Chilean football has temporarily come to a halt in the wake of the terrible earthquake that recently brought devastation and tragedy to many parts of the country.
The disaster has led to the suspension of the national Apertura championship, the cancellation of last Wednesday’s 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ warm-up matches between La Roja and Korea DPR and Costa Rica, and the closure of several stadiums around the country due to serious structural damage.
The Chilean football family, many members of which experienced the earthquake at first hand, has been spurred into action, however, responding to the crisis en masse and demonstrating its heartfelt support and solidarity.
'Everything started to shake'
The earthquake, which measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, proved a terrifying experience for Juan Antonio Pizzi, the Argentinian coach of Santiago Morning and a former striker with Barcelona, Tenerife and his adopted Spain.
“I was asleep and all of a sudden everything started to shake,” he says, recalling the dramatic events of Saturday 27 February. “After another 20 seconds the electricity went, there was this terrible noise and everything started falling over. It was deafening and I was lying there thinking ‘What’s coming next?’ It went on and on and I just curled up in a corner of the room and waited.”
If anything, his compatriot Ruben Dario Gigena, the Santiago Wanderers forward, endured an even more terrifying night. “The earthquake woke me up and the first thing I did was to go to my children’s room,” he recalls. “I took them in my arms and, as there were bits of ceiling falling on top of us, I decided to jump from the fourth floor. It was horrendous.”
Chilean footballers plying their trade in Argentina, on the other side of the Andes, have not been lacking in support from their clubs, team-mates and fans. This weekend’s games were prefaced by a minute’s silence, and football followers in La Plata and Buenos Aires chanted “Chilean, Chilean” in homage to Alvaro Ormeno of Gimnasia y Esgrima and Boca Juniors midfielder Gary Medel, both of whom were reduced to tears by the emotional tributes.
'Bielsa, do it for us!'
Chile make their South Africa 2010 debut against Honduras in Nelspruit on 16 June, a game for which they should need little motivating, given the current circumstances. The situation is reminiscent of the one faced by Mexico’s players at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico. In September 1985, just a few months before the tournament began, the country was hit by an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale, with widespread destruction being caused in Mexico City.
Paying a visit to the coastal city of Constitucion at the weekend, La Roja coach Marcelo Bielsa offered his support to local residents, who had also had to contend with the effects of a devastating tsunami following the earthquake. Chatting to townsfolk, the Argentinian was able to see for himself the sense of expectation that Chile’s qualification for South Africa 2010 has generated, a sense of expectation heightened by La Roja’s second-place finish in the CONMEBOL Zone behind Brazil. “Bielsa, do it for us,” shouted the locals as he went on his way.
The sizeable contingent of Chilean footballers in Europe have also been getting involved in fundraising campaigns. Parma midfielder Luis Jimenez is spearheading a charity initiative that is raising money by auctioning shirts worn by the stars of calcio. Other Chilean exiles doing their bit include Zaragoza goalscorer Humberto Suazo, Roma midfielder David Pizarro, and Hector Mancilla, who plays his club football for Toluca of Mexico.
Back home meanwhile, the Chilean National Professional Football Association (ANFP) has announced the suspension of the Apertura championship. The plan is for a league comprising two rounds to be played through to the end of the year, though the fight for points and silverware is the last thing on the minds of the country’s footballing fraternity, which has made rebuilding the country its No1 priority.
The National Professional Footballers’ Union (SIFUP) is currently coordinating a series of activities and friendlies to raise money, and the country’s clubs are also getting into the spirit of things. 2009 Apertura champions Universidad de Chile have come up with a scheme whereby fans can go along to training sessions and have photos taken with their heroes in exchange for food, while Santiago rivals Colo Colo have already collected nearly 30 tons of food with a similar initiative.
The ball might be out of play at the moment but that does not mean to say Chilean football is out of action, displaying its heart and commitment to its compatriots by putting the usual everyday concerns of results, points and transfers firmly to one side.