The connection between Copa América and its hosts remains one of the tournament’s unique charms

In the middle of the night I ask myself,
What will happen to Chile?
What will become of my poor, dark country?

Rather regrettably, the success of modern soccer tournaments often seems tied to their isolation from the culture, history and political and footballing climates of the countries where they are held.

Last summer’s World Cup in Brazil was a case in point. As President Dilma Rousseff trumpeted that the competition would be the Copa das Copas (“the best World Cup of them all”), visitors were shuttled swiftly from refurbished airports to smart hotels, and then on to a series of spanking new, largely identical stadiums. Each was surrounded by the deadening bubble of a FIFA exclusion zone, which banished local food and drink sellers, local souvenir hawkers, local sounds and smells, local anything, in fact, to a mile or so away.

The objective was to make sure foreign tourists visiting World Cup World would catch not a whiff of the organizational and financial crisis in which the Brazilian game is mired, or the infrastructural chaos ordinary Brazilians endure on a daily basis. Everything in World Cup World is as antiseptically slick and airless as an airport lounge. Everything in World Cup World is supposed to be wonderful.

Everything is not wonderful, however, at this summer’s Copa América.

Teachers and students take part in a protest march, asking for better salaries and participation in the government's education reform, in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, June 25, 2015. Thousands marched Thursday amid dance performances, floats and banners with messages that read in Spanish; "Education is not to be sold, but defended," and "Let no one prohibit you from speaking." (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)AP

On my first morning in Santiago, Chile, I decide to take a stroll down the city’s main drag, the Alameda. At first, the scene is pleasant enough – birds sing, the air is crisp and chill, the Andes hover spectrally on the horizon while cherubic locals smile and nod. A little further on, things are not so idyllic. The road glistens wetly, even though it has not rained, and there is an acrid, salty flavor to the air. I assume the water is from a burst pipe somewhere, and the chemical smell is the result of Santiago’s notoriously choking pollution, but I am wrong. In fact, the water is from police canons, and the chemical sensation is from tear gas sprayed liberally up and down the avenue not long ago.

Thousands of students and teachers have been protesting, calling for major education reform, and the security forces have responded as the security forces so often do in Latin America, with remarkable ferocity. I cover my face, as most of the locals have done, but it doesn’t do much good. A few yards further on, my eyes watering and my nose burning, I duck into a nearby side street and stagger off towards cleaner air.

The following night Chile play Ecuador in the opening game of the Copa América. The streets around the Estadio Nacional are choked with hawkers and peddlers, selling Chile hats and scarves and choripans and pastries, offering Chile-themed face painting services. Even hours before kick-off, there are so many people around that it is hard to move, and as a bus pulls up and a hundred or so cheery Ecuador fans spill out and mingle with the throngs of locals, the atmosphere is noisy but good-natured.

16 Nov 1997:  General view of the Estadio Nacional before the World Cup qualifying match between Chile and Bolivia in Santiago, Chile. Chile won the match 3-0.  Mandatory Credit: Stu Forster /AllsportGetty Images

16 Nov 1997: General view of the Estadio Nacional before the World Cup qualifying match between Chile and Bolivia in Santiago, Chile. Chile won the match 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Stu Forster /Allsport

A walk around the threatening white bulk of the Nacional reveals a dusty forecourt, fading paint, heavy, rusted iron gates and aging, imposing concrete walls and corners. Whatever rebuilding work has been carried out here for the tournament has not been enough to mask the age and idiosyncrasies of this slightly dilapidated stadium.

Perhaps that is for the best, for no paint job could, nor should, whitewash the Nacional’s dark history. It was here that an estimated 40,000 opponents of General Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship – political activists, journalists, students and ordinary citizens – were brought for interrogation, torture and often murder between September and November 1973.

Seven areas of the stadium and surrounding area are protected as sites of historical interest, and behind the goal defended by Chile’s Claudio Bravo in the first half of the Ecuador game is a monument to the dead, a patch of empty, illuminated wooden terracing bearing the message Un pueblo sin memoria es un pueblo sin futuro – a people without memory is a people without a future. Perhaps the ghosts of Chile’s murdered and disappeared are here, too, sitting in the stands and watching Alexis Sánchez and Jorge Valdivia and the rest of the men who play for a now democratically governed Chile they died to help create.

The shadow of the Pinochet years is everywhere in today’s Santiago – at Calle Londres 38, the only one of the regime’s detention centers still standing, now preserved as a space for memory and reflection; or, at the Museum of Human Rights, which shows news footage of September 11th, 1973, the day the generals sent their tanks and their jets to bomb the presidential palace, leaving the democratically elected president Salvador Allende dead on the floor of his office, clutching a machine gun, seemingly having committed suicide.

It is there in La Chascona, one of the homes of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, where the audio guide describes Neruda’s funeral a few weeks after the day of the coup. Thousands disobeyed a curfew to pay their respects to the poet, becoming the first major public protest against the regime. His wife, Matilde Urrutia, vowed to remain in the house after his death, to defend it against the state sponsored violence and chaos that swirled in the streets outside.

