BY ALEX JACKSON
To much of us in Britain, South America is a mysterious part of the world. For a country that once had a hand in every corner of the globe, this southern reach of the earth mostly evaded us. There was the odd conflict here and there, but no real permanent British involvement besides Guyana, which is culturally regarded as part of the Caribbean. For the most part it fell into the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese, and thus Latin America was created.
With no shared history and a language barrier, Britain's involvement with the region to this day remains limited, but for all that divides us there is one thing we have in common: football. South America is the most developed footballing continent after Europe, the only one to have produced World Cup winners other than ourselves. While people may not be able to name the cities of Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, they may well know their teams: Cruzeiro, Atletico Mineiro, Internacional, Gremio.
However, the distance between us on the planet coupled with a lack of media exposure of South American tournaments means that our knowledge of the game there is still pretty limited. We rely mostly on Tim Vickery to fill in the gaps for us, or the annual Club World Cup to teach us who's going well in the continent at the moment. I'm not one to rely on second-hand knowledge, however, and with the end of the South American season fast approaching, I scraped together my savings and travelled to the other side of the world to see how the beautiful game looks in its other spiritual home.
For this trip I lasered in on one destination: Chile. Football is overwhelmingly the country's most popular sport, but their success has been surprisingly limited. World Cup qualification has been patchy, notably missing 2018's tournament after their first back-to-back appearances since 1962-66. Even the Copa America tournament, something they have won the two most recent editions of, was a kryptonite: it took them 99 years and 4 lost finals before they finally won their first South American championship.
It's fair to say these current times are Chilean football's halcyon days, spearheaded by stars like Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. Of Chile's ten most capped players, 9 are still active. Similarly, of Chile's ten top scorers 6 were active in the 2000s.
Domestic football, however, is firmly wedged in place. Chile gets four berths to the Copa Libertadores tournament, the same as every nation bar Brazil and Argentina. Of these four, only one advanced beyond the Group Stage this year, and in the final 16th seeded place at that. Only one Chilean team has ever won the tournament: Colo-Colo in 1991, after losing the final in 1973. Three other Chilean teams have made the final and lost, the last being Universidad Catolica all the way back in 1993; it will be at least a quarter of a century until a Chilean team makes the final again. Despite general recognition as a powerful footballing nation, Chile has fewer continental championships than Uruguay and Paraguay (two nations whose collective population is just over half that of Chile) and Colombia.
So what does the Chilean football scene look like? The landscape is dominated by Santiago, unsurprising when the city accounts for a third of the national population and is more than five times larger than its closest rival. The city lends six teams to the 16-team Primera Division tournament, three of which compose the 'Big Three' of Chilean football: Colo-Colo, Universidad de Chile, and Universidad Catolica. Of the 102 trophies that have been handed out in Chile's league setup, 63 of them are split between these three.
Unsurprisingly, those three account for the bulk of the league's attendance figures. They are the only clubs who average over 10,000 a game. Even fellow Santiago clubs Audax Italiano, Palestino and Union Espanola, the latter no strangers to an occasional title run, get less than half of this. This is a reality of football that is alien to a lot of English people – we are one of the few countries that offers widespread support to many teams of numerous tiers of the game. For all that football is loved globally, quite often it's a case of haves-and-have-nots when it comes to league play.
While I do love a foray into the footballing unknown, a limited fixture schedule and my fear of taking a wrong turn in Santiago's furthest suburbs meant my itinerary would focus on the Big Three, and the first stop was Estadio San Carlos do Apoquindo, home of Club Deportivo Universidad Catolica.
Of Santiago’s Big Three, Catolica are very much the third wheel, possessing the fewest trophies and smallest fanbase, but heading into tonight’s game they were on the verge of a day in the sun. Catolica were leading the league by two points, and their opponents this evening was second-place Universidad de Concepcion. A win would give them such much needed breathing room and justify talk of a league title.
The eastern side of Santiago, composed of Providencia, Las Condes and Barnechea, is the Beverly Hills or Kensington of the city, full of business and commerce, shiny new architecture, and lots and lots of wealth. Perhaps unusually for a rich suburb, Catolica not only play here, but relocated here. The actual Universidad Catolica is located in the city centre, much closer to Estadio Nacional, but in the late 1980s San Carlos de Apoquindo was built on the edge of Las Condes as the club’s new home. It’s an amusing thought, but given Arsenal and Tottenham were able to build in their congested suburb and Chelsea haven’t encountered many planning problems in their stadium plans perhaps it’s one of the perks of being a big player in national football.
