Small Team, Small town, Big dreams – The Story of San Felipe

Amidst a string of national championship wins by big Chilean clubs like Universidad de Chile, Colo Colo, and Union Española, a tiny team won their first championship—surprising and surpassing all. The team was San Felipe, our Chilean Black Swan, presented to you by Sebastian Moraga at Goalden Times.

San Felipe

It all began with a fever.

With Chile having realized its dream of hosting a World Cup, the national football association (ACF or Central Association of Football in Spanish) determined that the football fever that had gripped the nation during those cold mid-year days of 1962 was enough to sustain 18 teams in the Primera Division—Chile’s top league.

Increasing the number of teams within Chile has always been a risky proposition. Not only does the country’s geographic shape make for some long trips, but the number of solvent squads has always been lower than the number of squads hoping to become solvent someday. So, filling up the calendar with trips to cities that have teams that can barely pay the bills rarely works out in anyone’s favour.

But this was 1962. The country had just finished third in the World Cup due to the coaching of Fernando Riera, and had a team the likes of which Chilean fans would not see again for decades. Names like Leonel Sanchez, Eladio Rojas, Alberto Fouilloux, Misael Escuti, Manuel Rodriguez, Adan Godoy, and an attacking midfielder named Jaime Ramirez had become part of the country’s football folklore. These names would only grow more legendary with the passage of time.

It was in the midst of this World-Cup fuelled enthusiasm that the ACF decided to expand itself to areas deep in the mountainous ranges of Chile.  Cities outside the capital had always been represented well with teams like Santiago Wanderers (oddly enough not located in Santiago but in the port city of Valparaiso) and Everton, located in the beach resort town of Viña del Mar. However, cities far from the coast had been lacking in representation, with a couple of exceptions like Rangers in the agricultural hub of Talca and O’Higgins in the mining town of Rancagua.

Perhaps seeking to fill that gap, the ACF allowed San Felipe, a town about 74 miles east of Valparaiso, to join the Primera Division. The team, Union San Felipe, known since then as the Uni-Uni (Oon-EE, Oon-EE) had been founded in 1956 after two amateur teams, “Tarcisio” and “Nacional”, had decided to merge.  After a year in the amateur ranks, they joined the professional ranks in 1957 by playing in Chile’s second division.

They were nothing more than a tough side till 1960, when they first turned heads after finishing third in the Segunda championship—six points away from Green Cross-Temuco, the champions. The next year, the Uni-Uni would climb over the hump and join Chile’s top league—finishing second in the Segunda Division, one point shy of champions (and nearby rivals) Union La Calera.

As with most fevers, this one also waned with time. Even after a few successful years that saw Union San Felipe reach ninth and eighth places during its first two years as a top-bracket team, San Felipe encountered the ghost that haunts most small-budget teams that are located away from Santiago—relegation.  Just two years after joining the top league, the Uni-Uni finished in the 15th place, just three rungs above the cellar. Their 1965 and 1966 campaigns would get them no closer to the elites, finishing 14th in both years.

Then, San Felipe finished eighth in 1967. What looked like the harbinger of better days was instead more of a mirage at the start of painful wanderings. By 1968, San Felipe had returned to the second division.

By 1968, some of the football fever had given way to a methodical and passionless tournament fixture that would only last a couple of years. Furthermore, ACF splitted teams into two groups: the teams from Santiago and the teams from outside Santiago.

 Gone were the round-robin tournaments where everybody played everybody else twice. Instead, the teams from Santiago, the capital city, would play for the Metropolitan championship, and the rest would play the Provincial championship. The top teams in each would play a new tournament named the Championship of Honour, while the teams near or in the cellar in the Metropolitan and the Provincial would play another tournament called the Promotional.

San Felipe finished next-to-last in the Provincial and last in the Promotional, sentencing itself to play the 1969 season in the second division, the dreaded Segunda. It would stay there for two years until 1970, when it won the second division championship and returned to the top league. It was, although nobody knew it at the time, the beginning of another fever—one that caught many by surprise.

At the helm of San Felipe was a man who knew the town, and the teams nearby, well. Luis Santibañez Diaz, barely into his fourth decade of life, had spent already half of it coaching football. He began his career by coaching adults while he was still a teenager in his native Antofagasta, a port town about 830 miles north of Santiago.

