The ball is in our blood.
“An astonishing void: official history ignores soccer. Contemporary history texts fail to mention it, even in passing, in countries where soccer has been and continues to be a primordial symbol of collective identity. I play therefore I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different. Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are.”
― Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow
The year of the 44th Copa America may be remembered in Latin America as the year the world lost Eduardo Galeano, a singular voice for a region full of violence, pain, beauty and contradiction – and a great lover of the beautiful game.
In homage to the Uruguayan bard and in celebration of the sport that has so shaped the culture, history and soul of Latin America, Remezcla reflects on the stories behind the flash bulbs and the cheering fans that will flood into Chile this month. These stories that show soccer flows through the veins of these countries and their people.
Fútbol After a Coup: The Creepiest Match in Soccer History
It was a match with no opponent, an attack with no defense, a silent crowd, a World Cup qualification with no celebration.
Many things can be said about one of the most absurd moments in soccer history.
It was November 21st in 1973, and Chile and the USSR were set to face off in an inter-confederation play-off for a place in the 1974 World Cup. But the Soviets never arrived, citing political matters and security problems. Just a few months earlier, a coup d’état had overthrown Chilean president Salvador Allende and put Augusto Pinochet in power; the general had been using Chile’s National Stadium as a detention and torture center for the military regime’s political opponents.
With no Soviet rivals to play against, FIFA ordered the Chileans onto the field anyway. As a symbolic gesture, the team had to score a goal in order to seal their World Cup qualification. “It was the crudest football show I ever had to experience. The theatre of the absurd,” remembers former Chilean striker Carlos Caszely.
1973 would prove to be just the beginning of a bloody, 17-year military rule, which was characterized by systematic repression of all areas of society – including sports. And Chile’s path to the World Cup would unfold submerged in the shadow of uncertainty and political chaos.
The first game took place in Moscow against a tough Soviet Union, who did not allow journalists or cameras into the match. It ended in a 0-0 draw, a very positive result for the South Americans, who would seek the qualification in a home game. But on a direct order from the Kremlin, Chile’s opponents never showed up to the 2nd game in Santiago. The USSR refused to play in a stadium still tainted by blood.
It is estimated that around 40,000 detainees of Pinochet’s regime passed through the National Stadium. The stands served as improvised jails, where many were tortured and executed by the military.
The Chilean squad, concentrated at the Juan Pinto Durán sports complex, heard the news of their opponents’ planned absence two days before the match. But even though they had no Soviet rivals to play against, FIFA ordered the Chileans onto the field anyway.
As a symbolic gesture, La Roja was required to score a goal in order to seal their World Cup qualification.
“It was the crudest football show I ever had to experience. The theatre of the absurd,”
remembers former Chilean striker Carlos Caszely.
Only 15,000 people attended the match that day at the National Stadium, which had an 80,000-person capacity; many just came seeking news about missing family members.
The military was still in possession of the stadium. They were everywhere, in the stands, in the tunnels, at the entrance.
It was in this disturbing, surreal setting that Chile’s starting lineup took to the field. When the referee’s whistle marked the beginning of the match, four players advanced towards the unguarded goal box, passing the ball between them as though dodging ghosts. It was an eerie spectacle, a moment Galeano deemed “the most pathetic match in the history of fútbol.” As the players reached the goal, the team’s captain Francisco “Chamaco” Valdés scored on an opponent-less net.
Although Chile would be playing the 1974 World Cup in Germany, there was no celebration.
The ridiculous display went down in history as one of the saddest moments in soccer – more than a metaphor, a true embodiment of the dictatorship’s propaganda. The sport had been used to serve the interests of a few powerful in order to silence the voice of its many victims.
How Soccer Made One of the Whitest Countries in South America Desegregation Pioneers
Eduardo Galeano once said “La celeste’s jersey was proof of the nation’s existence: Uruguay was not a mistake. Football pulled this little country out of the shadows of universal anonymity.”
With a population of little more than 3 million people, Uruguay has always had an independent streak. Today, it leads the way in Latin America for the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage, but the country’s liberal traditions stretch back into the annals of national football. In Uruguay, the national team truly represents the nation.
It all started in 1916, when Uruguay destroyed Chile 4-0 in the first South American Championship, a predecessor to the Copa América. The following day, the Chilean squad demanded that the match be invalidated “because Uruguay had lined up two African players.” They were referring to Uruguayan players Isabelino Gradín and Juan Delgado, the first two slave descendants to have played an official match in South America (and who happened to have scored 2 of the 4 goals during the match). Uruguay’s incorporation of black players onto their national squad was a defiant break with racial taboos; they were the only soccer team in the world to have black players on their national team playing in an international tournament.
