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Banco de Chile’s TV commercial for the World Cup uses a potent national symbol: the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010. In the commercial, the men line up like a football team, national flags flying, and their leader Mario Sepulveda asks: “Spain is difficult? Netherlands is difficult? We don’t fear the ‘group of death’, because we have beaten death before!”
His men fill tins with local soil to spread across Chile’s training ground in Brazil.
The commercial elicited a Dutch parody, in which a few Dutchmen line up in a meadow and their leader intones: “We Dutchmen have been trapped all our lives. In the Netherlands.” The Dutchmen then enumerate the difficulties of Dutch life: shopping trolleys with a missing wheel, smartphones with poor reception, declining house prices, et cetera. The parody angered some Chileans, but amused others who felt uncomfortable at the bank’s use of a human drama.
Still, the miners’ commercial got two things right: Chilean passion for the national team, which is high even by World Cup standards, and Sepulveda’s cry, “Nothing is impossible for a Chilean”.
Chile meet the Dutch in São Paulo on Monday already certain of reaching the knockout rounds after clear victories over Australia and, gloriously, world champions Spain. “We are the rebels of this tournament,” says their Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli.
If his team beat Holland to top the group, they will probably avoid scary Brazil in the next round. Harold Mayne-Nicholls, former president of Chile’s Football Association, says this is the most successful Chilean side he can recall. “And there’s still room to grow.”
In 1962 Chile finished third in an unusually brutal World Cup at home. Their subsequent football history was unhappier. After General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1973, he turned the national stadium into a torture camp. Moreover, adds Brenda Elsey, author of Citizens and Sportsmen on Chilean football and politics, “almost every neighbourhood stadium was used to detain people”.
In 1989, during a Brazil-Chile game at Rio’s Maracanã, the Chilean keeper Roberto Rojas cut his head with a razor blade but claimed to have been struck by a flare from the crowd. He was unmasked, and Chile were banned from the 1994 World Cup.
For many years Chile played defensively and lost. This history helps explain the raucous delight of the Chilean fans in Brazil. Tens of thousands are here, communicating with locals in a Spanish-Portuguese mix known as “portunhol”. Some sleep in the cars they drove up in, and wash in the free showers on Rio’s beaches. Before the Spain-Chile match, bizarrely, ticketless Chilean fans invaded the Maracanã media centre. One man hauled off by stewards looked at least 70 years old.
Back home, large crowds celebrate victories in the wintry cold of Santiago’s Plaza Italia, waving flags that sometimes have political messages inscribed in the white bar, says Elsey. Inevitably, a national experience on this scale has sociopolitical aspects. Issues of race, rarely discussed in Chile, are now surfacing. Midfielder Jean Beausejour, son of a Haitian father and Chilean mother, is nicknamed Palmatoria after a Brazilian blackface character in a 1960s comic.
The moniker, which he hates, even appears in his official Fifa biography. Beausejour has spoken proudly of his mother’s Mapuche indigenous heritage – again something seldom done in Chile, notes Elsey.
But Chileans of all political shades are proud of their attacking team. Keeper Claudio Bravo (reportedly about to join Barcelona) plays like a last defender, the three-man defence includes two natural midfielders, and all Chile’s men pass like midfielders. This collectivist team doesn’t depend on one genius like certain neighbouring countries Chileans could mention. Five different players have scored Chile’s five goals.
Chileans are enjoying the unaccustomed global spotlight. Many more are planning Brazilian jaunts for next weekend’s game, says Mayne-Nicholls. The Chileans, though tattooed to the eyebrows, have acquired the status of the loveable small boys of international football: playing brightly, but never irritating the grown-ups by winning anything. This time, says their forward Alexis Sanchez, the aim is to lift the trophy.