Those early days in Antofagasta were the beginning of a pilgrimage that would take Santibañez to places like Ecuador and Qatar in the decades to come. But in the late 1960s, Santibañez had not yet become the household name in Chile as he is now. Back then, he was just a young coach, collecting experiences and waiting for his big break.

When the people in San Felipe came calling, Santibañez already knew the club well—having run its youth squads in early 1960s. Many of the players now playing for the Uni-Uni as pros had been Santibañez’ pupils years earlier.  That familiarity would play a big role in the success Santibañez and San Felipe would achieve. But of course, neither side knew it yet.

After a couple of years, both San Felipe and then-youth coach Santibañez parted ways, but the two were never too far away. When San Felipe lost its top-league status in 1968, Santibañez had a front-row seat to the debacle of relegation as he was Trasandino’s coach in the next-door city of Los Andes. The next year, while San Felipe toiled in the second division, Santibañez coached Coquimbo (coe-KEEM-bo)—a couple of hours north.

Then, in 1970, the two met again. With a young squad and a young coach, San Felipe earned its return to the first division, overcoming the team from south—Iberia Bio-Bio—by one point.

San Felipe
San Felipe squad in 1971 [Source – El Observador]

That year, San Felipe not only overcame a tough team in Iberia, but also participated in one of the weirdest championships in the history of professional Chilean football. At the beginning of the year, a club named Ferrobadminton, which had been born decades earlier out of the fusion of Ferroviarios (railroad workers) and Badminton, decided to split, share a stadium, a roster, and a tournament while working out their divorce. In addition, Universidad Tecnica had been disbanded before the start of the tournament, putting an end to its inglorious 26-year history—during which they had never climbed above fourth place.

Lastly, a team with the very metropolitan name of Municipal Santiago had found itself with no stadium, no real fandom, but at the same time, with no real hurry to acquire either. They were content with finishing in the middle of the standings every year. Frankly, that annoyed the brass at the ACF no end.

The ACF had never been shy about their plan for getting rid of small-time Santiago clubs. They would send them to places far away from the capital so that Chile’s largest city only had well-moneyed clubs. That’s how onetime Santiago teams like Iberia and Green Cross found themselves in the southern towns of Los Angeles (bathed by the waters of the Bio-Bio river) and Temuco.

Enter Municipal Santiago. The ACF forced Municipal Santiago to play its games out of town. After months spent looking for a host, the town of Rengo (60 miles to the south) offered its stadium (but little else).  Municipal Santiago would have to train, teach, and do business in Santiago, and only on game days would they come to “represent” Rengo.

Needless to say, the deal didn’t work out. Rengo never warmed up to “its” club, and Municipal Santiago never tried really hard to make fans, sticking on their jerseys their regular logo, which carried—what else?—the coat of arms of Santiago. Municipal sank to the bottom of the standings, ending its stay among the professional ranks of Chilean football. The team would live to see one more year, before finally disbanding.

At the other end of the spectrum stood San Felipe, itching for a return to Primera that had been several years in the making.  The top brass at San Felipe, now readying for their first season in Primera in almost four years, had one request of Santibañez. It wasn’t medals, trophies, or even the proverbial “good showing.” All the team bosses wanted was a team that didn’t immediately return to the second division.

Perhaps to set an example, the top brass at San Felipe didn’t go crazy buying or renting players to strengthen their squad that had won the second-division championship. In fact, they only signed one big name—a 40-year-old named Jaime Ramirez. This was the same Jaime Ramirez who, along with his group of immortals, had achieved the highest honour Chilean football’s history back in 1962.

It had been nine years since 1962. Having played in three countries and two World Cups, Ramirez was a fading football star at the twilight of his career. Regardless, his name still carried some weight—especially for a team less than 15 years old and fresh off the second division.

Nevertheless, those watching the newcomers prepare for the Primera season wondered if they were taking things seriously enough. One signing? One signing of a 40-year-old for a team hoping not to end up being relegated? On paper, it didn’t seem enough.

It was another signing, with much less fanfare than Ramirez’, that would help turn the team’s fortunes around in the long term. Having spent the last season in nearby Quillota playing for local side San Luis, Uruguayan striker Uruguay Graffigna was friends with some San Felipe players. So, when they asked him to sign on for their first year back in Primera, Graffigna agreed.

