should go ahead.
One of the stadium prisoners, Jorge Montealegre, who was 19 at the time, was there when the FIFA inspectors arrived.
“We were kept quiet at gunpoint. They kept us down below, hidden in 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.”
Another survivor, Felipe Aguero later told the New York Times;
“I stayed in the stands when the inspectors arrived. We wanted to shout out ‘Hey, we are here, look at us!’ But they only seemed interested in the condition of the pitch.”
The Soviets weren’t convinced. They sent a letter to FIFA explaining that;
“For moral considerations Soviets can not at this time play in the Stadium of Santiago, splashed with blood of the Chilean patriots.”
Some members of the Soviet team have later stated they believed their own government were frightened of losing to a country with such an opposing ideology. Instead, they believed they won a moral victory in the eyes of the world.
Chile demanded $300,000 compensation claiming they could not sell the tickets the USSR wouldn’t take up, and for the general cost of arranging the game. FIFA declared the match a walkover for Chile, but demanded the game go ahead anyway even if only one team turned up.
“The news was given to us by the President of Chilean FA, Francisco Fluxa. He came to where we were staying and told us the Russians were not coming, and that we had qualified for Germany. But he told us FIFA ordered that we take to the field and had to score a goal to win the game”, said Caszely.
“It was a charade, an absolute farce. It goes against all sports philosophy, the essence of sport. It goes against all that. I have never understood why FIFA made that decision”, said Veliz.
“We felt a great emotion to be in that place of torture and death. We were sorry there was grief and anguish. But we could not do anything other than defend our country”, he added.
About 15,000 people were allowed in the stadium still full of military to watch the Chile team line up against no one. They lined up for the national anthem, kicked off and four players passed the ball between each other as they advanced towards the Russian goal. They reached the area and as pre-agreed, captain Francisco Valdes scored in the empty net and after just 30 seconds, the game was over.
But there was no celebration.
Rather than see the spectators have a wasted trip, the Chilean FA arranged a full match to be played afterwards between Chile and Brazilian club, Santos. But few of the Chile side had the stomach for a match and Santos ran out 5-0 winners.
“In football there is not much political awareness. And then we did not know the dimension of the dead and what was happening.”, said Veliz.
“Nobody imagined that this situation was going to be transformed into 17 years of dictatorship. We were footballers, we just wanted to go to a World Cup. But with the passage of time, perhaps one could refuse to play under those conditions”.
Caszely regrets the tie wasn’t decided on the pitch. He felt as they had, had the courage to go and play in Russia, then they could’ve come to Chile to play.
It’s a fair point. There are several unanswered questions such as why didn’t FIFA demand the game be played at a different venue? How did they miss the signs of abuse in the stadium when they sent their inspectors? Why did Chile still have to play the game, if FIFA had already declared a walkover in their favour. It’s all very bizarre.
Chile therefore qualified for the finals in West Germany. This is where they experienced the ultimate irony.
The communist East German government had been publicly supportive of the Soviet stance. When the teams were drawn for the group stages, Chile was put in the same group as East Germany.
Their meeting ended in a draw. This was after Chile lost 0-1 to West Germany, where Caszely became the first player to be sent off in a World Cup match. When they then played out a goalless draw against Australia they were out of the competition, with both German nations going through.
This whole story is of particular resonance for Caszely, whose mother was detained and tortured by the regime. Just before the team embarked on their trip to West Germany, Pinochet summoned them to a meeting. He was going down the line of players shaking hands, but one player refused. Caszely.
It was the first act of defiance against the dictator and would’ve taken a lot of courage to carry out. Perhaps Pinochet was so absorbed with wanting to put on a show for the world to suggest all was fine within the country, and the success of the national football team was evidence of this. There were no repercussions for the player.
Caszely played in Spain after the World Cup and then four years later he returned to Chile and his first club, Colo Colo. This meant he played once again in the Estadio Nacional.
“I was once asked how I could play in that stadium where people were tortured and killed. I replied it’s precisely for that reason. So the souls of those tortured and killed can be happy when they see me playing.”
The national stadium continued to host the nations football matches up to now. In 2011 Chile finally gave a memorial to remember the prisoners who were detained there. In the Estadio Nacional there is a section of wooden seating which now has ‘special protection’ status and the area is known as ‘Escotilla 8”
Above it are inscribed the words
“A people without memory are a people without a future”
The area remains unchanged from years ago, when the rest of the stadium has been renovated. The symbolism is in the area remains silent even when the rest of the stadium is noisy.
The game that never should have taken place was a ridiculous moment in international football and it went down in history as one of the saddest afternoons ever known in football.
Miguel Garcia : Chile vs URSS, 1973. La cara negra del futbol
El Desconcierto : URSS vs Chile, Moscow 1973. La historia del 0-0 que acerco a la Roja a Alemania ’74 a solo dias del golpe military
Ignacio Gonzalez : Chile vs URSS 1973: El Partido de los Valientes
Ravi Dev : The Soccer Match that Should Never Have Been Played