A giant flag of Chile is unfurled on the stands before a Copa America semifinal soccer match between Chile and Peru at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, Monday, June 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)AP

A giant flag of Chile is unfurled on the stands before a Copa America semifinal soccer match between Chile and Peru at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, Monday, June 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Now that the mistakes that bled us all
are over and we begin to plan again
a better and juster life,
the menace once again appears
and on the walls a rising rancor.

The press box at the Nacional seems to consist of wooden tables bolted in front of the pre-existing terrace seats. Despite the presence of rickety temporary steps to ease the clamber from one row to the next, it is still an alarming trek across a smooth, worryingly slippery stone surface to reach the right desk. There is little sign of official sponsors’ snack products here, but old men wind their way through the stands, selling tooth-rottingly sweet coffee, honey roasted peanuts and churros. In the freezing media center, volunteers cheerfully hand out bags of cheese and ham sandwiches and, somewhat perplexingly, small boxes of sugar-coated cereal. From La Serena to Viña del Mar, large, heavy pelted street dogs are friendly, frequent visitors to press boxes and media centers.

Whenever Chile win a game, the atmosphere of this somber, slightly staid South American capital is transformed into that of a raucous Wild West saloon. Not far from the Nacional, a gang of local roughs kick the glass from the windows of a bus after the handsome 5-0 victory over Bolivia. The vehicle lies there unhappily, darkened and abandoned, as lonely as a beached whale. Fans clamber onto flatbed trucks and ride up and down chilly Avenida Vicuna MacKenna, horns blaring, flags waving. Chi-chi-chi! Le-le-le! Viva Chile! goes the shout.

But the real party is at Plaza Italia, the big square on the Alameda, where thousands traditionally gather after games to celebrate Chile’s wins. After the stormy quarterfinal win against Uruguay, I take a taxi down from the Nacional to check out the action. But I am too late. Just a couple of hours after the final whistle, the square has been cleared. The air is once again acrid with tear gas, and the road is covered with a slick, treacherous mixture of water from police canons and broken glass. Save for a few hardy revelers scurrying towards the safety of the bars of the nearby Bellavista neighborhood, the place is deserted, the only sounds the crump of the boots of the riot police and the red blinking lights of their armored cars.

Striking teachers protest against an educational reform outside the center where Chile's national soccer team is training, in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, June 9, 2015.  Teachers began on June 1 an indefinite strike in protest against a new statute in which salaries increases would be dependent on teachers' evaluations. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo)AP

Striking teachers protest against an educational reform outside the center where Chile's national soccer team is training, in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Teachers began on June 1 an indefinite strike in protest against a new statute in which salaries increases would be dependent on teachers' evaluations. (AP Photo/Luis Hidalgo)

Rather than affecting the tournament in a negative way, however, the Copa América’s rough edges enrich and add color to the competition, which exists alongside, and as part of, the society that hosts it. It does not, as is the case of the World Cup, aim to hover above such a society like a type of alien mothership, nor crush the life from its host nation under an enormous corporate sponsored boot.

The sportswriter Jonathan Wilson, author of a forthcoming book about Argentinian soccer and who has regularly attended all the world’s major tournaments, believes that international competitions operate on a kind of sliding scale in terms of their relationship with the host country and, of course, the fans. “The World Cup is entirely removed from the society that surrounds it,” he says. “Then there’s the Euros, which aren’t quite as bad, but still operate in a kind of bubble. The Copa América meanwhile, is much more organic, in terms of not trying to shut out the world around it, and is much the richer for it.”

Richer, because what on earth is the pleasure of watching soccer, that most culturally and historically absorbent and reflective of sports, in the context of a sanitized bubble? To do so is surely the equivalent of spending a fortnight’s vacation at a resort hotel, only seeing the world on the other side of the fence when, nose pressed up against the taxi window and peering out in wonder at the locals, one is whisked to and from the airport.

In contrast, competitions such as the Copa América provide an opportunity to get to know the host country a little better – to find out the history behind that haunting monument at the Estadio Nacional, for example, or to read some Neruda, or realize that the thousands of middle class visiting fans from Colombia, Argentina and other countries, an unheard of sight at earlier editions of the tournament, reflect the economic growth of the region in recent years.

This earthy, idiosyncratic Copa América, then, with its cramped press boxes and stadiums redolent of the past, its peanuts and coffee, its street protests and its shivering fans and affable street dogs, is such a vibrant experience precisely because, rather like life itself, not everything is wonderful here. For if soccer, with its rich variation of playing styles and cultures, and the deep passions that it stirs across communities and nations, is our most human of sports, then it is only fitting that the tournaments that celebrate the game are human, too – with all the strengths and weaknesses and joy and sorrow that entails.

From loving this long, thin ship so much,
these stones, these little farms,
the durable rose of the coast
that lives among the foam.
I became one with my country.

All poetry is from “Insomnia” by Pablo Neruda

 

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