Since its inception in 1933, no team from outside Santiago had won the championship until Everton won it in 1950. Everton repeated this feat in 1952. Subsequently, no team from outside Santiago won this tournament in the next 20 years apart from Valparaiso’s Santiago Wanderers in 1958 and 1968.

Then Union San Felipe hit the jackpot in 1971.

According to football historian Edgardo Marin Mendez’ book Historia de los Campeones, the newspaper scribes of the era wrote “It’s not enough for Primera,” about a San Felipe team [1]. By then, the team had added three players from San Luis, including Graffigna, Ramirez, and home-grown talent Rafael Henriquez. Henriquez was back from a loan to Huachipato, a team from the steel mills in southern Chile’s Talcahuano.

The 1971 tournament also brought back the round-robin format of the fixture after three years of experimenting with dull provincial and metropolitan tournaments.

So when San Felipe won its first two matches, nobody paid much attention. Many a team start strong, fuelled perhaps by the adrenaline of playing in the top division after a spell of looking up to it. When the third game came along and the rival was powerhouse Universidad de Chile (winner of the Chilean Championship in six of the last 12 editions), many figured the fabled “Chuncho” (Owl) would be the team to put San Felipe back in its place.

Instead, it was San Felipe that put their hosts in their place, winning 4-3, followed by a 1-1 tie at home against Rangers. This was followed by a goal-fest—a 6-1 victory against Santiago’s Audax Italiano squad, one of Chile’s oldest.

By the time the Audax game had ended, San Felipe had completed five games without losing. The Cinderella team had found itself atop the standings during its first 45 days back from relegation, tied mano-a-mano [2] with nearby Calera. And it was Calera that ended up snapping San Felipe’s winning streak, defeating them 4-1.

Another loss two weeks later created some doubt among the press, because what lay ahead looked difficult—Colo Colo, the defending champion, also undefeated and always backed by a sizeable fan base.

None of that mattered to San Felipe. A team of hardworking players “who run until the last minute [1],” (as Marin quoted Santibañez’ mantra) managed to remain humble and serene. It was that serenity that allowed them to turn around a 1-0 deficit against Colo Colo into a 2-1 victory—their fifth in nine games,

From then on, people started looking differently at San Felipe. It didn’t happen overnight. Many fans expected that sooner or later these young upstarts from the hillsides would hit a losing streak and return to the bottom of the standings. But it never happened.  And they began to gain new followers week after week.

The players believed in Santibañez and listened to everything he says. “The only thing he asked of us was to play to win,” Graffigna said of Santibañez in an interview with the author last February. The “Old Man” Ramirez fit well with the young team, on and off the pitch.

“It was a very simple, humble team,” Graffigna commented. “But it was a team that wanted it and went after it. It was our dream to win. We wanted to win every Sunday. Away or at home, we wanted to win.”

 The forwards defended, the defence attacked—it was total football three years before it became a worldwide phenomenon with Rinus Michels and the Netherlands.  Every week, the squad from San Felipe kept on surprising with their quick touches, hardworking attitude, and their team-first roster of 18 young players and one veteran.

In his book La Historia de los Campeones, Chilean football historian Marin posits that the key to the team’s success was that it battled hard in every game, not just in stretches and who decided to enjoy as a personal triumph their devotion to the group.  “They believed in Santibanez, and the results advised them it was wise to keep believing in him,” he wrote [1].

Chilean football historian Marin posits that the key to the team’s success was that it battled hard in every game, not just in stretches and who decided to enjoy as a personal triumph their devotion to the group

The acceptance of Santibanez’ football philosophy was no doubt aided by the fact that four of the 11 regular starters had been coached by him in their youth squads.

 “He would only tell us what to do with the ball. Nothing else. And when we didn’t have the ball, to get it back as quickly as possible,” Graffigna said. “All the players knew what to do. Nobody ever told Santibañez he was wrong and the players lived up to his expectations.”

