We were always told that “There is no match without an opponent”, but this wasn’t true, at least one time. On 21st November 1973 Chilean selection played against nobody, in the Estádio Nacional of Santiago, which had recently become the symbol of a dictatorship.
USSR and Chile were supposed to meet each other in the play-offs for the 1974 World Cup, but on 11th September 1973 Chile’s democratic government headed by socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. The President of Chile was found dead in the Moneda Palace on the same day of the coup, during which the building had been under heavy bomb attacks by the country’s own army.
Pinochet quickly started to jail and kill opponents, gathering thousands of them in Chilean football stadiums. Popular singer Victor Jara was tortured and killed in one of these football pitches turned into concentration camps. When this news arrived abroad, the Soviet Union, together with East Germany and other allied countries in Asia and Africa, stated they would not play in a stadium full of political prisoners, and asked for a neutral field where to play the return match (the first leg in Moscow had ended 0-0).
FIFA sends blind inspectors
On 24th October FIFA sent two inspectors to Santiago, who reported that the grass of the field was in excellent condition, that they saw no prisoners or jailed dissidents and the match could be played without problems. The press conference was held together with the Chilean new Defense Minister, Admiral Carvajal, who reassured the world against the effects of Soviet propaganda.
The USSR stuck with its decision. Once known that its players hadn’t left for Santiago, Chile could have got the 2-0 without any match to be played. But Pinochet wanted a victory inside a packed stadium, so one of the most grotesque football events took place. The match was organized in the Estadio Nacional of Santiago and only the home team took the side on the pitch.
The awkward situation of Chilean players
Some of the local players were Allende’s supporters, such as one of the best Chilean strikers ever, Carlos Caszely, fresh top scorer of the 1973 Copa Libertadores with Colo-Colo. He left South America in the same year, to play in Spanish Liga until 1978, when he came back to his home country, keeping clear his opposition to the Pinochet regime.
Caszely remembered that November night as a nightmare, saying that before the match some people had even asked him to look inside the stadium for their relatives and friends who had been imprisoned. The Colo-Colo striker refused to score on a defenseless target, but some other player did.
So, one of the most absurd matches ended 1-0 for the home team, and Chile could fly to West Germany and play in the 1974 World Cup. It ended its competition in the first round, after a defeat against the host team and two draws with Australia and East Germany.
As often happened, footballers fell into an unwanted scenario in which their actions became symbols of something much bigger than them. Some, for legitimate fear, bent over, some others, like Caszely, tried to make some act symbolizing their distance, or opposition. A professional footballer usually has an oversized visibility, how would you use it? Do you think footballers must keep themselves outside politics, because it’s not their job, or popularity must be used when it is needed?