2014 World Cup: What Do Athletes Represent Exactly?
Preface: The 2014 World Cup starts this week. Here’s something to think about when we watch athletes from nations with distasteful governments.
On the afternoon of November 21, 1973, the Chilean national soccer team lined up at midfield for the start of what was to be a sudden-death playoff game. The outcome of that match would determine which nation would be the last to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, which was to be held the following year in Germany.
The starting whistle was blown. The Chilean team, dressed in their traditional red jerseys, passed the ball back and forth, dribbling methodically downfield towards goalposts positioned at the southern end of the stadium. Just 23 seconds into the game and from a short distance out, one of the Chilean forwards gave the ball a swift kick with the inside of his right foot. The ball skirted forward and rolled across a chalked white line, fluttering into the back of the net. Chile took a 1-0 lead over its opposition.
That ended up being the final score. Chile defeated the Soviet Union 1-0. The Chilean team won the game and therefore was headed off to the 1974 World Cup.
That game and the winning goal would have been forgotten, except for the bizarre set of circumstances surrounding the international soccer match and the surreal atmosphere inside the stadium on that day. Turns out, Chile was the only team which showed up on the playing field that afternoon. The opposing team, the Soviet Union, remained at home, opting to boycott the match rather than travel to Chile. The goal in the opening 23 seconds was scored on a half-deserted playing field, without an opposing goal keeper, into an empty net. The goal and Chile’s victory were a foregone conclusion.
The goal was scored in Chile’s National Stadium (Estadio Nacional de Chile), located in the capital city of Santiago. A stadium that otherwise would have been filled to capacity with 50,000 flag-waving fans instead drew perhaps 3,000 mostly bored spectators. As the match was being played, thousands of political prisoners — many of whom had been brutally tortured — were being held. Prior to the game, National Stadium was even used by the military coup as a makeshift prison camp for what was estimated to be 30,000 political prisoners. Many of those people who committed no crime were executed at an adjacent facility. Oddly enough, the stadium was temporarily cleansed of those horrors to play that one soccer game. The prisoners were hushed into silence at gunpoint. Once the game was over, torture and killing resumed.
The two months leading up to that game was a bizarre entanglement of politics. The Chile-U.S.S.R. match was played in the midst of a military coup. The nation was under a lock down. Going into the street after the curfew came at the risk of getting shot.
The Chilean national team had little interest in politics. Like most athletes, they just wanted to play the game. Players trained most of their lives for this moment They were eager to reach their life’s goal — qualifying for the World Cup. While their nation exploded into chaos, and just as a democratically-elected government was overthrown (with the help of the United States Government) the game went on, even though it was a sham.
Months later, Chile went on to compete in the World Cup. Yet, its athletes received an icy reception when they played. At World Cup stadiums, athletes were booed by crowds when they took the field. The team was treated as a pariah by the international community. Chile failed to score a goal in the first round. They were eliminated and were largely forgotten.
None of this seemed right. The team and its athletes had nothing to do with the bloody military coup and mass killings. In fact, one athlete even exhibited open defiance towards Chile’s new dictator, General Pinochet. His brave act took immense courage given the political climate at the time. Just prior to the national team leaving for Germany, Carlos Caszely, who was one of the star players, became engaged in a particularly awkward photo op at the airport. While the team lined up to receive a handshake from the uniformed leader of the junta, Caszely stood with his arms locked to his side. He steadfastly refused to shake the dictator’s hand. That took guts. The incident wasn’t reported until years later when it became safe to openly talk about such things.
Sadly, the rest of the world never saw any of that. Stadiums full of fans viewed Chile as “the bad guy.” People rooted against Chile.
I wonder — might there be some parallels to what’s coming up at this year’s World Cup?
As we now come upon the start of the planet’s greatest sporting spectacle, I wonder — how many others Chile’s and Carlos Caszely’s are out there on the pitch? How many other good people are out there playing for nations with bad governments? I suspect there are a few. Certainly, a short list of teams might include Iran, Nigeria, Algeria, and Russia.
I’ve never met a player from the Iranian national soccer team before. But my guess is that they’re not all too different from the young men who play for other teams. They get just as excited when they win. They get just as disappointed when they lose. They bleed when a cleat makes an open flesh wound. Whether the athlete is Iranian or American or from whatever, they’re all basically the same. They’re all human.
It’s important to remember this when we see the vast parade of nations take the field this weekend for the first round of games. Each one of the athletes deserves applause and respect. And as we saw a generation ago in Chile, perhaps they deserve even more than that.