No-one would claim that Brazil-Chile is one of football’s great rivalries, at least in the traditional sense involving a tense relationship. One need only look at the history of key moments in South American football, which invariably involve matches between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay – three avowed rivals. Yet when it comes to Chileans and Brazilians, even in situations where one would expect otherwise, the overriding sentiments are a certain calmness and admiration.
Take, for example, the semi-final of the 1962 FIFA World Cup™, held in Chile. In front of 77,000 spectators in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional, A Seleção waged an authentic battle against the hosts, winning 4-2 thanks to two goals and a majestic display by Garrincha. But before the final whistle blew an incident occurred that the injured Pele, watching from the stands, described thus in his autobiography: “Garrincha had had enough of the rough treatment from the Chileans, retaliated and was sent off. It led to a huge melee. When he was walking off the pitch a bottle cut open his head and he needed stitches.”
What were we saying about a lack of tension? The article, written by the journalist Julio Martinez in Chile’s main sports publication Estadio immediately after the match that prevented the hosts from reaching the final, is telling.
“Brazil beat us again, snuffing out a nation’s hopes as they had done in 1945 (in the South American Championship) on the night of Heleno de Freitas’s goal, and in 1952 (in the Pan-American Games) on the afternoon of Ademir’s goals. One can deduce that Brazil has become a perpetual killjoy for Chilean football, for the third time forcing the fans to fold up their flags (...). However, if we look at the bigger picture, it is easy to explain. The two countries have very similar ideas and styles (...) and when styles of play and game plans are the same, it is simply the greater quality, or the genial nature of a few exceptional individuals that makes the difference.”
The words were more than a humble admission to placate the pain. “In the final, in spite of what had happened in the semi, the Chileans were cheering for us,” striker Amarildo, Pele’s replacement in that World Cup told FIFA.com. Brazil went on to beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 to retain their world crown. “When they played us the Chileans knew their only chance was to employ roughhouse tactics and try and unnerve us, because we were the better team. But they loved us. Throughout our training camp at Vina Del Mar, we received nothing but warmth.”
Figueroa paves the way
A few years later this warm relationship between fans and players began to blossom further, albeit in the opposite direction. It all started with a man who would serve as the paradigmatic example. Nowadays, several Chilean footballers have earned a fine reputation in Brazil, and they undoubtedly owe a debt of gratitude to Elias Figueroa.
Curiously, the story began precisely at that 1962 World Cup. Shortly before their opening game, A Seleção played a training match against the Santiago Wanderers youth team, and a 15-year-old midfielder stood out. Nine years later, now a magnificent centre-back, Figueroa turned down European football when he left Colo-Colo to join Brazil’s Internacional de Porto Alegre instead. In six years there, the Chilean not only became the captain, leader and two-time champion of Brazil (1975 and 1976), he also acquired legendary status.
Much of this was down to what the annals would come to call “the illuminated goal”. It was the climax of the Brazilian Championship in 1975, at Inter’s Beira-Rio stadium, and the match against Cruzeiro was locked at 0-0 under cloudy skies. Eleven minutes into the second half as Valdomiro crossed into the Cruzeiro box, a sheath of sunlight poked through the clouds illuminating the penalty area where Figueroa was stationed. Latching onto the cross, the Chilean duly scored to give the Colorado their first ever Brazilian title. That moment alone made Figueroa part of Brazilian football folklore, over and above his incredible football ability. “Figueroa is the best ever Chilean player and probably the best centre-back in the history of South American football,” said none other than Pele. The doors of Brazil had been definitively unlocked for Chilean players.
In the same way that the 1962 defeat did nothing to fan the flames of animosity between Chileans and Brazilians, not even one of the most bizarre scandals in football history soured the relationship. It was August 1989 and Brazil were beating Chile at the Maracana in a qualifier for the following year’s World Cup. La Roja were Brazil’s main rival for a berth at Italy 1990, and when a firecracker was hurled onto the pitch from the stands Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas, who played for Sao Paulo, fell to the ground. With blood gushing from his face he was treated by his team’s medical staff, and in the ensuing confusion the Chileans refused to play on, alleging a lack of safety.
Soon afterwards an inquiry found that it had been a set-up. Rojas was carrying a razor blade and cut himself to trigger the confusion and have the match called off. The firecracker that had fallen near him was merely a coincidence that he used to his advantage. The goalkeeper subsequently confessed everything, Chile were docked points and were suspended from that World Cup and the next one, in the United States. Rojas was handed a lifetime ban from football, and for many was considered an authentic villain and persona non grata. However, precisely in Brazil, this was not the case, especially in Sao Paulo.
Officially Roberto Rojas was forbidden from exercising any function in football, but upon invitation from Tele Santana he became an informal adviser of the club’s goalkeepers in 1994. In 2001, at 44 years of age, the Chilean was granted a pardon and became the goalkeeper coach de facto. In 2003 he took over as coach and under his guidance Sao Paulo qualified for the Copa Libertadores after a nine-year absence. One of football’s great crimes had led to one of its most remarkable stories of redemption. “Colo-Colo (his former club in Chile) knew me as a player and a fan. Sao Paulo knew me as a person, and took me in,” Rojas said in an interview given to the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.
Home from home
So it is clear the amicable football relations between Brazil and Chile are unshakeable. The cases are not abundant but they are striking. Today’s examples include centre-back Marcos Gonzalez, born in Rio de Janeiro before moving to Chile when still a baby, then returning to Brazil where he played for Flamengo until 2013. Three other Chileans who play in Brazil also made Jorge Sampaoli’s provisional squad for the 2014 World Cup: full-back Eugenio Mena, at Santos, and midfielders Jorge Valdivia, one of Palmeiras’s most important players in recent years, and Charles Aranguiz, who as soon as he arrived at Inter de Porto Alegre made a huge impact among Figueroa’s fans and was voted Most Valuable Player of the Rio Grande do Sul State Championship in 2014.
“For me, this World Cup is extra special because it is in Brazil, where I play,” said Valdivia, who is preparing for his second consecutive appearance at the planet’s biggest sporting event. Inter player Aranguiz is bold enough to ask for a helping hand from the local fans. “I never thought I’d adapt so quickly and I’m delighted. I know it’s difficult to ask this, but it would be great if the Brazilian fans could cheer for Chile in this World Cup.”
Given that groups A and B are crossed, there is a reasonable likelihood that the two nations will meet again, as happened in Chile’s last two appearances, in 1998 and 2010, where both times they were knocked out by Brazil in the Round of 16. Should history repeat itself, and despite several threats to the contrary, don’t expect the discourse at the end to be one of rivalry.