The World Cup is happening in a few months. Here is this story in the Guardian Simon Burnton.” It took two days for highlights of the match that was christened, even during the commentary, the Battle of Santiago, to be flown from South America and broadcast in Britain. Two days in which the game became, in its own brutal way, legendary, spoken of in ways which must have sent anyone with a combined interest in football and mild gore into a frenzy of excitement. “The match is universally agreed by observers as the ugliest, most vicious and disgraceful in soccer history,” wrote Frank McGhee in the Mirror. “If you think that is exaggerating, watch the film on TV. But send the kids to bed first – it deserves a horror certificate!”
David Coleman’s introduction to the BBC’s broadcast is rightly legendary. “Good evening,” he said. “The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football in the history of the game. This is the first time these countries have met; we hope it will be the last. The national motto of Chile reads, By Reason or By Force. Today, the Chileans weren’t prepared to be reasonable, the Italians only used force, and the result was a disaster for the World Cup. If the World Cup is going to survive in its present form something has got to 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.”
But though the Battle of Santiago is remembered as a uniquely lawless encounter, in fact it was one of many in a particularly violent tournament. Before the match had even been played the Chilean newspaper Clarin had declared it less a World Cup and more a World War. “The tournament shows every sign of developing into a violent bloodbath,” wrote the Express on the morning of the match. “Reports read like battlefront despatches. Italy v Germany was described as ‘wrestling and warfare”. Players were compelled to leap away from the ball to survive. Football was forgotten as players sought to destroy each other.”
The eight games played over the first two days of the tournament featured four red cards, three broken legs, a fractured ankle and some cracked ribs. The first match in England’s group, between Argentina and Bulgaria, was won by the south Americans thanks to what was described as a display of “hacking, tripping, pushing and any other dirty tricks”. After the game, in which the Spanish referee Juan Gardeazabal awarded 69 free-kicks at the rate of one every 78 seconds, the Bulgarian Todor Diev displayed a cut nose and legs decorated with stud marks and said Argentina were “like boxers”.
In Russia’s opening game, against Yugoslavia, Eduard Dubinski’s leg was broken in a challenge with Muhamed Mujic. The Yugoslav was not sent off, but his association was sufficiently dismayed by the foul to voluntarily suspend him for an entire year. “It is lamentable that Fifa are not equally honest,” wrote the Express. “They have ignored their own ruling that any offenders be dealt with immediately after the offence. With no action against the few out-and-out villains the ugly situation has been encouraged to spread.”
“It became clear after only two days that most teams were so anxious to avoid an early return home that they had forgotten football was only a game, and the World Cup its greatest shop window,” wrote the Telegraph’s football correspondent, Donald Saunders, in his book on the tournament published later that year. “From all four centres came reports of violence, ill temper, serious injury, and precious little of the artistic soccer to be expected of the world’s leading professionals.”
Italy had behaved badly enough in their first match, but now the stakes were even higher: they would have to deal with the host nation and their fanatical support in a game they could not afford to lose. As for Chile, the Observer had declared that “the patriotism here for the national team is astonishing”, and their fervour had risen a couple of notches when word reached Santiago of a series of articles written in the Italian newspapers La Nazione and Corriere della Sera shortly before the World Cup began, which variously described the idea of their hosting it as “pure madness”, their capital as a backwater where “the phones don’t work, taxis are as rare as faithful husbands, a cable to Europe costs an arm and a leg and a letter takes five days to turn up”, and its population as prone to “malnutrition, illiteracy, alcoholism and poverty”. “Santiago is terrible,” Corrado Pizzinelli wrote in La Nazione. “Entire neighbourhoods are given over to open prostitution.” The journalists involved were forced to flee the country, while an Argentinian scribe mistaken for one of them in a Santiago bar was beaten up and hospitalised.
Worried about the potential for violence at the game, and with the Italian FA having complained about the original appointment of a Spanish official for a match involving fellow hispanophones, Fifa parachuted in the experienced English referee Ken Aston. The Italians weren’t enormously impressed by that, either – Aston had already taken charge of Chile’s first game of the tournament.
From the start Chileans spat in the faces of Italians, they poked and kicked and provoked, but when the Italians retaliated it was they who were punished. The first foul was awarded after 12 seconds, the first sending-off after four minutes. Giorgio Ferrini, the Italian involved, refused to leave the field and play was held up for 10 minutes until armed policemen frogmarched him to the dressing-rooms. “The pitch quickly became a battlefield as players forgot the ball and concentrated on kicking the nearest opponent,” wrote the Mirror. Highlights included Leonel Sánchez, son of a professional boxer, breaking the nose of Italy’s captain Humberto Maschio with a left hook and getting away with it, and then landing another blow on the Italian right-half Mario David, who was sent off for retaliating. To add insult to, well, more insults, Sánchez took the free-kick from which Jaime Ramírez gave Chile a 73rd-minute lead, against nine men, and Jorge Toro added a late second.
“I had my back to the incident at the time,” Aston insisted of Sánchez’s nosebreaking punch. “If the referee or linesman sees nothing, nothing can be done. I’m sure the linesman did see it, but he refused to tell me.” The man patrolling the nearest touchline was Leo Goldstein, who many felt had been given the chance to officiate at a World Cup only because of his unique backstory – he was a Holocaust survivor who had literally been marching towards the gas chambers when one of the guards asked if anyone was able to referee a football match. Despite a complete lack of experience he volunteered, survived the remainder of the war, emigrated to America and continued refereeing thereafter. “I was stuck with a Mexican and a little American,” said Aston of his assistants. “They weren’t very good, so it became almost me against the 22 players.”
