Against a backdrop of a natural disaster for the country just two years before, Chile hosted the World Cup in 1962. Not a rich nation by any means they had withstood the most powerful earthquake recorded which devastated the country and only after desperate re-building measures were they able to welcome the world.
The hosts won their opening game against Switzerland and were then up against Italy, twice winners of the trophy before the War. The game at Santiago would become infamous and earned the right to be prefaced, “The Battle of”. Over 66,000 people packed into the National Stadium in Santiago and witnessed something resembling more akin to licensed violence than a football match. Two players were sent off, both Italian, and yet there had been other matches in World Cup history with multiple sendings-off. What made this particular match go into the annals was that the television cameras were there.
In England we had an edited highlights programme introduced by David Coleman. This was how he addressed the viewing public
“The game you’re about to see is one of the most stupid, appalling, disgusting, and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game. Chile versus Italy. This is the first time the two countries have met and we hope it will be the last.
The motto of Chile is ‘by reason or by force’. Today the Chileans were prepared to be reasonable, the Italians only used force, and the result was a disaster for the World Cup.
Now if the World Cup is going to survive in its present form, something’s gotta be done about teams that play like this. Indeed, after seeing the film tonight, you at home may well think that teams that play in this manner ought to be expelled immediately from the competition. See what you think”
And so we watched, rather in disbelief, at the blatant kicking and punching out on the pitch. Within five minutes there was a mellee with two Chileans on the ground, and the players crowding the referee, Englishman Ken Aston. Twelve minutes in and one of the Italian players, Ferrini, kicks out at a Chilean player and Aston sends him off. In keeping with the rather disjointed nature of the game, Ferrini refuses the leave the pitch and so the Army is brought on to escort him, unceremoniously, from the proceedings. It didn’t get any better from there.
Perhaps the moment which defines the whole sorry affair came when Sanchez (Chile) and David (Italy) got tangled up near Italy’s right corner flag. David kicked Sanchez a couple of times. Think of Hazard and the Swansea City ballboy and you get the idea. Sanchez got up and lumped David on the jaw. Remarkably Sanchez wasn’t sent-off despite the linesman standing right there and signalling to Aston straight away. Within minutes when the ball was back in the Chile half, the ball was played in the air to Sanchez and out of nowhere came David flying, Cantona-style, through the air, feet first and landed his studs on Sanchez head. David is immediately sent-off and this time Aston is taking no chances as he man-handles the Italian off the pitch himself.
The second half wasn’t any better apart from two goals from Chile to win the game. Aston rarely had control of the game and his final act was when two players just kicked each other rather than bother about the ball and Aston seemed to finally lose patience and call an end to it all. The atmosphere inside the stadium was poisonous but the home fans had a victory to celebrate, a ticket to the next round and delight in seeing the Italians elimination confirmed.
David Coleman actually coined the phrase The Battle of Santiago, during commentary and he was right to be astonished at the futility of what he had witnessed. But to truly understand the full effect of why this occurred you need to go back a few days before the game itself. After the earthquake, some associations had called for an alternative venue to be chosen, and Italy was especially vocal in this regard. But what really sparked things off was comments from two Italian journalists about the state of the capital city. The local press was incensed and proceeded to fan the flames resulting in the journalists needing to leave the country for their own safety. This situation was made worse by some Argentinians with Italian passports being allowed to play for Italy. Given all this, perhaps it was inevitable a needle match would ensue, but few expected what really broke out.
A rather interesting postscript to this game is that neither Italian player was shown the red card as they hadn’t been invented yet. The man who invented them? Ken Aston.