It was the second game of the 1962 World Cup. Hosts Chile lined up against Italy on the back of an impressive opening round victory against Switzerland. Sixty-six thousand fans travelled to Estadio Nacional to cheer on the home side, many confidant of victory. Likewise, the Italians had drawn their opening game against West Germany and were just as desperate to get points on the board. This game was more than about football, however; it was about national pride.

Chilean sentiment towards Italy had reached an all-time low following a series of inflammatory articles written by two Italian journalists about the host nation. Forget two points, the Chileans wanted blood, and blood they got. The ‘Battle of Santiago’, as the game became known, was one of the most nonsensical, violent matches in the history of the World Cup and sparked off a decade of high-tempered games between European and South American sides. The game was broadcasted around the world much to the dismay of purists of the beautiful game.

The year 1962 was supposed to go down as a year of reconciliation. For the first time since 1950, a South American team was hosting the FIFA World Cup. World Cup 1954 and 1958 had both been held in Europe, much to the chagrin of the South American nations. When the time came to vote on the 1962 hosts, it was made clear that South American sides would boycott the tournament if it was hosted in Europe yet again. They had done so in 1938, and FIFA were desperate to get the Latin states on board.

Three countries initially flirted with the idea of hosting the seventh World Cup: Argentina, Chile and West Germany. When murmurings of a boycott reached Zürich, however, FIFA requested West Germany withdraw from the bidding process leaving only Argentina and Chile. Few held out much hope for the Chilean bid. Argentina boasted a much better infrastructure and, of course, a greater footballing pedigree.

Chile’s one weapon came in the form of Carlos Dittborn, the charismatic president of the FA. Through sheer force of will Dittborn managed to secure enough support for the Chilean bid that when it came time to vote in 1956, Chile beat Argentina by 32 votes to 11. The first hurdle had been jumped, leaving Chile with the rather more daunting task of building up the infrastructure needed for a World Cup. Roads, stadiums and transport would all need to be improved. There was little time to waste.

Diligently, plans were put in place to prepare the host nation and preparations had been going well until May 22, 1960, when the Valdivia earthquake struck. The Valdivia quake was the most powerful earthquake recorded in human history and it ravaged Chile. Thousands died, even more were displaced from their homes. For a country already struggling with a sluggish economy, the cost of the quake has been estimated as high as US$6 billion in today’s money. Four of Chile’s eight intended venues were left unusable. Support poured in from around the world and efforts were made to salvage Chile’s World Cup.

Two cities managed to repair their stadiums in time for the ‘62 games bringing the number of venues up to six. Braden, a US copper company based in Chile, also donated their own undamaged stadium in Rancagua for the games. Seven venues would be enough. Just.

Unsurprisingly the effort to rebuild Chile from the ground up raised patriotic sentiment across the state. The Chilean national team spent 18 months travelling around Chile and other nations raising awareness of the Chilean plight and trying to bolster national pride.

So when the World Cup came, thousands of Chileans had bought into the fervour of what a World Cup actually meant. It symbolised the nation’s revival. In 1960 Carlos Dittborn had echoed the sentiments of the Chilean people when he told reporters: “Because we don’t have anything, we will do everything in our power to rebuild.” Sadly Dittborn, the man who had done so much to bring the World Cup to Chile, died one month before the games began. Although mourning the loss of a great man, Chilean football looked forward to a tournament containing West Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes Chile’s recovery would be seen as magical, or at least that was what was expected. Praise began to rain in from around the globe about the resilience of the Chilean people but not everyone was impressed, and matters soon became turned sour. Shortly before the games began, Italian journalists Antonio Ghirelli and Corrado Pizzinelli published a series of articles in La Nazione and Corriere della Sera describing the idea of Chile hosting the tournament as “pure madness”. Santiago was described as a backwater where “the phones don’t work, taxis are as rare as faithful husbands, a cable to Europe costs an arm and a leg and a letter takes five days to turn up”.

“Santiago is terrible,” Corrado Pizzinelli wrote in La Nazione. “Entire neighbourhoods are given over to open prostitution.” The Chilean people didn’t come off much better in the accounts and were described as prone to “malnutrition, illiteracy, alcoholism and poverty”.

Had the reports been confined solely to Italy, the Battle of Santiago may never have happened. Sadly for the Azzurri, the Chilean press were soon alerted to the defamatory writings. El Mercurio, a leading Chilean newspaper, edited the articles, distorting them to heighten the insults and reprinted them en masse. Another outlet, Clarín de Santiago, accompanied its article on the writings with the headline ‘World War’.

The response was immediate and the outcome clear. Gli Azzurri would be targets when Chile faced off against Italy in the second match of the tournament. Few would have predicted the senseless scenes of violence that occurred.

The Italian team were under no illusions on 2 June when they lined up against Chile. They knew they were in for trouble. Days before the match, an Argentine journalist had been severely beaten having been mistaken for an Italian. Italians had been banned from Chilean bars and the Azzurri players were subjected to heckling from the local populace.

Hoping desperately to placate their hosts before the game, Italian players ran to all corners of the stadium prior to kickoff handing bouquets of flowers to Chilean women in the crowd. The flowers were promptly thrown back to the players in disdain. This day there would be no reconciliation.