Juan Delgado was the great-grandson of slaves. He was born in Florida, a small town 90 kilometers from the capital of Uruguay. Delgado liked dancing both in carnivals and on soccer fields. While he played, he talked and joked with his adversaries.
Born in Montevideo, Gradín’s great-grandparents had also been slaves. People were so impressed with his speed and amazing ball control, that they were known to get out of their seats to see him better. He’s said to have dribbled past opponents and struck for the goal without ever slowing down. He had a kind face; the kind of man who no one believes when he acts mean.
Gradín’s great-grandparents had come from Lesotho, part of the large number of slaves that were brought to South America in the beginning of the 19th century. He joined Peñarol in 1915, and was called to the national team during his first year in the league, where he immediately made a great first impression. He had a great left and was so fast, that he also left his mark in Track and Field, winning 200 and 400 meter South American sprint competitions.
Unfortunately, he spent his last days in poverty and with serious health issues. On December 17th, 1944, the full Peñarol squad went to visit him in the hospital after winning the Uruguayan championship. Gradín died four days later.
Uruguay continued its incorporation of black players onto their national team. In the famous Maracanazo of 1950, African-descended Obdulio Varela led his team to what is still considered one of soccer’s biggest surprises. In round-robin style semifinals, Brazil had destroyed Spain (6-1) and Sweden (7-1), while Uruguay tied with Spain and barely defeated Sweden with a goal in the last minutes of the game. A tie would have been enough to secure the Carioca’s first World Cup title, but soccer is not called the beautiful game for no reason. An inspired Uruguay team led by Varela came back from a 0-1, scoring two goals before the game ended and securing their 2nd World Cup title.
Everybody understands football, nobody understands politics: Socrates and the Corinthians’ Fight for Democracy in Brazil.
In the early 1980s, during Brazil’s military dictatorship, popular soccer player Sócrates – captain of the Seleção – used soccer to promote democracy while he was scoring goals.
Known as “The Doctor,” Sócrates was a brilliant player who revolutionized his Brazilian team Corinthians. With the help of magnificent player Casagrande, they made each match a political statement.
It all started when, after a series of crushing defeats, the soccer club adopted an innovative self-governing system where all the team’s members – players, coaching staff, team officials, and general employees – decided administration topics through a voting system. Everyone voted, and all the votes had equal weight.
It was 1982, almost two decades since a military dictatorship had taken power in Brazil. And when the nation could not vote, Corinthian players forged their own democracy to decide the team’s future.
Sócrates’ support for democracy helped a country under a military regime remember that the people’s voice should be heard. World-famous architect Oscar Niemeyer and singer Jorge Ben publicly showed their enthusiasm for the democratic system adopted by the football team.
A year later, in 1983, 1.5 million people took to the streets of Sao Paulo to demand that congress grant open presidential elections. Eighteen unions, including the metallurgy union led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, joined the protests. In his book, Democracia Corinthiana: A utopia em jogo (Corinthian Democracy: utopia at play), Sócrates shared his experience with the movement:
“We began discussing things and created a very cordial environment. Each one of us began giving his opinion and sharing his feelings…Basically, our objective was to democratize the manner in which our team worked in the world of football. So we decided to vote – for everything. Compare it to what happens in society. Take several unhappy couples and put a very happy in love one with them. It contaminates the whole group. That is the way we were back then.”
“Win or lose, always with democracy” was the philosophy Sócrates led with on the soccer field. “I always knew we were doing politics. Football, I believe, is the only way one can accelerate the transformations our society needs, because it’s our biggest cultural identity. Everybody understands football, nobody understands politics,” he said in his book, written in collaboration with journalist Ricardo Gozzi.
If they hadn’t achieved anything on the pitch, the Corinthian Democracy movement would’ve been nothing more than a footnote in history. But the team surged from 26th place at the Brazilian Championship of 1981 to win the Paulista Championship and reach the National semifinals two years in a row.
“Liberty with responsibility” was the team’s motto.
Almost 35 years since its creation, Corinthians Democracy is still the biggest example of self-governance in the history of professional football.
Their innovative way to manage the club inspired a country under military regime to make a change.
