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History's role in creating change

21 Sep 2012 | 16:03-Tim Vickery

It was tough for Chile to play at home in a World Cup qualifier on 11 September. Whatever associations the date may have elsewhere, in Chile it is remembered as the anniversary of the coup in 1973 when General Pinochet and the military overthrew the government of Salvador Allende.

It is an event that continues to cause deep divisions in Chilean society, and 11 September  is usually marked by demonstrations by those on both sides of the political divide. It is not seen, then, as an appropriate day for a major sporting event and Chile tried to change the date of its home fixture with Colombia. FIFA, though, would not relent. The match had to go ahead. But it was switched to the Monumental stadium, home of the Colo Colo club. There was no way that it could take place in Chile’s usual home, Santiago’s Nacional stadium.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup in 1973, the Nacional stadium was used as a concentration camp for supporters of the Allende regime. Thousands were detained there. Many were tortured. Hundreds were executed.

Meanwhile, the Chilean national team was seeking to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. At the time of the coup it had made it to a play off with the Soviet Union to determine who would take the last place in West Germany the following year. The first leg was a 0-0 draw in Moscow. But where would the return match take place? Surely not in Chile, just two months after the coup? And surely not in the Nacional stadium.

Astonishingly, FIFA could not see a problem. The game was ordered to go ahead as if nothing had happened. Some of the prisoners inside the stadium were released. Others were transferred to alternative centres of detention, torture and assassination. Attempts were made to clean up the bloodstains.

On November 21st the doors opened and the crowd flooded in. They were to see a very strange game. Quite correctly, the Soviet Union had not turned up. Would it be appropriate, they asked, for a match to take place in Belsen just after the Second World War?

Chile took the field alone, kicked off, passed the ball around and scored a symbolic goal. In reality it was an own goal for FIFA. The events of November 1973 stand as the darkest, most repugnant in the organisation’s history.

This was not a political question, a case of being in favour or against the new Chilean regime. It was a moral issue. No football match should have taken place in such circumstances. There would have been nothing left wing or anti-Pinochet in ordering the game to go ahead in Uruguay, for example – merely a recognition of exceptional circumstances.

Then again, FIFA’s president, the Englishman Stanley Rous had already nailed his political colours to the mast. In the manner of the extreme English right wing of the time he seemed to be an admirer of apartheid South Africa. For years he fought tooth and nail against its expulsion from FIFA, long after they had been kicked out by the International Olympic Committee.

Rous had clearly gone too far, though, with his appalling error of judgement in November 1973, and it cost him vital votes a few months later when he was defeated by Brazil’s Joao Havelange and ousted as FIFA president.

Havelange brought change – a commitment to increase the size of the World Cup from 16 to 32 countries, to set up World Cups at Under-17 and Under-20 level. It was a pro-developing world agenda which has clearly had its successes. Change came, though, at a price. Someone had to bankroll the project, and so the doors were opened to the global corporations. The combination of huge inflows of money with an absurdly antiquated administration structure was never likely to end well. Cronyism has flourished.

British journalists have been in the forefront of the battle to expose the corruption in FIFA. Such investigative work is magnificent. It is journalism at its most noble, and long may it continue.

But any crusading message can be undermined by a refusal to get to grips with the pre-Havelange era. Latent is the idea that everything was perfect in the garden of FIFA up until 1974, until ‘they stole the game.’ But who stole the game? And from who?

Before 1974 it appeared to belong only to Europe, with South America’s tradition allowing its inclusion. In the 1966 World Cup there was a grand total of one place made available for all of Africa and Asia combined. The argument used was that standards had to be protected. It is bogus.

First, how could countries from the game’s peripheries attain higher standards if they were left out of the loop? Secondly, the team from these continents which made it through more than held its own – North Korea beat Italy and was three goals up in the quarter final against Portugal before succumbing to the genius of Eusebio. How much quicker the game might have globalised with more encouragement from the centre.

All of this is relevant for one simple reason. At the moment the corrupt can swat away some of the allegations as the product of a British press still smarting about a loss of political control. Those seeking a positive new agenda for the global game must also take into account the blunders of the Rous era.

September 11 is a good place to start. Because if it is not appropriate for Chile to play in the Nacional stadium on September 11th 2012, it was much, much less so for it to do it in the aftermath of the coup in 1973.

About this blog


Tim Vickery

British-born Tim works as a journalist and has lived in Brazil since 1994 and provides unrivalled knowledge of South American football. Follow @Tim_Vickery on Twitter. Read More.

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