Before the stadium, however, I had to meet my guide for the night, and so I stopped in Providencia to meet Pablo and his friends. Stepping into the neighbourhood was like stepping into another world in several ways. Not just the open green spaces and simple modern architecture instead of the congested history of the city centre, but the company. Pablo and his friends were multinational, multilingual and multiracial. English was spoken freely and fluently, a stark contrast to everywhere else I went where I had to survive on broken Spanish. Even the dogs hovering around had collars and smooth coats, unlike the countless strays lounging around the city. It helped reinforce how different Catolica is from its city rivals. Different location, different stadium, different supporters, different culture. Not playing chase to the city’s megaclubs, but a different option standing tall and proud to one side and sticking two fingers up at the other two.
The stadium was, unsurprisingly, packed beyond capacity tonight. The stadium is an open, continuous bowl, with some permanent seating but mostly benches. Scaffolding on the top deck held yet more benches, perhaps recently installed as the title run picked up steam. All were full when we arrived, with stragglers huddled in the gaps between the expanded stands. Despite our late arrival the wheelchair-bound Pablo was able to convince the crowd to part and let us to the front of a huddle behind one of the corner flags, giving us a clear view of the game.
Back home South American football is viciously stereotyped as a game of simulation and gamesmanship, players throwing themselves on the floor and rolling half a mile in mock agony after being subjected to the slightest touch, but after watching Chilean football I was left wondering if it is us who are the pansies. The game was played with an aggression that is rarely seen in Europe. Players refused to give up on chasing the ball, and at times one player could have as many as four opponents nipping at his heels or pushing their shoulder into his back. On several occasions a player would suffer a late challenge but persevere and keep running until they couldn't go another step. It put the English game to shame, especially the insanely lax standard of refereeing we have.
That said, one stereotype did live up to its billing. The game was my introduction to the role of Corner Flag Attendant, whose one job was to hold up an umbrella while a player prepared to take a corner to prevent them from being pelted with coins and lighters and other objects. For what it's worth I didn't see anyone attempt it, but it would be interesting to see if that was the same were there no umbrella in the way.
The game was surprisingly open for such a high-stakes affair, but only the hosts ever looked like winning, and just after the hour mark a ball dropped nicely for Andres Vilches to fire home from the edge of the box. The little stadium exploded into a wall of noise that I've only ever encountered once before, and that was at an England game in a 60,000 seater stadium. Buoyed by such a vital lead, the stadium bounced for the remaining 30 minutes, culminating in a roar at full time that confirmed Catolica's break into daylight at the top of the table.
Universidad de Chile
The second game of my trip took me south to Chile's best supported club. Averaging 29,000 per game in 2018, a good 8,000 clear of their hated rivals and almost treble that of league leaders Catolica, Universidad de Chile are one of the best-known names in Chile and in South American football, and going into tonight's game with Everton (de Vina del Mar, not de Merseyside) were still in with a shout of beating their eastern rivals to the title.
A trip to the Estadio Nacional is quite an experience. I picked up the Metro in the centre of town and it was already full of fans, and as soon as the doors opened, singing began. In full voice and banging on the plastic of an advert board, pausing only when the roar of a train in a tunnel drowned them out, but as soon as it slowed for the next station the songs began again. When we finally arrived at Nuble station in south-central Santiago the singing somehow got louder as we were joined by fleets of buses with fans and flags poking out of windows and doors, but I retreated from the pack so I could have some space on the remaining mile-long walk to the stadium.
Football is a popular game, and where there’s people there’s money, so it’s no surprise that around the world you’ll always find people hawking their wares to fans. Nowhere have I seen this quite like in Santiago. From the station to the stadium, there must be a seller of some kind every ten steps. Men and women operating from backpacks and blankets, or even fancy portable stalls you’d see from professional street sellers, selling everything you could possibly want. Food, hot and cold: burgers, hot dogs, kebabs, popcorn, peanuts, churros, wafer sticks filled with dulce de leche, all available to be washed down with beer or water or soda or mote con huesillos (a distinctly Chilean drink made of peach nectar, halved peaches and mote grains). Even the houses along the road were in on the act: more than one time I saw an open gate and a sign advertising the use of their bathroom for a small fee.
Merchandise sellers are also extremely common, but weirdly their merchandise looked to be authentic. Whereas you’d expect stalls of this kind to have generic hats and T-shirts made from some online template, these sellers carried New Era caps and replica shirts with very convincing Adidas logos. They were even in the stadium grounds, using the wire fences to hang their replica kits on. It was certainly a culture shock, but when the Big Three of Santiago run their official stores mostly if not entirely online, with no physical stores to speak of, I can understand why people have rushed to fill the gap.
