The Sweeper: Chile’s Earthquake and the World Cup

Ring of Fire

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Following the devastating earthquake there this weekend, Chile unsurprisingly cancelled two international friendlies scheduled for this Wednesday as part of their World Cup preparations. Few in Chile right now will be thinking about football with more than 700 dead.

Stating the obvious, Chilean federation president Harold Mayne-Nicholls said “Football cannot remain indifferent to the catastrophe which has hit our country and certainly not to the pain and tragedy of thousands of Chileans.”

Tim Vickery reminds us that, sadly, this isn’t the first time an earthquake in Chile has interceded with the World Cup, a perhaps inevitable consequence of Chile’s positioning within the “Ring of Fire” circling the Pacific Rim. In the previous instance, a 9.5 tremor in May 1960 — the biggest instrumentally recorded earthquake of all time — killed thousands.

Chile were scheduled to host the World Cup just two years later. Chile appealed to keep the World Cup, and the hosting of it despite the disaster was controversial. As Vickery says, “Some may feel the World Cup should not have gone ahead, that all of Chile’s energies should have been spent on more pragmatic priorities.”

Yet the words of Chile’s president of the South American federation, Carlos Dittborn, became something of a rallying call for reconstruction. “Because we have nothing,” he said, “we want to do everything.”

So go ahead it did. Newly built Estadio Nacional in Santiago hosted the opening game on May 30th, 1962, two years and eight days after the earthquake. Chile beat Switzerland 3-1, and then a few days later, surprised most by beating Italy 2-1 to clinch their place in the second round. It was not a pretty game; according to FIFA, it was “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football” (ever?). One doubts, though, that any of Chile’s fans cared how the game was won.

Chile ended up finishing third, amidst national jubilation at the success of an event that seemed to turn the corner in the country’s reconstruction. “Seemed” is the key word, but the importance of the event emotionally for the Chilean people is stressed by Vickery:

The idea that the 1962 World Cup could in some way ‘compensate’ for the earthquake is clearly foolish and lacking in all sense of proportion. It couldn’t bring back the many who died – the investment could help repair shattered buildings, but not shattered lives.

But the human being is a social animal and football – and especially international football – possesses an extraordinary power, a capacity for collective emotion and celebration unmatched in modern society.

One hopes that the next World Cup in just over a hundred days from now can provide a little solace for Chile through the performances of its national team, as unimportant as it seems today.

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