Can Football Still be Political?

Chile's 2015 Copa America win won’t heal any of the political or social issues Chile is dealing with. But that's fine.

The 2015 edition of the Copa América, the South American football championship, is over and, for the first time ever, Chile are the champions. To lift their first-ever piece of silverware, Chile, who also hosted the tournament, beat neighbors Argentina yesterday in penalties, after a tense and tactic goalless final match.

Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez delivered the final penalty kick in cheeky fashion and, despite a not-so-memorable performance during most of the cup, he instantly became part of national folklore. La Roja finally has a title to show for, and the image of the wonderkid from Tocopilla calmly putting the ball past Argentinean goalkeeper Sergio Romero, and then running erratically and euphorically until he is finally embraced by his teammates will for long remain in the consciousness of Chilean football fans.

Chile finally rejoiced in the football pitch and the usual rhetoric of winning national teams doing it “not just for themselves, but for the whole country” came quickly. But so did the accusation that this was merely a smoke curtain distracting from the country’s ailments. For example, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was omnipresent at La Roja’s matches, even when protests were breaking around the country to demand changes in the education law.

Was anybody paying attention to that? The stadium was full every time Chile played. TV ratings (about 36 for Canal 13, about 11 for TVN, about 3 for Chilevisión and about 1 for Mega) showed that more than half of the country was immersed watching the final yesterday. But does that mean that Chileans didn’t care about anything else?

Of course not. Football fans are people and people are complex beings. Some organizers of the protests said that they didn’t want to miss the games, and that they had scheduled the manifestations around the time of the cup not to protest it or rival it, but so their demands could have a bigger media impact. Some demonstrations even were football-themed for maximum effect.

So, could this Copa América be political? Could the tournament which debuted back in 1916 introducing, on its first match ever, the first black players fielded in international play (for Uruguay against Chile – who back then complained of the “unfair” use of “African” players, by the way) still go beyond the football pitch?

As the competition started, the chances of that happening seemed bleak: Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani was so out-of-touch with the world outside the field that he thought that his rivals Jamaica were an “African country.” Then, Chile’s star Arturo Vidal crashed his fancy car while driving drunk and, despite harsh laws regarding this kind of behavior in Chile, he was essentially pardoned (freed with only a confiscated license) and let back into the team. Football was above anything else.

But as the tournament advanced, there was at least one interesting thing in this regard. The Peruvian forward Claudio Pizarro started to tweet messages in Quechua (one of Peru’s indigenous languages) following his team’s games. This seemed like a small gesture, but it was an acknowledgement, an inclusion of oft-segregated Quechua-speakers into the larger idea of “Peru” and the Peruvian fans of its national team.

After Peru drew against Colombia and secured their qualification for the knockout stages, Pizarro tweeted again in Quechua, and he was recognized by the indigenous Mapuche community of Chile for giving a voice to an often ignored community. A few days later, Peru eliminated Bolivia in the quarter-finals. Pizarro tweeted in Quechua and in Mapundungun – the language of the Mapuches – this time. Maybe football can indeed be a positive force for unity.

Yet, despite everything else, it was the Chileans who made the biggest statement. Not just by winning the tournament, but by where they won it. Chile’s defender Jean Beausejour (whose father is Haitian, and whose mother is Mapuche) put it perfectly after the final game:

“I’m barely starting to realize how big this is. A few days ago I got a call from a cadet instructor and he said ‘I hope that we can have some joy in this stadium where so many were tortured and suffered.’”

Indeed, Chile played its six games in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, the country’s biggest stadium and a venue with a documented tragic history:

On November 21st, 1973, the Soviet Union was scheduled to go to Santiago for a playoff game that would qualify one of the teams to the West Germany 1974 World Cup. But on September 11th of that year, Augusto Pinochet had staged the coup that ousted the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende.

Since then Pinochet had used the stadium to incarcerate political dissidents, who were tortured there, and sometimes sent to be executed elsewhere. In total, over 40,000 people were detained in the stadium. At one point, the regime had 7,000 detainees there at the same time. The USSR national team caught wind of this and refused to play the game at the Estadio Nacional. They would have accepted a different venue, but the Chilean and the FIFA authorities wouldn’t be moved, so the Soviets declined to travel to the country.

The whole thing ended in a pathetic spectacle forced by then FIFA president Stanley Rous, who staged a match with only one side (a very reluctant, but also very scared of the consequences of disobedience, Chile), in which the team passed the ball around idly, until Francisco “Chamaco” Valdés scored a goal into an open net, qualifying the Chileans for the World Cup.

The act of defiance came later. During this Copa América, a small sector of El Nacional, behind one of the goals, was enclosed and empty. You could see it from most angles on TV. It was under its wooden bleachers that most political detainees were held, and it was above them that the prisoners were paraded to prove to FIFA officials that they were being kept “humanely.”

On September 11th, 2003, thirty years after the coup, that sector of the stadium was declared a historical monument, and it has been left untouched on stadium renovations. It has, instead, become a sanctuary, a museum dedicated to the victims of the Pinochet regime, a vivid and concrete reminder of how bad things can get when a country is divided. That Chile played all of its successful cup run here meant that this was a victory not only for the present Chile, but also a symbolic defeat of its past.

Surely this championship won’t heal any of the political or social issues Chile is dealing with. And obviously football is not the way to go about solving them. But, as the sign above the stairs to the enclosed tribune reads: “A people without memory is a people without future,” and for a brief moment, thanks to 11 men clad in red, the future of Chile looked bright.

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