Estadio Nacional is one of the most bizarre stadiums I have ever been to. The approach to it is thoroughly underwhelming: it does not tower over the rest of the complex it occupies, but meekly hides behind it. The outer walls are low, plain and characterless, and the roads around it are plain paving or even dirt.
The interior, however, is something else entirely. What the outside lacks in character the interior has in spades. The all-stone walls and ceiling are cold and imposing. On the one hand it had the feel of a Roman Colosseum, the entrances and curved concourse like a gladiator arena; on the other the plain, solid walls of the toilets and kiosks like that of a prison, which likely wasn’t a coincidence.
It’s difficult to fathom that where you stand was the site of gross human rights abuses, but it’s never possible to escape it. Prior to my visit it had always confused me why Chile’s military junta had used this place as a political prison but seeing it for myself helped me to understand. There are only four entrances to the complex, one on each side, all a hefty distance from the stadium itself. It is an island in a very crowded city, too far from anyone for screams to be heard. The starkest reminder of all is a section of seats from the era preserved and walled off behind the north goal, one for each victim.
The stadium is roughly divided into three uneven sections: the away end, located just before the north curve next to the main stand; the ultras end, located on the south curve, and everything else. With a crowd of 30,000 in a 48,000 seater stadium there are plenty of empty seats, but as the majority of La U's support congregates in the ultras end it makes my choice of the Andes Stand, running the length of the pitch opposite the main stand, even emptier.
Yet the atmosphere is electric. The ultras end rocks with noise, flares and displays from the first whistle to the last. The stadium is half empty and yet it feels anything but, the noise is so loud and constant it resonates through the entire ground so that even the mostly barren north curve feels part of it.
Tonight was a battle of top versus bottom, title chaser versus relegation-threatened, and the game played out as expected. The game was not unlike the Catolica game, with the home side not exactly lethal, but when compared to their opponents only one team truly looked like they were going to win it. Sure enough Angelo Henriquez capitalised on a dominant spell early in the first half to fire La U ahead with a magnificent header, then doubled his tally midway through the second after he beat the offside trap to comfortably slot home. The stat sheet may flatter Everton, but the result was fair, and willed on by the unrelenting passion of their supporters, Universidad de Chile kept up the chase on their cross-town rivals.
Estadio Nacional is not the most comfortable stadium you will ever watch a game in: it's old, it has a running track, it requires decent cardio condition just to get inside and there's the overwhelming weight of what happened here pressing down on you, but credit where it's due: a group of fans worked together to turn a half-empty athletics stadium into a cauldron, and that more than anything is what I take away from my night there.
My final stop on this trip took me to the third member of Santiago football’s Holy Trinity, and some might say the biggest and grandest of them all. On the same line that takes you to the Estadio Nacional and Universidad de Chile, keep going a few more stops and the shirts change from blue to white, and as you approach Pedrero station a new stadium creeps onto the horizon. The Estadio Monumental David Arellano, home of Chile’s winningest club: Colo-Colo.
Located in the southern suburb of Macul, the club straddles the edge of what could be considered Santiago proper, a stone’s throw from the Route 70 motorway that encircles the city. While not the only suburban team in the city they certainly possess the grandest operation, and the streets around it are a reflection of this.
The space between the Metro station and the stadium is as modern as can be. Patterned paths stretch out in all directions, leading to the shiny walls of the Florida Center shopping mall, a selection of modern housing developments bordered by construction sites promising more on the way, and a statue of the word ‘Macul’ in luminous green, covered in stickers and graffiti but still shining regardless.
It’s all modern and painstakingly designed, and it all reeks of trying too hard. It doesn’t make me think of an up-and-coming area at all, but the many commuter towns in the UK ploughing money into their town centres, hoping the fancy paving, unique architecture and “thought-provoking” art sculptures disguise the fact that every other street is decrepit and the retail units are half-empty. This is only reinforced in Macul by the fact that just across the railway tracks lies La Legua, an infamous neighbourhood with such a fearsome reputation that even the Police won't enter it unless there's multiple units to back each other up.
In terms of facilities Estadio Monumental is the most impressive of the Big Three: it has an imposing exterior, clearly defined sections, a sea of practice pitches for the academy teams, even seat art that forms the shape of the iconic warrior’s head badge. It’s the only stadium of the three with multiple tiers and a substantial roof over the seats, though only the main stand has these. All of this said, it does not compare to stadia in Europe. Much like Estadio Nacional, despite the renovations it cannot hide its age. It is a beautiful stadium for sure, but the concrete bowl it once was is still apparent even after all this time.