And it was all because of Futebol.
The Legend of El Dorado: Colombia, Land of Gold and Soccer
For almost a century after the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in the so-called New Granada, they searched the mountains and jungles of Colombia for El Dorado, a mythical city of gold. The search was an epic failure.
But many years later, in the middle of the 20th century, foreign adventurers would finally find El Dorado on the soccer fields of Colombia’s capital city.
Between 1930 and 1940, “coffee fever” struck Colombia. This “black gold” provided 80% of Colombia’s revenue and the economy boomed. As the biggest cities began to industrialize, train tracks connecting Colombian cities – like Bogotá, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Medellin, and Barranquilla – were laid down.
The same thing happened with professional soccer.
In 1948, inspired by Argentine professional team San Lorenzo’s tour of the country, Alfonso Senior Quevedo founded la Liga DiMayor in Bogotá. The league was parallel to the already-established official amateur league Adefutbol in Barranquilla, and by all accounts, it wasn’t even supposed to exist. But it would go on to become an all-star team known as “El Dorado.”
First, however, there were politics to deal with.
In 1948, presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaytán was assassinated under mysterious circumstances. He’d been very popular as mayor of Bogotá, and the murder created social chaos and a tense political climate between liberals and conservatives. Simultaneously, a dispute was brewing between the two soccer leagues.
Adefutbol, which was officially recognized by FIFA, accused the DiMayor league of being a copy-cat and asked FIFA to suspend them from all international competitions and friendlies.
FIFA acted in Adefutbol’s favor and sidelined DiMayor internationally, forcing their league games, which were programmed to start in May, to get rescheduled for August.
While this sanction seemed severe at first, Senior Quevedo – who was also a prominent Bogotá lawyer and the president of FC Millionarios – saw the bright side of the punishment: since DiMayor’s clubs were no longer members of FIFA, they weren’t bound by FIFA’s regulations concerning player transfers.
Senior Quevedo sent Millonarios’ manager Carlos Aldabe to Argentina to sign a leading player. Since there was no transfer fee (FIFA rules didn’t apply), they were able to spend their extra money signing players with enticing wages. After some time in Argentina, Aldebe sent a telegram informing his boss that he was coming back to Bogota with Adolfo Pedernera, a player from the famous soccer machine River Plate.
Eighteen thousand people – five times more than usually attended games – came to Pedernera’s debut at the Millionarios’ stadium.
And this was just the beginning. Many players from Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay would go on to arrive not only to Millionarios, but to other DiMayor teams like Santa Fé.
As South American teams found themselves losing their signed players, they complained desperately to CONMEBOL. By 1949, Millionarios had the Galácticos (All-star team) even before the term was coined. They had nine foreign players, a group of Argentineans, Brazilians, and Chileans amongst whom the best was without a doubt Argentine player Alfredo Di Stefano. Meanwhile, Deportivo Cúcuta had almost the entire Uruguayan squad responsible for winning the World Cup in Brazil.
Players from England, Scotland, Ireland, Hungary, and France also started coming to Colombia. By 1950, there were 109 foreign players in the country. The DiMayor league had become the mythical land of El Dorado for many soccer players. The modern football transfer market had begun in a FIFA unaffiliated league.
The DiMayor league satisfied the Colombian people’s desire for an escape from their daily lives. The country was in a violent power struggle between liberals and conservatives, and although civil war was never declared, the period is known as La Violencia.
In this difficult political climate, the DiMayor league served as entertainment for the Colombian people. Millionario’s style of play became known as “the blue ballet,” and with players like Di Stefano and Pedernera they were invincible, winning the league title four times.
So, of course, FIFA and CONMEBOL decided to kill El Dorado.
After heavy pressure from many South American countries claiming that El Dorado was stealing its players, a summit was called in Peru in 1951. An economic crisis was coming to Colombia, which would make it difficult to keep all the players, so DiMayor struck a deal with FIFA. They would be allowed to keep the players until 1953.
In 1952, Millionarios toured South America, with stops in Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia. After that, they traveled to Spain and played in Sevilla, Madrid, and Valencia. The team went back to Colombia to win a last title during the El Dorado age in 1953, but Di Stefano had already signed for Real Madrid.
Four years later the period known as “The Violence” ended when the liberal and conservative parties formed a coalition called the Frente Nacional. The pact established that both parties would alternate the positions of power, supporting a single presidential candidate during elections, and dividing official public positions equally. The deal between the parties meant that Colombia would return to its normal political and social order.