When the referee, Englishman Ken Aston, blew his whistle to commence the game, the Chileans struck almost immediately. Twelve seconds and the game’s first foul had been committed. The tone had been set.

Within five minutes Aston was forced to break up a potential fist fight between the opposing sides. Quickly the game descended into anarchy. Soon after, Italian midfielder Giorgio Ferrini reacted to a Honorino Landa foul by kicking him in full sight of Aston. Left with no choice, the Englishman sent Ferrini off. Ferrini refused to leave the pitch.

The Italian wanted to know why Landa hadn’t been booked for continually fouling the Italian, and for the next eight minutes Ferrini remained on the pitch demanding justice. Amid hisses and boos from the crowd Ferrini stood his ground, growing ever more defiant. Eventually a squad of Chilean policemen forcibly removed him from the field.

Shortly before half time, Chilean winger, Leonel Sánchez, went down following a late tackle from Mario David. The son of a professional boxer, Sánchez was no stranger to physicality and promptly responded to David’s tackle by delivering a left hook to the Italian defender’s cranium. Perhaps forgetting he was commentating on football and not boxing, a BBC pundit remarked, “I say, that was one of the neatest left hooks I’ve ever seen.”

Despite being yards away from the linesman, Sánchez escaped a booking but he wouldn’t escape David. Minutes later David returned the favour to the Chilean with a flying boot to the head in front of an astonished Aston. Aston dutifully sent David from the field of play leaving the Azzurri with nine men.

Several more times in the second half, Chilean police were forced to intervene to maintain a relative peace during the game. At times the match resembled rugby, other times boxing, yet seldom did it resemble football. Midway through the second half Sánchez yet again managed to escape the referee’s book when he punched Humberto Maschio following a nasty clash between the two. Reflecting afterwards on the match, Aston decried: “I wasn’t reffing a football match, I was acting as an umpire in military manoeuvres.” Few could disagree.

The Italians had begun to crumble and with 73 minutes on the board Chile notched the game’s first goal when Jaime Ramírez headed the ball in from short-range. Three minutes later Jorge Toro doubled Chile’s lead with a spectacular long-range effort. When Aston put an end to the game the Italians scuttled from the field, fearful that the crowd or even worse, the Chilean squad, would get their hands on them.

Remarkably the following morning two different sets of match reports emerged. In Chilean publications, the Italians were blamed for instigating the violence amid claims that the Chilean national team were only defending themselves. Jorge Pica, a Chilean FA representative, even went so far as to accuse the Italians of doping prior to the game.

Pica told Chilean journalists: “They seemed to go on the field only with the intention of injuring the Chileans … it was like a rodeo. Frankly, I think they were doped. Now I can see the necessity for laboratory tests on players after matches.”

The Italian response was equally emotive. Official complaints were passed on to FIFA about Aston’s “biased” performance alongside claims that the Chileans acted like cannibals on the field of play. When word reached Italy about what had happened, the Italian army had to be called in to protect the Chilean consulate in Rome.

In England, media outlets viewed the match as an embarrassment to football. The Mirror warned that the World Cup was heading for disgrace if matters weren’t cleaned up. The Express labelled the game a bloodbath. The strongest and perhaps best known criticism of the game came from BBC’s David Coleman, who introduced the match as follows: “The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football in the history of the game. This is the first time these countries have met; we hope it will be the last.

“The national motto of Chile reads, ‘By Reason or By Force’. Today, the Chileans weren’t prepared to be reasonable, the Italians only used force, and the result was a disaster for the World Cup.”

Calls were made for FIFA to step in, but sadly the governing body’s reaction left much to be desired. Despite assuring referees that the strongest possible examples would be made of the Chilean and Italian sides, FIFA suspended Ferrini for only one game with Sánchez and David escaping punishment altogether. Attempts were made to draw a line in the side and just continue with the tournament.

Five days after the Battle of Santiago, a withered Italian side beat Switzerland 3-0 in a dead rubber game. The Italians already knew they had been eliminated from the tournament and, battered and bruised, they returned home vowing revenge. Chile and West Germany had made it through to the later stages at the expense of the Azzurri. Although Chile eventually made it to the semi-finals, few European observers cheered them on. For the remainder of the tournament, the Chilean side were view with suspicion by European outlets. A schism had emerged between European and South American states.

The following season, in 1963, Pelé’s Santos travelled to the San Siro to face off against Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan in the Intercontinental Cup. Many hoped matters had been forgiven but right from the kick off it became clear that European sentiment of South American sides had not improved with time. Players from both sides began to weigh in with sly punches, late tackles and on two occasions, kicks to the head. When Milan travelled to Santos for the return leg, the Brazilians physical response nearly caused the Milan players to leave the field of play.

The gauntlet had been thrown down between European and South American sides and thus, began a decade of ill-tempered affairs between the two continents that flared up in a series of World Cup and Intercontinental Cup matches. The following years would see Alf Ramsey describe Argentina as “a pack of animals”, Pelé lament the physicality of the Europeans, and matches in the Intercontinental Cup that left players bruised, bloodied and at times unconscious.

Looking back at the Battle of Santiago and its impact on European and South American relations, one is left pondering what would have happened had Antonio Ghirelli and Corrado Pizzinelli kept their opinions to themselves.

By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy