Earlier this summer the Chilean national football team finally reached its manifest destiny, after 99 years of hurt they won the Copa America. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this win was that it was in their own country and in their national stadium, the Estadio Nacional, a site which for a time in the 1970’s was known more for its treatment of the government’s political opponents than it was for any footballing endeavour.

In 1970, Chile elected Salvador Allende as its president. Seen as the first democratically elected president socialist president in South America, he embarked on a hard line programme of nationalising major industrial sectors as well as land reforms.

Despite Allende’s widespread popularity, there was opposition amongst right wing politicians, industrialists and more ominously, the army. Interest in Allende also stretched beyond Chile’s border. The CIA, obviously unhappy with a democratically elected Socialist government and possible ally of the communist Soviet Union (this was only a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962) tacitly sponsored a coup d’etat by the Chilean military in 1973 led by General Augusto Pinochet. According to a Church Committee report, in the three years between Allende’s election and his downfall, the CIA spent in the region of $8m on subversive operations within Chile. A telephone conversation between then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon supposedly had the latter stating that “our hand doesn’t show on this one”.

Holed up in the presidential palace following the coup, Allende made one last defiant address to the nation “long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!” before committing suicide with an AK-47 – supposedly a gift from Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Almost immediately following the coup and Pinochet’s installment as Chile’s new President, political opponents were rounded up along with trade union members and communists. Many were taken away for interrogation and never seen or heard of again.

One of those arrested was the left wing Governor of the Puente Alto province, Gregorio Meno Barrales. He was taken, along with many others to the Estadio Nacional where he was held and tortured. Some lucky few were on released via a daily roll call (but not before signing a waver stating that they hadn’t been maltreated). Those who weren’t so lucky were punished in a brutal and often cruelly specific manner. Musicians had their fingers broken and were then forced to play their instruments. Rock music was also blasted out from speakers inside the stadium in a bid to drown out the noise of those inside.

The actions of the Chilean authorities eventually and inevitably began to infiltrate into football in a wider context than just the use of camps as an internment facility, but also to individual teams and players too.

One such player was Carlos Caszely. Nicknamed the “King of the Square Metre” Caszely forged a successful career in both Chile and Spain, winning the Chilean league five times with Colo-Colo. He was also the leagues top scorer three times as well as top scorer in the Copa Libertadores in 1973. In a career spanning 19 years he played 371 club games, scoring 210 times, he also represented Chile 49 times scoring 29 goals. As well as being famous for his prolific scoring record, Caszely was also one of the few dissenters against Pinochet’s regime.

Carlos Caszely

Carlos Caszely sent off in the opening game of the 1974 World Cup against West Germany.

Caszely was brought up in a staunchly socialist family in Santiago. At a time when his peers saw their role in football as a politically neutral one, he was an active member of the players union. He was also a prominent supporter of Allende, declaring that “I have liked the left and I’m not thinking of changing my ideals”

Always seen as politically astute, Caszely was described by a member of Allende’s Unidad Popular Party as not just a sportsman but “a young man who understands the revolutionary process his country is experiencing”. He also noticed prior to the coup that overthrew Allende that the political winds within Chile were changing for the worse and in July 1973, just two months prior to the 11 September coup, he moved from Colo-Colo to Levante in Spain,

It was just two weeks following the coup that football and in particularly Caszely, made an indelible footprint on the Pinochet regime. The national team were due to play the Soviet Union in a two legged fixture to try and qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Relations between the two countries were already strained as the Soviets were natural allies of the socialist Allende. Two Chilean players were delayed on their entry to the USSR for issues over their passport photos. The first leg at the Lenin Stadium on 26 September finished 0-0. Hugo Gasc, a Chilean journalist at the match believed that the referee was a “rabid anti-communist” who “helped us significantly”.

The return leg was to be played in a state of heightened security, not helped by the insistence that the fixture be played at the Estadio Nacional, with all its political prisoners inside too. The Soviets, aware of what was happening at the ground, flatly refused to play the fixture there, stating that the stadium was “stained with blood”.

FIFA stepped in to mediate and said that they would inspect the ground for anything untoward. Jorge Montealegre was a 19 year old prisoner who was being held at the stadium at the time of the inspection “they kept us down below, hidden in the locker room and tunnels”. After a probably not very thorough inspection FIFA declared the stadium fit to play in, with or without the Soviet team. Immediately prior to the match some prisoners in the stadium were transferred to a salt mine in the Atacama Desert.

True to their word, the Soviet Union team didn’t travel to Chile for the return leg. Some in the Soviet hierarchy thought that some kind of conspiracy was taking place. FIFA President, Englishman Stanley Rous, had succeeded in previously changing the venue of a Northern Ireland vs Bulgaria fixture from Belfast to Sheffield citing security issues within Ulster. The Soviets were convinced that if the match against Chile was to be played at the Estadio Nacional, enough Socialist countries would boycott the World Cup to allow England who had failed to qualify for the tournament a route back into the competition. East Germany, maybe rather mischievously, suggested that they could hold the return leg at Dachau concentration camp.

Another theory was that in a battle of ideologies, the Soviets refused to let the team travel as national team coach Evgeny Goryanskiy could not guarantee victory to the Central Committee of Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

On the day of the game the Chilean players lined up ready for the national anthem in a stadium, half full of fans that rather be anywhere else but there. In a farcical and almost comical scene, the match kicked off and the Chilean players proceeded to dribble the ball down the pitch and kick it into an empty net. Captain Francisco Valdes who scored the goal later vomited in the dressing room, sickened with shame.

Pinochet wanted to personally thank the players, receiving them at the presidential palace. One by one the players lined up to shake the Pinochet’s hand, with just the one exception. Carlos Caszely was the one player who refused the dictator’s hand “I was scared but that was what I had to do” he later claimed.

The consequences for Caszely and his family were severe. His mother was arrested and beaten by Pinochet’s men; “I said no to dictatorship on every level…no to torture, so they made me pay for that with what they did to my mother”. Many years later, in 1988, a national referendum was held questioning whether Pinochet’s rule should continue. Both Caszely and his mother appeared on television speaking out against the continuing junta “tomorrow we can live in a free, healthy democracy, based on solidarity”.

Pinochet lost the election and soon Chile returned to a democracy and on a visit to Britain he was arrested and soon an extradition process was put in place. It was overruled though by then Home Secretary Jack Straw and Pinochet was subsequently released. He was eventually placed under house arrest again for the kidnap and murder of two of Allende’s bodyguards. He died aged 91 in December 2006 following a heart attack having never faced trial for alleged crimes both during the coup which overthrew Allende and also throughout his rule. It is estimated that over 3000 people were killed and almost 30,000 were tortured by the regime. Caszely works within Chilean sports media and is still revered by many within Chile as one of the few who stood up to the brutal junta which killed so many.

It is estimated that up to 12,000 people were held at the Estadio Nacional by the Pinochet regime, these days though a new generation will remember the stadium as a place of national celebration rather than that of fear and repression.

By Chris Etchingham

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona