Chilean political prisoners in 1973

by Dominic Norris

The history of football is a fascinatingly diverse path. The manner in which it spread across the globe in a rapid, uncompromising fashion led to it becoming increasingly entangled in the social and political issues that were prevalent at any given time. Through such periods clubs and players were granted different connotations as they became associated with varying aspects of society, politics and religion.

There are few nations where the game has been so entrenched with political implications as in the Soviet Union. The creation of Moscow’s famed clubs revolved around ideology, political institutions and propaganda. Dinamo found themselves under the control of Felix Dzerzhinsky – the chief of the Cheka, the Soviet Union’s original secret police force. The Cheka were notorious for their militancy and sheer ruthlessness.

The organisation tortured political opponents and rebels to the Bolshevik regime as people were skinned, crucified and boiled amongst other heinous acts of violence. Meanwhile CSKA were the club of the army – as their nickname ‘The Armymen’ suggests – and while the connotations with extreme violence were not a potent as their Dinamo cousins, the political overtures remained as prevalent as ever.

But ultimately the politicisation of Soviet football never truly hit the global stage until the qualification for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany came around. The Soviet Union’s intercontinental qualifier against Chile was supposed to be the a chance for the Eastern Europeans to maintain their burgeoning reputation as a force of global football. However, it proved to be a catastrophe for the regime as  football came to be perceived as being beyond the influence of politicians and their ideologies.

The first leg went without a logistical hitch as the two teams battled out a stale 0-0 draw in front of an expectant Muscovite crowd. The result was met with bitter disappointment by the Soviet Union’s press and public who had become increasingly infatuated with portraying the nation as a dominant force in all possible matters – and a draw to the relative minnows of Chile did little good to their global appearance.

The second leg of the play-off was due to take place in the Chilean capital of Santiago within the confines of what is now known as the Estadio Nacional Julio Martinez Pradanos, the country’s national arena. However recent political events had entirely altered the ideological thinking of the Chilean government as a coup d’état had seen General Augusto Pinochet seize control as Chile entered a new era of right wing fascism. The coup directly negated the views of the Soviet Union and, as the involvement of the United States in Pinochet’s rise came to light, Cold War sentiments began to boil beyond the point of dispersion.

The Soviet Union’s previously amicable relations with Chile’s overthrown President Salvador Allende had led to speculation that the war of words that had existed between the USA and the Soviet Union could finally result in bloodshed as the European nation could fund a retaliation on behalf of Allende. However, the weakness of the former President and his unwillingness to truly align his nation with the ideological views and sentiments of the Soviets ultimately proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the old regime.

The coup d’état ultimately prevented the possibility of communist states surrounding the important southern nations below the United States who feared that Soviet military action could be launched via their communist allies. However, despite the United States’ desire for their own safety they failed to protect a great deal of Chileans who were brutally murdered as a result of the United States’ financial and political weight.

A number of Chile’s great cultural minds and intellectuals were openly rounded up and placed within the confines of the National Stadium where they were ultimately murdered by Pinochet’s militia. Thousands upon thousands of people were interned within the walls of the stadium with a significant proportion of those never again slipping through the stadium’s turnstiles to freedom.

Under such circumstances it is quite incredible that FIFA President Stanley Rous ordered the second leg between the Soviet Union and Chile to be held in the National Stadium some two weeks after it was being used to murder and hold countless Chilean citizens. It has been reported that blood stains were still visible in some parts of the stadium as the tragedy remained an open wound for much of Chile’s population.

It had been anticipated that FIFA would compromise given the seeming instability of the Chilean nation and move the return leg to a neutral venue that could have suited both parties, however the organisation refused to offer any alternative. Thus the Soviet Union inevitably refused to travel to a nation which had – since the first leg had taken place – become a political and ideological enemy – in turn this meant that Chile were given the right to participate in the 1974 World Cup finals.

The Chilean team did however partake in a game that quickly became known as being “the match that never was” as – in front of 40,000 fans – they took to the field, kicked-off and proceeded to make their way up the pitch passing the ball amongst themselves before eventually hammering the ball into the empty net. The goal was a surreal end to a peculiar turn of events which saw football buried beneath the weight of political and social power.

However, the intercontinental qualifier of 1974 ultimately proved to show that football, despite its powers of unity and progression, is no match for the political realm within which it is so deeply entrenched.

Read more of Dominic’s work on his excellent blog, Football Globe.