Chile: the rise of South America’s sleeping giant

Chile: the rise of South America’s sleeping giant

DESPITE THE BEST EFFORTS OF MANY, one’s life cannot entirely revolve around football without being affected by the outside world. Pesky issues like friends and a life aside, football fans are incessantly plagued by news of economics, politics and Kim Kardashian. “Why can’t we be left alone”, we cry, and just let the rest of the world go about its mundane business?

Football, sadly, just as everything else, does not live in a vacuum. Football clubs are traded on the stock market. Governing bodies are involved in political punch-ups with real-life governments. As such, we grow and wilt together as one. Rarely is this as applicable as in Chile, where politics and football are inextricably linked. This link has produced some interesting results over the years, especially in recent decades as Chilean football has experienced a long-awaited resurgence, coinciding with an upturn in their economy.

I. Chaotic history

CHILE IS HISTORICALLY ONE OF THE BIG FOUR FOOTBALLING POWERS in South America, having been a part of the inaugural Copa América in 1916. Equally, the FFCH (Federación de Fútbol de Chile) is the second oldest football association in the continent, only two years younger than their Argentine neighbours. Despite this elongated history, however, their trophy cabinet stands barren – apart from a few consolation prizes. It was not until the 1950s that La Roja began to truly flex their muscles on the international stage, with two runners-up positions in the Copa América and a third place finish at the World Cup in a seven-year period. They even hosted tow of those tournaments.

The 1960s were the beginning of a tumultuous time in Chilean history as the country was flipped every which way along the political spectrum. Initially there was a move towards the left as Eduardo Frei Montalva and Salvador Allende tackled issues of income equality, especially in the rural areas. Allende, in the 70s, went further than Frei in that regard and heavily nationalised several industries in the Chilean economy, most notably the copper mining companies.

The country then took a dramatic turn in 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende. This came as a result of quarrels between Allende and the Chilean business community after his policy of nationalisation had ruffled a few feathers; the United States government also played a major role. The military junta proceeded to implement an oxymoronic policy of liberalised oppression – opening up the market to the private investors, all the while imprisoning, exiling and murdering their own people.

Football was far from immune to the atrocities. Soon after the military coup, Pinochet began the imprisonment and killing of several thousands in Chile’s national football stadium, the Estadio Nacional. The scandal was further exacerbated by the ludicrousness of a World Cup playoff match between Chile and the Soviet Union for the 1974 World Cup, which FIFA insisted be held at the now-infamous prison. An investigation of the premises led to an approval by FIFA officials, although reports have emerged that prisoners were being held at gunpoint just meters away. The Soviet Union, not usually acknowledged as a beacon of morality, boycotted the match, and the military junta was forever associated with the images of a Chilean team scoring into an empty net.

Pinochet’s reign lasted until 1990 when the fight for democracy finally prevailed and Patricio Aylwin was elected president. Although the dictatorial regime had committed unforgivable acts, they had arguably managed to get the Chilean economy under control, and even surpass the growth of other countries in the region. In the following decades this macroeconomic trend was continued, and many dubbed the development as the “Miracle of Chile”. The country had launched itself into the upper echelons of global development politics.

It is therefore impossible to separate Chilean football from Chilean politics. In the early days of football in Chile, and especially Santiago in the barrios, football clubs were social gathering points, alternative churches of sorts, where the community united, and the football players became de facto political beacons. As the capital exploded, makeshift neighbourhoods known as callampas rose, and there, sport played an instrumental part in shaping children into ‘machos’.

One such icon was Carlos Caszely, born in 1950 in Santiago. He was not just one of Colo-Colo and Chile’s greatest ever players, but he was also an important political activist. A self-proclaimed socialist, Caszely was an avid opponent to the Pinochet regime, and his mother was even kidnapped and tortured by the secret police. He did participate in the one-sided USSR match, and called it a “worldwide embarrassment”, but just before the World Cup he refused to shake the hand of the dictator, in what is widely recognised as one of the first public protests against the military junta.

Clubs have also taken a political stand, although not always in the conventional way. One of Chile’s historic clubs is, for example, based around the country’s Palestinian immigrants. Club Deportivo Palestino are based around this somewhat surprising expat community which was formed in the late 19th and early 20th century, and today comprises almost half a million people, the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world. While they have not been as successful recently – certainly not since the times of Elías Figueroa in 70s – they have been making different waves recently with their pro-Palestinian symbols on their shirts. This is just one example of the cultural and political diversity in Chile.

II. Football feels the shock

IN FOOTBALLING TERMS, THIS HISTORICAL ROLLERCOASTER had a significant effect. On a positive note, it aided in a further break from Santiago-centrism which had prevailed in Chilean football during most of its history. Cobreloa are a prime example of this development. Based in Calama, a small city of less than 150,000 people, located in the desert of Northern Chile, Cobreloa is an unlikely football setting. Yet it boasts eight league titles, as well as two runner-up positions in South America’s Copa Libertadores. It is also the home of Chile’s current striking partnership of Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sánchez. This level of success is almost exclusively down to financial gains from copper production which was accelerated by the Allende and Pinochet regimes.

