Friday, 5 June 2015

Blood upon the grass

Blood upon the grass

As controversy rages about Scotland’s friendly match with Qatar it got me thinking about a game which was possibly the most disgraceful in the history of the Scottish national side.

1977 was a good year for Celtic in some ways. The club completed a league and cup double and had several players in the Scotland side which qualified for the World Cup in Argentina the following year. In order to acclimatise to the conditions they would meet in Argentina, Scotland arranged a couple of tour matches in South America.There was a fairly brutal 1-1 draw with an emerging Argentina side which would go on to win the World Cup in 1978. More controversially Scotland played Chile in the National Stadium, Santiago in June 1977 and comfortably beat the hosts 4-2.  The controversy wasn’t found in the score line or any incident during the match, rather it was that the game took place at all. A mere 4 years earlier there was a CIA inspired military coup in Chile which replaced a left leaning government with a brutal military right wing dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet. The National Stadium where Scotland played so well was used as a holding centre for enemies of the new regime.

Thousands of socialists, trade unionists, students and assorted supporters of the Allende Government had been rounded up in the days following the coup. They were held in the stadium and a brutal regime of interrogation, torture and execution was soon in place. The military had a free hand to do as they wished to the enemies of the new regime and it is estimated that 130,000 were arrested, many never to be seen again. Roberto Saldias was a Chilean soldier was on duty at the stadium and admitted that there was widespread torture and killings there. He said, ‘Prisoners were organised by means of a red, black or yellow disc. Those with a red disc had no chance of survival.’  No one counted the dead as they were dumped onto military trucks for disposal elsewhere.
Among those who perished in the bloodbath at the stadium was Victor Jara, Chilean folk singer and socialist. Jara had campaigned with his songs and his guitar and helped elect the first socialist Government in Chile’s history. Jara was subjected to  four days of brutal torture which included the smashing of his hands with an axe before 43 bullets were fired into his body. He, like so many others in that dreadful era, was thrown into a military truck and dumped at the local morgue. His English wife was tipped off he was there and went to claim his remains before they were buried in an unmarked pit like so many others. She said…

"In those hours I was waiting in the morgue I was witness to the people outside, the families outside looking at these lists. I was witness to one after the other of these terrible military trucks with red crosses on them entering into the morgue, down to the basement of the morgue, to empty the bodies. And as we were coming out there's this long passageway out of the morgue. And we had Victor's body in the trunk and we met one of those trucks coming in and I just stood there. And he had to back out."

It was into this same stadium that the SFA led the Scottish national team just a few short years later. ‘Football should be separate from politics’ was the SFA mantra but many in Scotland were outraged that the team was playing in the stadium where so many died. Indeed the dressing room they used was a cell during coup in which so many innocents perished. Protests were held but all to no avail, the SFA took the team which included Danny McGrain and Kenny Dalglish to Chile and played on the grass which was once red with the blood of the dictatorship’s innocent victims.

Adam Naughtan’s poem ‘Blood Upon the Grass’ written in protest, contains the following lines…

September the eleventh

In nineteen seventy-three

Scores of people perished

 In a vile machine-gun spree

Santiago stadium

Became a place to kill

But a Scottish football team

Will grace it with their skill

And there’s blood upon the grass

And there’s blood upon the grass


Will you go there, Alan Rough

Will you play there, Tom Forsyth

Where so many folk met early

The Grim Reaper with his scythe

These people weren’t terrorists

They weren’t Party hacks

But some were maybe goalkeepers

 And some were Centre-backs

And there’s blood upon the grass

And there’s blood upon the grass

Politics and sport have always been uncomfortable bedfellows; from the England national team’s fascist salute in Germany in 1938 to more recent attempts to have Israel thrown out of UEFA because of their treatment of the Palestinians. Here in Scotland we have seen some supporters chant for or against the conflicting parties in the Irish conflict. This was particularly true in the years of the troubles but was not confined to that time.  As early as 1921 letters to the press complained that a Celtic supporters Brake Club had, after a 2-0 win at Ibrox, chalked the words ‘Rebels 2 Tans 0’ on their coach before heading for home.

It is not always possible or morally right to completely separate sport from politics if there is a clear injustice to be highlighted. The decision of the SFA to play in Chile in the circumstances of 1977 was not only wrong it was repugnant. The vast national stadium in Santiago was mostly empty as the Scots defeated the hosts. It was suggested that many locals, knowing what had occurred there, stayed away in order to register a small protest against the regime and show some respect to the lost souls of 1973. In the Chile of 1977, any other form of protest would likely prove fatal.




  1. There's a beautiful song by The Wakes about the life and death of Victor Jara on their album These Hands. Give it a listen.

    Regarding tonight's shameful game, apart from an endorsement of Qatar and their FA, what does it say about Scotland and our attitude towards human rights?! The playing of this game is a new low for Scottish football.

  2. I listened to the song and it was indeed a powerful statement. Christie Moore's 'Victor Jara' is good too. The SFA were very foolish playing this game with Chile in the circumstances.

  3. Just got a copy of McNaughon's album today, Words Words Words. Sad