Watching news filter through that the Argentinian football side had decided not to play a game in Israel this week reminded me yet again of the impossibility of totally separating sport from politics. The disgracefully callous treatment of Palestinians on the ‘great march of return’ demonstrations was one of the key factors which led to pressure being brought to bear on Argentina who announced that they would not fulfill the fixture. It was for some, including many Palestinians, a sign that at least some in the world cared about their plight, For others it was another example of pressure being brought to bear unfairly on a football team merely out to play a game. It got me thinking about another game of football long ago which did take place and perhaps never should have.
In September 1973 as Celtic drove relentlessly towards another league title, events were occurring on the other side of the world which would eventually impact on Scotland and our national game. The left leaning Chilean Popular Unity Party led by Salvador Allende was swept from power in a CIA backed coup led by the Chilean military and General Augusto Pinochet. It was a brutal seizure of power which saw Chilean jets bombing their own Presidential Palace as troops and tanks flooded the streets. The round-up of Allende supporters began immediately and thousands of political opponents were arrested, tortured and in many cases murdered. Among them was folk singer and poet, Victor Jara.
Jara’s songs had urged the people to build a better, fairer country and there was no doubting his support for Allende. This was enough for him to be arrested and taken to the Chilean national football stadium where he was held with thousands of others. When he was recognised by the soldiers, he was taken to the changing room and brutally tortured. His hands and fingers were smashed with an axe as the guards mocked him and asked that he play his guitar for them. One of the officers loaded a single bullet into a gun and spun the chamber; he then played Russian Roulette with the gun pressed to Jara’s head until eventually it went off and Victor fell. He ordered two young conscripts to finish him and they fired over 40 bullets into Jara’s body.
In the aftermath of the bloodletting at the national stadium in Santiago, the USSR team was due to play a world cup play-off match. They refused to go there and their spokesman said….
‘The Football Federation of the USSR has asked FIFA to hold the match in a third country as the stadium in Santiago is stained with the blood of Chilean patriots. Soviet sportsmen cannot at this time perform at such a venue on moral grounds.’
FIFA sent officials to the stadium which was still holding prisoners who were cowed and out of sight. FIFA ordered the USSR to play the game which of course they refused. This led to the bizarre spectacle of Chile kicking off a game against an absent opposition and scoring a ‘goal’ against team which was sitting at home 8000 miles away.
Over 7000 men and women had been held in dreadful conditions in the stadium and many of them were brutalised and murdered. Yet just a few short years after these events, the SFA decided in their wisdom to play a football match against Pinochet’s Chile in that same stadium. There was huge outcry in Scotland from fans, political groups, trade unions and church groups. Indeed engineers at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride refused to repair engines of planes from the Chilean air force. An act of solidarity recalled this year in the excellent documentary, ‘Nae Pasaran.’ The SFA though were having none of it and pushed ahead with the match which was part of the build up to the World Cup in Argentina. Many players thought that refusal to go to Chile might jeopardise their chances of going to the world cup the following year. Alan Rough, the Scottish goalkeeper of the time, said later…
“When I went into that stadium, I remember going into the dressing room and I remember seeing the bullet holes on the wall where they had lined up people and killed them. I think if we had been given more information, that there were actually people still being killed and still being arrested on the street and being taken away and shot most of the players wouldn’t have gone.”
Scotland won their ‘Shame game’ in Santiago by 4 goals to 2 but the bitterness and controversy lingered on. Had Scotland cancelled the match it would have been seen by many as an act of solidarity with the oppressed and won Scotland many friends. At least the controversy the game caused raised awareness about what was going on in Chile but for many football fans, it was a game which should never have taken place.
Those of you who remember the sporting boycott of South Africa during the Apartheid era will know that it was of the most visual and potent weapons used to highlight the injustices there. In 1963 FIFA suspended South Africa and when FIFA President Stanley Rous went to negotiate with the South African FA, they asked if they could field and all white side at the 1966 World Cup in England and an all black side in the 1970 tournament in Mexico. FIFA rightly shook their head in disbelief and walked away. In the end, political, economic and sporting pressures built up leading South Africa to abandon Apartheid and become a more integrated and fairer society.
There are those who would apply similar pressure to Israel. Scotland is due to play in Israel in October as part of the European Nations League fixtures. There will undoubtedly be pressure put on the SFA by some not to go there, particularly if the brutality goes on, but it is highly unlikely they’ll even consider not going. The match, unlike the friendly in Chile in 1977, is a competitive, UEFA sanctioned game and not going would leave Scotland open to punitive sanctions. In fairness though, Celtic has played in Israel against Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Hapoel Tel Aviv in the past and there was little call for any boycotts then. Pragmatism and an unwillingness to face the wrath of UEFA ensured those ties went ahead. Politics and sport will never be totally separated but they are uncomfortable bed-fellows.
Victor Jara was asked by a Journalist just a few days before the Coup which was to claim his life, what love meant to him. He replied…
‘Love of my home, my wife and my children. Love for the earth that helps me live. Love for education and of work. Love of others who work for the common good. Love of justice as the instrument that provides equilibrium for human dignity. Love of peace in order to enjoy one's life. Love of freedom, but not the freedom acquired at the expense of others’ freedom, but rather the freedom of all.‘
Few would disagree with those words. Some in our world though still take their freedom at the expense of others. Until such injustices end there will always be protests; there will always be those who won’t look the other way.
That is a matter for each human being’s conscience and I for one won’t condemn those who say, that’s enough, no more!