To further illustrate this point, Cobreloa is easily the most successful team outside the Santiago region, with the next team in line being Everton de Viña del Mar with only four titles to Cobreloa’s eight. In comparison, the three biggest clubs in Santiago and the country, Colo-Colo, Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica, have won 30, 17 and 10 titles, respectively. New contenders in the shape of O’Higgins and Huachipato are also outside of Santiago, although still in the geographical centre of Chile.

The development continues to this day and Chile’s hosting of the 2015 Copa América will include eight different cities from across the country. It is especially in the south that football has failed to generate the expected growth. The region of Concepción, most notably, is the second largest urban region in Chile, with a population just short of a million. The shift back to left-wing politics has put these areas on the political agenda once more, especially in light of recent events and the student protests that rocked the country between 2011 and 2013.

This can also be seen in more specific ways, especially with regards to club finances and legislation. For most of the twentieth century, sport was viewed as a tool for physical education, the military, and the general improvement of the Chilean race. It was not until 1970 that the state moved towards a direction more related to competitive sport development; including youth academies and coach education programmes. This created an important foundation, never seen before in Chile, where the state supports sport. As a result, it survived the span of four governments.

Pinochet continued this state involvement policy, albeit with a different twist, as he enacted a law (Polla Gol) to provide additional financial support for sport – specifically professional football clubs. Essentially it generated income through sport lotteries and betting, and the clubs took full advantage. In the late 1980s, the lottery revenue was equal to a whopping 80% of the entire public budget allotted for sport. The disadvantages of such a finance model were already apparent by the beginning of the 90s, when several football clubs went into bankruptcy.

While this wasn’t solely down to the lottery law, various authors have pointed out that it undoubtedly contributed to the development of a mismanagement culture within football clubs. The variation of the amounts was yet another factor as both spent more than they generated, and even far above any sane future projection. As an example, Colo-Colo, Chile’s most successful domestic club was placed into administration in 2002 with debts of around $30 million, after several years of living on the edge.

A rebalancing act was attempted with a law in 2005 aimed to alleviate these negligent management structures. To this effect, clubs were now required to become Public Limited Sport Companies, and thereby would become legally accountable for their financial actions. It was also meant as a way to provide further funding avenue for clubs, namely the stock market.

This is part of another legislative wave from the state, as they attempt to tackle the major issues within Chilean football and sport as a whole. Additionally, laws addressing labour relations and stadium violence have been enacted. The emphasis of the regulations continue to swing from left to right, and the situation is indicative of the environment which has persisted in Chile for the last five decades.

III. Argentina and new beginnings

POLITICS, OF COURSE, DOES NOT EXPLAIN EVERYTHING when it comes to football. Writing about Chilean football without mentioning the Argentine connection would be foolish. The influence of Claudio Borghi and Marcelo Bielsa, along with Jorge Sampaoli more recently, has had an invaluable effect on the Chilean footballing landscape.

What complicates the matter is the intense rivalry which the two countries share on a social level. Issues regarding their shared border is almost inevitable considering that it is the third longest in the world. Chile’s war with their neighbours has had a significant impact on their relations. The political paths that the two countries have chosen has also been markedly different and even today, Chile continues to pursue relations apart from Argentina and the rest of South America, rather following a path towards the Pacific and Europe. Argentina’s more isolationist policy has often clashed with Chile’s outgoing nature.

Despite this conflict, Chilean football would be in a very different place had Bielsa and Borghi stayed away. Some, Borghi included, have argued that Bielsa gets far too much credit for their current form. Borghi started playing and coaching in Chile many years before Bielsa took over the Chilean national team in 2007, and was instrumental in bringing up many of Chile’s current stars in his Colo-Colo side; including Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Matías Fernández.

Many others, however, have attributed most of Chile’s success in recent years to Bielsa. One of Chile’s greatest players, Elías Figueroa, made the point that Chile had failed to gain an identity, always trying to copy others rather than developing their own style. Figueroa’s deific status, especially after having scored the ‘gol iluminado’ under a lone ray of divine intervention, lends even more weight behind these words. Renowned sports journalist Tim Vickery further adds that Bielsa gave the country their identity of attacking flair. Current national team manager Sampaoli is also a self-declared Bielsa disciple, and so the legacy looks to live on.

The Chile of today is a mix of all these influences. The Argentine trio have even had an influence on the political side, with mainly Bielsa and Sampaoli having directly identified themselves with the student protesters in recent years, making the connection between them and football by declaring that “progressive people play offense”. The new Chile, playing a non-apologetic style of pure attack and pressure, are often left vulnerable, but this is very identifiable for the post-Pinochet generation which has risen up to demand social reform in schools and police forces.

Journalist Wright Thompson makes the comparison between the politically charged students and the aggressive national team, and Chilean writer Pablo Azocar unequivocally states that this Chilean team is the best; and perhaps the only time when the entire nation is united behind a single force.

With Chile’s historical, political and social background, however, there is no doubt that this is not the end of the road for this country’s development. As Chile is set to welcome the elite of South American football in 2015, this could finally be when this country of also-rans get the gold they so desperately desire.

By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic