When the arena of play blurs with the arena of politics

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Sometimes, and always without intending to, a football team and its progress at the World Cup intersect with a national mood, amplifying and transforming the meanings of both.

In 1954, West Germany’s utterly unexpected victory over Hungary in the final coincided, in effect, with the end of the Allied occupation and the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany as a sovereign state.

Captained by the lugubrious Fritz Walter, the team restored pride but offered a much more humble and less bellicose version of the nation than hitherto on show.

Four years later in Sweden, Brazil’s first World Cup victory, as well as evoking the party of all time, gave tangible form to the new sense of Brazil emerging under President Juscelino Kubitschek – the same optimistic modernist energies that were building Brasilia and flowering in music, art and new urban popular cultures.

The stories of the four semi-finalists at the 2010 World Cup in Russia have yet to be written, and only one can win it, so it is worth remembering that victory is not a necessary condition of a good tale. On the contrary, as the case of Chile at the 2010 World Cup suggests, it’s as much about how you play as where you finish.

At the turn of the century, the idea that football in Chile could be a catalyst for social change or an ally of progressive politics seemed fanciful; there really was just too much baggage.

In 1973, a week after the US-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and the military had swept the democratically elected Salvador Allende government aside, the Estadio Nacional in the capital, Santiago, was serving as a detention centre, torture chamber and morgue for an estimated 7,000 people.

Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile, was used as a detention and torture centre for thousands of people after the 1973 coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende [Ed Fundamentos, Buenos Aires] 

Over the next few months it would process another 40,000, serving as a central node in a network of intimidation, violence and homicide – the Pinochet regime’s modus operandi for the next 17 years.

Some of them got to watch the football at the Estadio Nacional. In a grotesque tableaux, Chile lined up for a World Cup qualifying game against the Soviet Union, except the Soviets had long refused to play such a game, in such a place, under such conditions.

It is worth recalling that football’s world governing body, FIFA, under its English chief Stanley Rous, had no problem at all with the game going ahead. While gaunt prisoners and gun-wielding guards watched blankly from the stands, the Chileans scored an open goal.

The detoxification of the site began in 1988 when it was used as a polling station in the referendums that ended the military dictatorship. In 1990, the country’s first elected head of state in 17 years, Patricio Aylwin, and his supporters celebrated victory on the pitch.

Whatever side of Chile’s enduringly deep social and political divides you sat on, there was precious little to cheer from a national team that had not won a World Cup game since 1962.

Consequently, draws were celebrated as if they were victories, aspirations were perennially low and regularly confirmed, encapsulated in the collective sigh that followed even the team’s best performances – “Jugamos como nunca, perdimos como siempre (We played as never before, we lost as always)”.

Change, though, was in the air.

The new president of the Chilean Football Federation, Harold Mayne-Nicholls, appointed, in the face of much domestic criticism, the Argentinean Marcelo Bielsa as national team coach in 2007.

Running parallel with the first term of socialist President Michelle Bachelet, Chile’s first female head of state, Bielsa’s era saw him ignite a minor cultural revolution in Chilean football that came to inspire and stand for a wider shift in the nation’s political and emotional temperature. 

First, there was the love-in with the Chilean people, who were charmed by his down-to-earth humility, blunt sense of humour, personal frugality and phenomenal work rate. But it was the football he demanded of his teams that most eloquently expressed and nurtured a new mood in the nation.

Protagonismo (leadership or initiative in Spanish), as Bielsa’s style became known, was a game of relentless and fearless attack, underwritten by a willingness to take the initiative and make something happen, without fear of censure or failure.

However, this stood in sharp contrast to the historical lessons learned by the nation. As the writer Andres Parra put it, “The Chilean never protests, never complains and rarely makes demands. When Chileans have tried to rise up they’ve been brutally repressed”.