Graffigna ended up scoring 15 goals for the champions [1], one more than his teammate Manuel Nunez, nicknamed “El Poroto”—the jelly bean. Ramirez himself had a goal, one of the last ones of his illustrious career. The goals by Nuñez had cemented him as the fifth-top scorer in the Primera championship, behind three other Chilean players and a Paraguayan, Eladio Zarate. Zarate ended up with the top score of 25 goals while playing for Universidad de Chile. Remarkably, Nuñez was the leading scorer for the team and for all the other non-Santiago squads.

Scoring 15 goals was an impressive feat for the Uruguayan striker, who had suffered a broken leg two years earlier and had spent the previous year playing for nearby San Luis and sleeping in the team’s headquarters.

By the time the team defeated Colo Colo a second time in October 1971, what seemed impossible at the beginning of the year now almost seemed like a plausible goal. They were a hairbreadth away from winning consecutive championships in both Segunda and Primera. No Chilean team had ever done it— much less a team from outside Santiago, in a Santiago-centric championship like Primera.

In their penultimate showdown, San Felipe beat Deportes Concepcion with a last-minute goal by Graffigna. In their last match, San Felipe beat Lota Schwager (from the coal-mining town of the same name) and won the first Primera championship in its history.

“It was a beautiful competition, my first championship,” said Graffigna, in an interview with the author. He played in all 34 games that season [1].

The team never lost twice or more in a row, it did not lose twice to the same opponent [1] However, five teams lost both their home and away games to San Felipe [1]. In the last 13 games of the season, it only lost once, in December, in the heat of summer when the title was already theirs [1].  That’s when fans unfurled their signs that read “Del Ascenso a la Libertadores,” (From Relegation to the Libertadores Cup)  a feat unmatched by any Chilean football team till date.

Not since San Felipe has a Chilean team reached Primera after playing in the second division, won Primera the next year, and qualified for the Libertadores Cup. San Felipe did it first, although the heights of success would prove too much for the squad, its inexperienced players, and its young coach.

“We behaved badly at the Libertadores,” Graffigna says almost 50 years later, from his home in Quillota. “We didn’t have our heads in the Libertadores. Try as we might, we weren’t trying hard and we weren’t doing the things we needed to do.”

Back then, the Libertadores’ first round teamed up two teams from one country against two teams from another, playing in a round-robin format. Union San Felipe’s stadium was not big enough for the requirements of CONMEBOL (back then referred to as the CSF, for Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol). Thus, they had to play their home games in Santiago.

And it was in Santiago where San Felipe would achieve its first triumph in an international competition—a 3-2 victory over Universidad de Chile. It would be the only win for the Uni-Uni during that tournament’s first round, which saw the Chilean champion finish last in its group.

“We kind of went on a bender of sorts at the Libertadores, we thought of ourselves as better than we really were,” Graffigna said. “We weren’t smart enough to play against those teams.”

And if going from champions of Segunda to champions of Primera in two years had been a hard-to-rival feat, going from champions of Primera to the cellar of Primera in two years proved much easier. In 1972, San Felipe finished next-to-last, two points away from dropping to Segunda. The spectre of relegation never stood too far away. In 1973, the squad reached the last game of the season tied for last with Universidad Catolica. A win by San Felipe and a loss by Catolica saved the Uni-Uni from relegation, but not for long. The team finished last the next year, and returned to Segunda.

Thus ended a Cinderella story that saw a team come from the depths of relegation to the summit of top-flight Chilean football and then back down again in half a decade. For at least three people, though, the meteoric rise and fall worked out well enough. For Santibanez, the title with San Felipe was the long-awaited big break. After one more year with San Felipe, he signed with Union Española, a Santiago team. With “Furia Roja,” (Red Fury) , Santibañez would win the championships in 1973, ’75 and ’77, and finish second in the Libertadores of ’75. He would finish as runner-up in the Primera Division in ’76, losing in a one-game playoff after tying Everton for first place. In 1979, he was handed the reins of the national team and finished second in Copa America, narrowly missing out on first place on goal difference, after three final matches and an extra time was unable to separate them from eventual champions Paraguay. In 1981, he led the team to qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Luis Santibáñez [Source – José Ignacio Gutiérrez]

For Manuel Gaete, midfielder for San Felipe, the title would be the first but not the last. Hooking up again with Santibañez, this time in Union Española, Gaete would win the 1975 title, scoring four goals and playing in all but two games [1].

