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This Year Marks the 50th Anniversary of a Dark Episode in the History of Sports Stadiums

"A People Without Memory is a People Without a Future"

A portion of Section 8 of the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, Chile is preserved as it was when the stadium was used as a mass detention center for political prisoners in the early days of Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup

The match began as the Chilean team leisurely dribbled the ball down the pitch and then scored an uncontested goal.  Thirty seconds into the game, it was over. The Chileans would win the game in a walkover as their opponent, the Soviet Union, never showed up.

This unusual outcome was put in motion two months earlier by a suicide. A suicide that would lead Chile into further tumult that not only led to the walkover but to one of the most shocking events that ever happened in a sports stadium.

On September 11, 1973 the President of Chile, Salvador Allende, balanced an AK-47 between his knees and under his chin and then set the weapon to fire automatically. The weapon was a gift from Cuba’s Communist dictator, Fidel Castro, who had engraved the gun, "To my good friend Salvador from Fidel, who by different means tries to achieve the same goals."

At the time of his suicide, the Palace de la Moneda was surrounded by troops loyal to the military figure General Augusto Pinochet.  This was the second coup attempt; one just a few months earlier, the Tanquetazo (tank putsch), had failed.

From the get-go, Salvador Allende's time as President had been turbulent. He had been elected President in 1970 with just 36.9% of the popular vote.  A majority of the Chilean Congress and Washington, DC were wary, as Allende was a socialist supported by Communists in the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Washington also couldn’t have been happy as, during his Presidency, Allende accepted the Lenin Peace Prize in Moscow and hosted Fidel Castro for over a month. First Cuba, now Chile.  Would all of the Americas below the Rio Grande fall under Moscow’s sway?

Allende increased the minimum wage and tried to improve literacy, but under his leadership Chile went off kilter.  He seized private industry, including the all-important copper mines and banks.  Farms larger than 200 acres were taken from their rightful owners, which accounted for 40% of Chile’s farms.  Allende also announced Chile would default on its international debt.

The results were that exports fell dramatically and inflation and food costs spiraled out of control at a 150% annual rate. Basic food staples, such as beans, sugar and rice, were in short supply. In protest, in 1972, Chilean workers staged a 24-day strike.  Conditions were ripe for a coup.

Once Pinochet seized power, he had a problem.  As the old expression goes, “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.”  If Pinochet lost power in the days following the coup, his fate would likely be the same as Allende’s. 

In quick order, the new government started rounding up anyone they thought was a threat.  Where to put them?  Estadio Nacional (National Stadium).   Estadio Nacional, located in Santiago, was, and still is, a stadium with international standing.  In 1962 it hosted the World Cup.  Between September and November of 1973, it became one of Chile’s largest prisons.  Some estimate over 20,000 people were held prisoner during this time period, and close to 50 were either executed or tortured to death.

If all this sounds familiar to you, it is because this is the plot to the 1982 movie Missing staring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, which was based on the book about the death of American Charles Horman.  The movie’s plot revolves around Horman’s wife and father desperately trying to figure out what happened to him in the chaotic days following the coup.

In real life, six days after the coup, Horman was nabbed by Chilean soldiers and taken to Estadio Nacional.  Why?  Possibly because he was a writer and working on a story about the 1970 assassination of General Rene Schneider.  General Schneider was killed by rebels who were angry because he refused to stop Allende from ascending to the presidency in the tense days after the election.

Although his family searched for him for nearly a month, he was already dead, having been shot and killed on September 19th, and buried inside the walls of Estadio Nacional.  Later his body was exhumed and sent to Santiago for an autopsy.

Although he did not get as much fanfare, another American named Frank Teruggi also died inside of Estadio Nacional.  He was described as a student journalist and a leftist, as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, which describes itself as a “revolutionary industrial union,” with ties to socialists and anarchists.

What ended Estadio Nacional's days as a prison camp was that the normal business of stadiums still needed to go on.  The business of Estadio Nacional at the time was a World Cup qualifying game between Chile and the Soviet Union.  And in soccer-mad South America, that was a big deal.

Only two weeks after the coup, the Chilean team was scheduled to play the Soviet Union in Russia.  It was more than an important sporting event; it was a political melodrama.  Chile was in turmoil. The Soviet Union was a staunch ally of Allende, while the new government was firmly anti-communist and backed by the United States.  The Soviets refused to recognize the new government in Chile.

In hindsight, it is remarkable that the match in Russia did take place as scheduled on September 26th.  The only way General Pinochet would allow the Chilean team's travel was on the condition that the players wouldn’t make any political statements.  Rumors persisted right up to game time that the showdown would never take place, as the Chilean players would be held as prisoners and then swapped for political prisoners Moscow wanted free in Chile.

The Soviets didn’t allow any journalists to watch the game or let anyone in with a camera.  The match was reportedly tense and ended in a scoreless draw.  This was a disappointment to Russia; playing on their home turf, they had been the favorite. 

If all of this was surreal, things were about to get stranger, as the second leg of this series was set to be played in Estadio Nacional on November 21st.  Russia insisted that, given the circumstances, the game be played in a neutral location.

Prior to the scheduled game, FIFA sent inspectors to Estadio Nacional to check out the fitness of the stadium.  Remarkably, at the time of the inspection, an estimated 7,000 prisoners were still being detained there.  

During the inspection, prisoners were kept out of sight.  According to accounts by the prisoners, they could see the FIFA inspectors and yelled out to them.  One witness recalls saying, "Hey, look at us. We're here."  After the inspection, FIFA confirmed the stadium was fit for World Cup action.

To prepare for the game, the prisoners were sent to other locations.

The Soviet Union responded to all this by sending FIFA a letter that stated, "For moral considerations, Soviets cannot at this time play in the stadium of Santiago, splashed with the blood of the Chilean patriots."     

According to some of the Soviet players, there was more to Moscow’s decision to boycott this game, other than “moral considerations.”  The Soviets were fearful of losing in Chile and handing the new anticommunist regime a propaganda victory. 

In the end, FIFA declared Chile the winner 2-0 in a walkover.

As the 21st century dawned, the stadium was completely renovated except for one section of stands, Section 8, which looks as it did in 1973, as a memorial to the imprisoned.

On the back wall of Section 8 is a slogan painted in black: "Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro" -- A people without memory are a people without a future.