After two anthems, eleven players wave to the half-empty stadium. A whistle. Four strikers start jogging, they casually give each other a few passes, they still serve the ball on the 16, and finally the team captain Francisco Valdés rolls it into the goal, 1-0. Since there is no opponent, there is no one to do the middle start, so the referee blows the match. The date is November 21, 1973 – i.e. the most absurd and cynical match of the World Cup is just fifty years old. With this, Chile qualified for the World Cup, and the Soviet Union was left behind.
You can watch the entire match here, it lasts half a minute:
On September 11, 1973, Chile’s socialist experiment ended with a bloody coup. President Salvador Allende died – maybe he committed suicide with a Kalashnikov given to him by Fidel Castro, maybe he was shot, it’s not clear to this day – and Augusto Pinochet took over the leadership of the country for the next 17 years with the tacit support of the United States.
The gathering of the opposition began, at least three thousand people were executed, thus a left-wing exodus began, and then the political refugees from Chile appeared in the socialist camp, thus in Hungary as well. The main site of the carnage was the national stadium of the capital, Santiago. In the next three years, 130,000 people were imprisoned in the then 10 million country.
But how does the football match come here?
For the 16 places in the 1974 World Cup in Germany, 99 countries took part in the qualifiers. According to the rules, 14 places were awarded to America and Europe, 13 of which went to the group winners of the qualifiers. And the last one was given by a rather complicated solution: the winner of the third group of the South American qualifiers and the 9th group of the UEFA played a separate match for this position.
Let’s make a quick Hungarian detour to the qualifiers for the 1974 World Cup: the Hungarian national team was undefeated in its group, but due to a worse goal difference, it fell behind the Swedes and Austrians, who finished with the same score. This was possible because we played back-and-forth draws with both of them, and everyone beat Malta, the fourth team in the group. The Swedish-Austrian double had the same goal difference, so the two teams decided on the first place, which was won by the Swedes, in an additional match played on neutral territory. After 1970, this was the second World Cup in which the Hungarian national team did not participate.
The two teams sentenced to the intercontinental competition were the Soviet Union and Chile, and they had to decide on their exit in two matches. In any case, there was no logic in the system, UEFA could have divided the 32 European teams into 8 groups of four. Instead, five groups of four and four groups of three were formed, and then one of the three groups was arbitrarily selected, the winner of which had an extra match waiting for the South American group winner.
The draw could not have turned out worse in the middle of the Cold War. The Soviet Union saw an ally similar to Cuba in Allende’s Chile, but with his death this chance disappeared, so the Soviet leadership suffered a significant loss in terms of prestige and geopolitical hopes.
The Soviets were ready to host the Chilean national team, and the boycott had not yet arisen, except for the return match, which was held at the Estadio National stadium, where an estimated 40,000 tortured prisoners turned up until the beginning of November, and many of whom were executed here by the junta.
Moscow requested a neutral venue for the match. “The stadium was turned into a concentration camp by the military junta, a place of torture and execution of Chilean patriots. “Thousands of innocent people are being held in the stands and in the premises,” the Soviet Football Federation said in a statement.
FIFA could not pretend that the human rights objections really had no basis – even if it came from the Soviet Union, which was not exactly a model state in this regard. So they sent a delegation to the stadium in Santiago to see what the stadium turned into a prison camp was like.
The delegation found everything in order. There was no problem with the infrastructure, after all, the stadium was the venue for the World Cup final 12 years earlier. On top of that, the visit to the stadium somehow slipped because there were still quite a few prisoners in the building, the last ones were only transported on November 9.
“We were locked in the basement, we were held at gunpoint to keep quiet, because the FIFA delegation with the journalists went upstairs. It was as if we were in two different worlds,” one of the prisoners, 19-year-old Jorge Montealegre, recalled forty years later.
The match therefore remained in Santiago – the Soviet team played at home, giving up the chance to participate in the World Cup. However, despite the first political boycott in the history of the World Cup, the game was not abandoned. Not only was the official score 3-0 in favor of Chile, but the match was also held in the absence of the Soviets. The Soviet team was even fined a modest $1,700 for their absence. The Chileans would have demanded 300,000.
“The team participated in the most ridiculous game in history. It was a world-famous farce”
– recalled the star of the Chileans, striker Carlos Caszely, whose mother was also imprisoned by the junta. Although the striker took part in the match, according to his statement, all he could do in protest was not to shake hands with Pinochet, who was visiting the team.
Everyone was cynical
The Soviet Union’s position was understandable, playing a game in the national stadium in Santiago a few weeks after the executions and mass detentions is truly bizarre. But it is not certain that only moral considerations guided the Soviets. At the meeting in Moscow, which was just mentioned in passing, the Chileans surprisingly drew the match. The 0-0 away draw favored them in the second leg.
The match in Moscow was not even preceded by much publicity – we were two weeks after Pinochet’s successful coup – and the meeting was already politically sensitive. Even so, there were 48,000 spectators in the Lenin Stadium, which today bears the name Luzhniki. The Soviet press remembered the match as saying that although the home team had a great advantage, luck was not on their side. Yevgeny Lovchev remembered it differently. According to the central defender of the Soviet national team, they did not play well, the draw reflected the match well. According to the 74-year-old player, this was the real reason why they preferred not to go to Santiago. “If we had won 4-0 at home, we would have gone to Chile for sure. It wouldn’t have mattered how we won, that there was a prison camp there and ten thousand imprisoned people.” According to Lovcsev, the management wanted to avoid the Soviet team losing to the national team of Chile, led by the fascist junta, and instead chose a politically based moral victory – and with that they would stay away from the World Cup.
According to the bad tongues, the FIFA president also had a role in rejecting the Soviets’ request that the second leg in Chile be held on neutral ground – and perhaps that is why the delegation tried to notice little of what the national stadium in Santiago was used for in the months before the match. Because of the expected Soviet boycott, the New York Times also wrote about the possibility that several socialist countries would cancel their participation: Bulgaria, the GDR and Poland. However, if the Poles had withdrawn, the English national team that finished behind them could have gone to the World Cup instead, which would hardly have been the president of FIFA, despite the English Stanley Rous. In the end, however, no one else stepped back, and the Poles achieved the best performance in their history, third place, defeating Brazil in the bronze medal match.
At the World Cup, Chile didn’t make it that far, but it didn’t show any shame: it drew with the GDR and Australia, and lost 1-0 to the eventual world champions, Germany. And by the way, sports history was written by the already mentioned Carlos Caszely from the Chilean team, who received the first red card in the history of the World Cup.
It is true, after the alibi match against the Soviets – which was recognized by FIFA as official, but recorded as not held and 3-0 despite the single goal scored – fate delivered some justice. The Chilean management guessed that the short match would not be enough for the spectators, so they invited Santos FC to a gala match. The Brazilian club defeated the Chilean national team 5-0 on the spot, easily scoring the empty goal of the Soviets, who were not even on the field.