Thirty years later, however, drugs, money, soc, and violence would meet once again in the land of coffee.
The Crisis Will Be Televised: Televisa and Soccer in Mexico.
In September of 1985, downtown Mexico City collapsed after a devastating earthquake. The transmission antenna for Televisa – Mexico’s biggest broadcaster – fell down, and dozens of people were crushed in the TV channel’s headquarters. Cameramen, producers, set designers, technical assistants, all died while transmitting the morning news.
“Ah, caray, it’s moving. It’s still shaking a little bit,” said anchor Lourdes Guerrero during her live transmission.
Sports anchor Juan Dosal made an attempt to run off the set. The last thing On-Air was was a shot of the set moving violently. Afterwards, dust, TV static, a black screen.
The city was destroyed. The official count announced 3,000 deaths, but non-profit organizations estimated around 40,000 killed and missing. The damages to the city were calculated at around $4 billion dollars. Four hundred and twelve buildings collapsed and 124 were seriously damaged.
In addition to the collapse of his channel’s headquarters and many other buildings, the dream of a World Cup in Mexico also seemed to crumble that morning for Televisa’s owner Emilio Azcarraga Milmo. With it, so did the hopes of making boatloads of advertising money from beer companies, Coca-Cola, Kodak, and the TV rights for the games in the Mexican stadiums.
With the city in ruins, it was difficult to imagine that Mexico would be able to pull together for the World Cup. They had won the bid two years earlier, after FIFA decided Colombia wasn’t in conditions to host the greatest soccer tournament in the world.
Azcarraga realized his billion-dollar business was at risk, so he immediately called his brother-in-law Guillermo Cañedo. Known for his persuasive powers, Cañedo was a close friend of then-FIFA president João Havalange. It was through this relationship that Cañedo had secured Mexico as the first country to host the World Cup for a second time (it had previously hosted the 1970 edition).
Surprisingly, the terrible natural disaster did not affect Mexico City’s soccer stadiums. Havelange sent Cañedo a telegram: “The earthquake respects football.”
Cañedo called Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid in order to pressure him not to renounce Mexico’s place as World Cup host.
“Tell the president that the earthquake is an opportunity to praise the country’s unity, strength, and desire to move forward. Don’t let him pull back from our place as World Cup hosts, we’ve spent too much money,”
Azcarraga told Cañedo, according the book TV Nation by Fabrizio Mejía Madrid.
Televisa made sure that the news about the earthquake was focused on rebuilding the city and citizen unity, instead of on stories about those crushed by the fallen buildings. But even Televisa’s manipulative hand could not entirely conceal the real Mexico behind the World Cup show. When the tournament arrived in 1986 the city was still destroyed; de la Madrid had refused relief aid.
The Azteca Stadium, which was filled to capacity with 120,000 people on inauguration morning, booed and whistled at de La Madrid for eight solid minutes. That day, the angry fans and their organized “wave” reminded the Mexican president what was really important: the people.
Although Mexico did not win the tournament, the euphoria caused by Maradona, his “hand of god,” and Argentina’s World Cup victory motivated Televisa’s next mission: Mexico must win a World Cup.
The 2005 under-17 World Cup Championship evidenced how important this still is for the media giant Grupo Televisa. The teenagers’ accomplishment was celebrated as a milestone for Mexican soccer. Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela still enjoy some of the fame they obtained through the coverage of this World Cup. Players that haven’t particularly shined in their professional careers such as César Villaluz, Ever Guzmán, and Patricio Araujo, are still remembered by many. Today, Mexico’s two biggest TV stations, Televisa and TvAzteca, make impressive broadcasts of these youth tournaments.
A major World Cup win is still one of Televisa’s major objectives. To Latin America’s largest mass media company, the Mexican National Team is just a business.
Chile: FIFA and the Contest for World Football. J. Sugden and A. Tomlinson (1998)
Goldblatt, David. The Ball is round. A global history of football, 2006.
Uruguay: Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
CONMEBOL, Historia de la Copa América de Argentina a Venezuela 2007.
M. Filho (2004) O Negro no futebol Brasileiro
Mexico: Nación TV, Fabrizio Mejía Madrid, Grijalbo, Mexico
Goldblatt, David. The Ball is round. A global history of football, 2006.
Colombia: C. Taylor. 1998 The Beautiful Game.
Periódico El Tiempo, 1950.