“We weren’t throwing the punches, we were taking them. We Italians were the victims, not the aggressors,” said David, many year later. “Sánchez broke Maschio’s nose and the referee said nothing, but instead sent off Ferrini who was trying to take revenge on Sánchez but didn’t even touch him. Then their goalkeeper passed the ball to Sánchez, who sat on it and held it between his legs. In order to kick the ball I had to kick him a little bit too, and when he got up he punched me, but the referee pretended nothing had happened. Then I challenged Sánchez with an outstretched leg and caught him in the shoulder, and the shameless Aston sent me off too. I stood at the entrance to the tunnel to watch the rest of the game, and I can assure you that even with nine men we fought to the end.”
“The Italians could not understand – and neither can I – why Sánchez had been allowed to remain on the field despite a passable imitation of Rocky Marciano, when one of their number had been banished for a less serious and far less obvious offence,” wrote Jimmy Hill in the Observer. “From that moment the last semblance of control left both players and officials. It was an appalling decision to allow a player to remain on the field after such a blatant disregard for the laws. The players will have to shoulder most of the blame, but the officials must face up to their responsibility for making this grotesque decision.”
“I expected a difficult match, but not an impossible one,” Aston said. “I just had to do the best I could. It did cross my mind to abandon the match, but I couldn’t be responsible for the safety of the Italian players if I did. I thought that then and I still think it now. I tell you one thing: I didn’t add on any stoppage time.”
The hatred between the nations boiled over. In Chile, Italians found themselves banned from bars, restaurants and even supermarkets, and the squad’s training camp was placed under armed guard. Jorge Pica, a senior member of the Chilean FA, launched further controversy by alleging that the Italians were drugged. “They seemed to go on the field only with the intention of injuring the Chileans,” he said. “It was like a rodeo. Frankly, I think they were doped. Now I can see the necessity for laboratory tests on players after matches.” Meanwhile the Italians submitted an official complaint against Aston’s biased officiating, described the Chileans as “cannibals” and in Rome the army was sent in to protect the Chilean consulate.
Criticism of Aston’s handling of the match was, inevitably, most extreme in Italy – “I remember that one journalist called him ‘an unmentionable English vermin,’ and I totally agree with him,” said David – but it was not confined there. The former referee and honorary president of the German FA, Peco Bauwens, said “I have never seen an English referee so weak”. “I have self-respect,” insisted the Englishman. “Otherwise I would have taken the easy way out and abandoned the game.”
With the World Cup still bedevilled by violence – even while the Battle of Santiago was being played Yugoslavia were contesting “another ugly brawl” against Uruguay in Arica, featuring two sendings-off of its own – Aston and Bob Davidson, the Scottish official who had refereed Italy’s first match, went to see the Fifa president, Sir Stanley Rous. “All referees who saw this game and who have seen the general vicious malice in most matches want to tell Rous they haven’t come all these miles for all this time to handle this sort of stuff,” said Davidson.
“The World Cup competition is heading for ruin and disgrace unless Sir Stanley Rous and his committee act quickly and ruthlessly to clean it up,” wrote the Mirror. “Chile today is a country of rumour and threats.” Rous heard the referees’ demand that miscreants be dealt with in the strongest possible way, and assured them that was his intention. They left happy, but then Fifa suspended Ferrini for just one match and gave David and Sánchez nothing by reprimands. Still, representatives of all 16 teams were called to the Carrera Hotel in Santiago, also the site of the draw and later of the gala celebration in honour of the victors, where Rous demanded an improvement in standards. “What will the children think when they see the abominable way the top players behave? We have to save the reputation of this tournament,” he said. “This is not about victory at all costs.”
But Fifa’s crackdown was laughably half-hearted. Four years later Pelé, having been injured in Brazil’s second match in Chile, was brutally kicked out of the 1966 World Cup. “I have heard it said since, and I firmly believe it, that Sir Stanley Rous instructed referees to go easy on the ‘virile’ game played by the European teams,” he wrote in his autobiography, “with the result that [they] did everything they could to physically cripple me.”
Even in Chile there was little improvement. In the semi-final between Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia the Swiss referee was forced to call the captains together with the game, according to the Express, “developing into a brawl”, and “warn them to cut out the rough stuff”. In the other semi-final, between Chile and Brazil, two men were sent off. The outstanding player of the tournament, Brazil’s Garrincha, was one of them, his head cut open by one of the many missiles thrown in his direction as he left the field. After the game he wept in the dressing-room. “OK, I was sent off,” he said, “but all afternoon I am kicked. There is a limit to the time when a man must be a man. When I was kicked I struck back. Maybe I was wrong but I am prepared to face what may come.”
The Brazilian FA, however, were not. His availability for the final lay in the hands of a Fifa disciplinary committee, at which the match officials would give evidence. But first the referee, the Peruvian Arturo Yamazaki, received a phone call from his country’s president requesting that he tone down his testimony, and made Garrincha’s offence sound positively trifling. Then the linesman, Uruguay’s Esteban Marino, on whose say-so Yamazaki had acted in the first place and whose evidence was to be crucial, failed to turn up at all.
“He just disappeared. It was like something out of an Agatha Christie novel,” wrote the Brazilian journalist Argeu Affonso, who was covering the tournament. “It was Agatha Christie football. He just disappeared, and nobody knew where he’d gone.” It turned out that the Brazilian World Cup referee John Etzel had been given $10,000 in cash by his FA to pass on to his colleague in return for his disappearance. Without him Fifa found that they had insufficient evidence to ban Garrincha, who played as Brazil beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the final. “It was me who won the World Cup,” Etzel later claimed, and he got more than that: it later transpired that he had given Marino only half of the cash, and kept the rest for himself. A fitting end to a remarkably lawless occasion.