Tragedy of earthquake could inspire Chile - again
Last week my adopted city of Rio de Janeiro could feel a bond with Chile.
The rain lashed down on Brazil's former capital, killing over 200, especially in mudslides that took out houses on the hillsides. The heartbreaking pictures of lifeless bodies being pulled out of destroyed buildings were reminiscent of those from Chile just a few weeks ago, when a massive earthquake struck.
By coincidence, a team from Santiago was in town at the time. Universidad de Chile was in Rio to face local favourites Flamengo in a Copa Libertadores fixture. The aftermath of the rain meant that the game could not go ahead as scheduled last Wednesday night. After a stop-go saga and plenty of backstage politics the match instead took place on the following afternoon.
Close to me in the press box was a little man from a Chilean radio station. At the kickoff he stood up to his full, unimpressive height and began to bellow his account of the game with such passion and at such volume that he could probably be heard in Santiago even without his microphone and radio equipment. The rest of us regulars glanced at each other. How could so much sound come from such a tiny frame? And how could he possibly keep it up for the full 90 minutes?
Well, I don't know how he managed it, but he succeeded. It was a man of the match performance. When the Chilean team scored their equalizing goal in the third minute of added time I felt that he should take some of the credit. The power of his vocal cords had helped blow the ball into the net.
The Chilean earthquake of 1960
I wanted to go across and speak to him but, thoroughly understandably, he needed all his breath to describe the action with such panache. During the half time interval he slumped with the air of a man who has given his all, and who badly needs his 15 minutes rest. So I left him alone. He looked to be at least 60, and, if I'd had the courage and the impudence, I'd have asked him about earthquakes - not just the one suffered at the end of February, but the even bigger one, which struck on May 22nd 1960.
Of course, it bears not the slightest comparison with all the lives lost, but it is true that Chile's preparations for the World Cup were affected by this year's earthquake. They were due to play a double header in Santiago, taking on Costa Rica and North Korea, a few days later. The matches had to be cancelled, and Chile's players went without the chance to press their claims for a place on the plane to South Africa.
But in terms of World Cup preparation, the 1960 earthquake was much more serious. Chile was due to be staging the tournament just over two years later.
They were perhaps a surprise choice as competition hosts. FIFA took the decision in 1956. Europe had staged the 1954 World Cup, and was to do so in '58. So it was seen as South America's turn.
Brazil had staged 1950, Uruguay in 1930. Argentina thought they were in poll position, but were surely harmed by their footballing isolation in the first half of the decade. They had sat out the World Cups of '50 and '54, and were only just about to re-enter the fold in '56.
So Chile won - perhaps almost by default. It may well have helped that at the time the President of CONMEBOL, the South American Federation, was a Chilean, Carlos Dittborn. He may an impassioned speech to push his country's claims. "Because we have nothing," he said, "we want to do everything."
Four years later, when the earthquake struck and thousands lost their lives, this phrase became even more significant. It became the mantra that justified maintaining the tournament in Chile instead of switching to another venue.
Changes had to be made. The cities of the south, the epicentre of the earthquake, had suffered too much damage and had more pressing priorities rebuilding basic services. In the event, only four cities were used. But the show went ahead - and from the reaction of the people during the competition, it was the correct decision.
Pride at stake for Chile
Chile wanted to show to the rest of the world that it could still pull it off. Pride was at stake. Also, I suspect that the heady atmosphere of the World Cup fulfilled a deep psychological need in the wake of the tragedy - it was a wonderful excuse for a life affirming party, a collective celebration of joy.
The celebration was all the greater because the local team exceeded expectations. Chile finished third in the 1962 World Cup, by far their best ever performance in the competition.
Some believe that this year they could do something similar. Under Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa they have an attractive, attacking side that qualified for South Africa in style. Just like 1962, a strong performance from the national team in the World Cup would be a lovely morale boost for a country that will need time to recover and reconstruct.
There's an old South American saying that holds that of all the unimportant things in life, football is the most important.
I wanted to talk about this with the little man from Chilean radio. With all the passion he put into his broadcast, I'm sure he would agree. And for Chile this June and July, that unimportant thing will take on an extra importance.
About the Author
The son of a reasonably skilled amateur soccer player, Tim Vickery inherited the enthusiasm but none of the talent - and soon came to the conclusion that his best position was on the sidelines writing about the game. Tim did not make it out of his native England until the age of 23, but has since made up for lost time. He has been based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for over 15 years, and writes and broadcasts about South American soccer for, among others, the BBC, World Soccer magazine, and SI.com.