A banner outside Chile’s national stadium reads, ‘Where are the disappeared?’ [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Bielsa, working with a new generation of players born and brought up under Chilean democracy, began to challenge this. He encouraged them to take charge of themselves and take risks. With his encouragement, many headed for Europe.

In 2008, in the Estadio Nacional, Chile beat Argentina for the first time ever in a competitive fixture.

Despite going out in the round of 16 to Brazil, Chile, the youngest squad at the 2010 World Cup, were wildly celebrated for their attacking bravado. Bielsa, however, would soon be gone.

As the nation swung right under President Sebastian Pinera, the Chilean FA moved to remove Bielsa’s key supporter Mayne-Nicholls (on the grounds that he wanted a much more equitable distribution of tv monies among the clubs).

The Argentinean had long made it clear that if Mayne-Nicholls went, so would he, and thus just months after Chile’s best World Cup performance in almost half a century, he stood down. In a unique display of support, there were demonstrations in central Santiago and at the Chilean FA headquarters.

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“Bielsa signified a change in their mentality towards life, not just towards football,” Armando Silva, co-author of the book De Bielsa a Sampaoli wrote, “to be protagonists of their own lives.”

It was precisely this shift, from despair to hope, and from passivity to action, that animated Chilean youth, who just a few months later would initiate the country’s greatest ever sustained outburst of social and political protest.

The cowing of civil society was just one of the poisonous legacies of the Pinochet regime.

Equally toxic was its economic performance from which Chile emerged as one of the most unequal societies in the world, with an education system more deeply penetrated by market forces than any other on the continent; indeed it has been constructed to channel what little state money was available to the rich, while facilitating grotesque levels of profiteering in higher and secondary education and reproducing already massive levels of inequality and tiny levels of social mobility.

In 2011, driven by soaring levels of debt and the self evident injustice of the system, a huge student movement took to the streets, reinforced by an unprecedented wave of activism among high school students, teachers, and professors.

Even the normally apolitical unemployed youth and flag-waving fans of club sides Colo Colo and Universidad de Chile were present at the biggest demonstrations.

Jorge Sampaoli, the subsequent coach of the national team and a disciple of Bielsa, who had won three league titles and a Copa Sudamericana at Universidad with an even more aggressive, maniacal form of protagonismo, let it be known that he was with the youth, too.

“Progressive people play offense,” he said, reflecting on their style and his. More obviously, he invited key student leaders like Giorgio Jackson and Camila Vallejo to the University’s training grounds.

While the battle is far from over, the student movement forced the most fundamental rethink of public policy and public spending since the end of Pinochet, and successive presidencies of Pinera and Bachelet have been forced to seriously change tack.

If the demonstrations of 2011 to 2013 where the high point of Chile’s social protagonismo, the best of its footballing variant was yet to come.

At the 2014 World Cup, now under Sampaoli, the new Chile were at their most relentless, fearless, attacking best, mowing down the tiring tiki taka of Spain, the reigning champions, in a momentous 2-0 victory. Then the nation hosted and won the 2015 Copa America, and retained the title the following year when a centennial version of the tournament was held in the United States.

Of course, it can go the other way too.

In 2017, Chile’s poor form saw them fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and polls suggested a majority of Chilean voters perceived both events as symbols of the generally poor state of the nation under the current government of Bachelet beset by corruption scandals, an angry student movement, and the still unresolved reform of the education system.

Long after the glee of victory and the shine of a trophy has passed, it is surely the energies that still animate these protests, the undiminished demand for change in Chile, that are the deepest legacy of the national team World Cup adventures.

Come the weekend, we will be trying to work out what it has all meant, but if the Chileans are anything to go by, then we need to be patient. If England’s, if any one tale, is as good as theirs, I will be pleased to watch it unfold. 

For more of David Goldblatt’s insightful and incisive commentary on the world of football, listen to Game of Our Lives from Al Jazeera’s Jetty Studios. The podcast airs twice-a-week during the World Cup. Subscribe now!

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