And for Graffigna, the 15 goals he scored for Union San Felipe were his ticket out of the hillsides and on to the big city. Union Española signed him in 1972, and the red uniforms of Union became a little too red when worn by Graffigna, much to the dismay of the striker.

A condition known as scabies curtailed his time with Union, right at the start of the team’s most successful era. It sprouted on his chest and glutes, and the itching made playing football impossible for him.

“Nobody would believe me,” Graffigna remembered.  “Then, the doctors wondered how I played football with that on my body.”

 However, neither the condition, nor the ensuing nickname of “sarnoso,” (scabby one) managed to curtail Graffigna’s career. He went on to sign with Mexico’s Pachuca, and later play in the Netherlands and in the then-thriving North American football League, under the name Uri (short for Uruguay) Banhoffer (his mother’s maiden name.)

“The president of the team saw my name, Uruguay Gustavo Graffigna Banhoffer and didn’t like it, so he shortened it,” says Graffigna, who retired at the beginning of the 1980s and then tried his hand at coaching. “Coaching wasn’t for me,” he insists.

After 1982, Santibanez’ star began to fade, beginning with a disastrous 1982 World Cup showing in Spain that saw Chile lose all its games. After that, Santibanez would never win another Primera championship and although he never lost faith in his coaching bonafides, he never got the second chance he so desired at the helm of the national team. He died in 2008, his name having long been besmirched by allegations that he drugged his players [3]. A former player, oddly named Jaime Ramirez (no relation with the player Santibanez managed) verified this in a TV show in 2013.

To Graffigna, the name Santibanez is not synonymous with anything other than that magical season of 1971.

“We worshipped him,” Graffigna said. “That season changed our lives.”

After losing its top-flight status in 1974, San Felipe spent the next 20 years on a roller-coaster ride that began with a terrifying slide, missing out twice, but just barely, on dropping down to Tercera and out of the professional ranks of Chilean football.

After eight years in Segunda, San Felipe returned to Primera in 1982, but without the vigour of 12 years earlier. After four years of poor showings, USF returned to Segunda for a year, before climbing back to the top rank in 1988 and returning to Segunda in 1989. They stayed there for 10 subsequent years.

The new millennium’s arrival saw a San Felipe committed to making, if not a splash, at least an effort to return to Primera and stay there. Thirty years after Luis Santibañez had given the team its first Segunda crown, former USF star Raul Toro repeated the feat, winning the Segunda championship, which by then had taken on a new moniker, the slightly confusing “Primera B.”

The return to Primera lasted six years. Then after a few seesaw years, the team won its third Segunda (or “Primera B”) championship in 2009. Additionally, it won one of Chile’s oldest tournaments, the simplistically named “Copa Chile,” which is played parallel to the main tournament and offers berths to the Sudamericana Cup as rewards to its champion.

The trip to Sudamericana Cup was a little better than their foray into the Libertadores almost 40 years earlier, but not by much.

Since 2013, San Felipe have been trying hard for a return to Primera A once again. A competition is in its 61st year currently, and San Felipe have played 36 seasons looking up at the top bracket and 24 as part of it. Marks that perhaps belie the turmoil the team has encountered in the last 10 years, during which the beloved Uni-Uni has found itself under the helm of more than 20 coaches.

There are enough reasons for them to miss the glory days of 1971, a legend that grows more lovable with each coaching change and passing year.

“It’s something very special,” says Graffigna.


  1. [1] Marin E. La Historia de los Campeones; B00KK88TCS, 1991
  2. [2] mano-a-mano : meaning an even confrontation, hand-to-hand in Spanish. It’s when two similarly powerful teams go up against each other. Its likely origin is arm wrestling, which pits one person’s hand against another person’s hand.
  3. [3] Red Gol

Cover Image Credit: Francisco Javier Argel

Sebastian Moraga

About Sebastian Moraga

Sebastian Moraga is a Chilean-born writer, journalist and broadcaster based in the northwest corner of the United States. He has more than 10 years of experience covering football at all levels, from the professional to the semipro, university, youth and amateur ranks. He has been a collaborator of Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, and has broadcast soccer games in two countries and two languages. He is married with two children and lives in Cashmere, U.S.A.