There was no home game for Colo-Colo that weekend (probably for the best as El Cacique were on course for a 5th place finish, a good 15 points off the leaders), so I had to settle with a stadium tour. For around £5.00 you get access to the stadium, its museum and a brief tour. It is well worth the price for the museum alone. Centre to it all is the Copa Libertadores trophy, deliberately placed in the centre of the room and visible from the entrance. It’s not unfair to say that this one trophy is their trump card over all domestic rivals. Colo-Colo could go on a dry spell and not win another trophy for a decade or more, but so long as they’re the one Chilean name engraved on that trophy they’ve always got something to wave in the face of La U or Catolica.
There is more to the museum than just this trophy, however. There’s walls of domestic trophies and Chilean Cups, factfiles on Colo-Colo through the decades, details on their undefeated season and their back-to-back-to-back title wins, and features on club legends, one of whom was Jorge Robledo, whose display featured – much to my surprise and disgust – the Newcastle United shirt he wore in the 1952 FA Cup final.
The tour is a standard stadium tour, taking you round the stands, into the press area and down to the pitchside for the obligatory dugout photo-op. While not the most exciting I’ve ever been on (not helped by the lack of interior, ‘behind the scenes’ sections that most European stadia have), it was undeniably exciting to go down to the pitch and imagine what matchdays must be like from a player’s perspective. To be in that dugout, inches from the strip of plastic and metal spikes keeping the fans at bay, or climbing the steps of the tunnel and out in front of the 'Garra Blanca' ultras section. While I barely understood a word the tour guide said, it was easy to picture this place rocking at kick-off.
There’s an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of building new stadiums. I’ve always been on the pro-building side: the value of ‘character’ has always been overrated to me, it’s the same supporters in those seats making the noise and lighting the flares after all, not forgetting that these old stadiums are often unfit for purpose at best and totally shambolic at worst.
Estadio Monumental, however, is a good counterargument. As well as being a sight to behold and imposing even on a non-matchday, it is spacious and well-maintained. The facilities are basic, but in serviceable condition. Perhaps the stands could do with levelling out to rectify the uneven steps, but it is still suitable for its tenant. In terms of historic venues it is one of the best I have been to, its faults more down to being basic than being cramped or crumbling or difficult to see the pitch. It makes me think of Marseille’s Stade Velodrome: once it looked like an ancient relic, but exterior renovations instantly turned it into an exceptional venue; Estadio Monumental is much the same. With a few decorative pieces it could easily be one of the best stadia in South America, adding high-quality modern architecture while retaining the passion and intensity of the existing stands. Until then, it is still a great venue and worthy of being home to the Eternal Champion.
So, what did I learn from my whistle-stop tour of Santiago’s Big Three? A little more about the influence of money on the game. Chilean football is not the most lucrative, and this is something that goes both ways. On the one hand it is affordable: it is not an exaggeration to say it blew my mind seeing tickets for top flight games for around £10.00. While not the most prestigious tournament in the world, these are still top teams in their country who regularly play in continental competition. If Europe has taught us anything it’s that clubs with large working-class followings are more than happy to sell them out for extra pennies, so for Chile’s powerhouses to keep tickets at such affordable prices is commendable. This pays dividends for the atmosphere: Estadio Nacional was half empty, and yet it rocked; San Carlos de Apoquindo was packed beyond capacity, and the ultras section is always full at Colo-Colo. Football is a wonderful game in its own right, but fans elevate it to another level. They turn brilliant games into memorable ones. I’ve watched many games in my time, but the ones I remember most are the ones where the stands shook with united passion. When clubs respect their fans and work with them they are rewarded on a matchday, hence why the stands of Chile are great places to be while the Premier League is akin to a library.
There is a flipside to this lack of finance, however, and it’s the competitiveness or lack thereof. When the Premier League is slated for its lack of competition people always point to the money involved and how it segregates the top teams from everyone else, yet South American football is also highly regimented. Every nation here has its dominant teams that are there or thereabouts at the end of every season, and to go one step further the Copa Libertadores trophy landing in Brazil or Argentina is almost guaranteed.
Chile is no exception. Power is concentrated in the hands of the Big Three, and while you do get the occasional shock it is usually a one-off. Perhaps it can be argued that in less-wealthy leagues big teams are more prone to having down years, but there is no football tournament in the world that is a true free-for-all. Money or no money, there will always be the haves and the have-nots.
South American football has its problems for sure: the hooliganism, the corruption, the facilities, the rigid divide between power clubs and others, but there is still a lot to love, and especially here in Chile. The country has gone through dark times, but as it emerges from the shadow of Pinochet as one of South America’s leading nations its football team has emerged too. Chile’s golden generation have created history, bringing trophies to the nation and doing it against their more successful neighbours on the other side of the Andes, and after a week of exploring this incredible country, its brilliant people and its electric football scene, I’m rooting for them to create even more.