I said no to dictatorship on every level: Carlos Caszely

We all come to a crossroad in life where we have to choose between what is good for us and what is good in general. Not sure how many of us chose the right option, but here is a story of a rebel who certainly listened to his heart rather than his head. Debojyoti Chakraborty portrays  Carlos Caszely just the way he is –a man of strong principals, on and off the pitch.

“When the ball rolls wide off the post, you can cry about that. But when you lose your freedom, do you cry … or fight?”

Eric Cantona

This is the story of  another rebel in the football pitch, just like Eric, the enigmatic genius, himself. Nicknamed Rey del metro cuadrado (King of the square meter) for his amazing close ball controlling skills,  he cemented his place   in footballing folklore for  his idiosyncratic rather rebellious off-field actions. This is the story of a footballer who had no fear of losing everything he had for not bowing down to one of the most atrocious dictators of the 20th century. This is the story about that refused handshake which became a watershed event in the history of the country.

Carlos Humberto Caszely Garrido, one of Chile’s most important players, was a prolific goal scorer during his career spanning from 1969 to 1986. But he is known more for his political consciousness. Born in a left-wing communist family in Santiago on July 5, 1949, Caszely was brought up never to shy away from expressing himself. He was certainly different from his peers – he was an active member of the Players’ Union while most professionals in those days opted to stay aloof and apolitical Not only that, Caszely was very transparent and opinionated about his political inclinations, especially towards Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government: “Since I had use of my own reason, I have liked the Left and I am not thinking of changing my ideals.

Carlos Caszely
Carlos Caszely in action, 1982 [Source: Sport Bladet]

Caszely rose through the ranks of Chile’s most famous club team Colo Colo and eventually joined them in 1967 as a 17-year-old. The kid became a goal scoring sensation during his six-season stay there as he netted 66 goals in 123 appearances. Apart from winning the Chilean League in 1970 and 1972, Caszely ruled the continental stage as well  as the top scorer in the 1973 Copa Libertadores (Colo Colo narrowly missed out on the trophy to Club Atlético Independiente in the extra time of the decider after the two legged final tie ended in a stalemate). Caszely’s exploits had not gone   unnoticed and he joined the newly promoted Levante UD in Spanish second flight. Unfortunately Levante got relegated but Caszely continued his goal scoring spree finding the net 15 times in the league from 24 appearances and finishing in the top five for the race of Pichichi in the Segunda División. These were just his footballing exploits; the iconic moment was yet to come – that which changed Caszely’s life forever during this time.

28 years before the dreaded 9/11 brought up the face of international terrorism to public focus, Chileans had to experience a shivering 9/11 of their own when a military coup overthrew Chile’s democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. That upheaval started the dictatorship regime of General Augusto Pinochet that lasted till 1990. It was the beginning of a curse for the entire country as the Chilean military imprisoned anybody alleged of opposing the dictatorship. Thousands went missing, several were tortured and killed. The country went into oppression, the air was filled with the smell of blood, and somehow people had to adjust to their fate.

Only a couple of weeks after the coup in 1973, Chile was to face Soviet Union in the World Cup play-off game for an entry into the gala event in Germany next year. There was a minor problem though – the venue for the match, Chile’s National Stadium in Santiago, had been transformed into a detention camp since the wake of the upheaval. So now, the shrine of the beautiful game was serving as a torturing ground for the 7,000 political prisoners!

augusto-pinochet Carlos Caszely
“Sometimes democracy must be bathed in blood” – Augusto Pinochet [Source: activenews.ro]

The Soviets refused to play in a stadium “stained with blood.” Alarmed by this, FIFA sent its team to inspect the situation and tour the playing conditions. The prisoners were somehow kept hidden and mum at gunpoint during the officials’ visit.  Unfortunately the FIFA representatives did not find anything suspicious and hence the match was deemed fit to play.

They kept us down below, hidden in the locker rooms and in the tunnels“, a prisoner in those days can clearly remember the nightmarish conditions even today. Pinochet government could ill afford to reveal the detainees in front of the World.  That too in a stadium, which was meant to showcase the beautiful game! The dictator knew that it would have been the worst image he could have portrayed of himself to the outside world and hence the prisoners were completely isolated from the visiting party. It was as if they were in two different worlds, the stadium became a metaphor of Pinochet’s dictatorship. A few days before the game, all the captives were relocated to the north of Chile, to a salt mining town in the Atacama  Desert.

It was not a simple protest by the Soviets  though; there were bigger things at stake.   The erstwhile FIFA President, Englishman Stanley Rous was notorious for favoring the UK nations. He had previously pulled the strings to shift  the venue of a Northern Ireland vs Bulgaria match from Belfast to Sheffield citing security issues within Ulster. The Soviets sensed that quite a few Socialist countries would boycott the World Cup if this match is played at the Estadio Nacional. That would eventually allow England who had failed to qualify for the tournament, a backdoor entry into the competition. East Germany made a tongue-in-cheek comment that it is no different from playing at the Dachau concentration camp. Beyond football, it was  rumored that the coup was sponsored by the US government. Soviet hierarchy, already in cold war with them, wanted to stand strong and showcase their antipathy towards the oppression.

So the match started on November 21, 1973, ten weeks after the coup, in an almost empty stadium. If that can be called a “match” as the Soviets, expectantly, did not show up in protest of the oppression. The referee blew the kick off whistle, 11 Chilean players on the field looked a bit bemused without any opponents. They dribbled a bit and shot into an open net. No one cheered, no one said a thing from the stands –that was anyway almost empty, afraid of being singled out and prosecuted, only the scoreboard stood there with head held high – Chile 1, Soviet Union 0. Chile  was through to the World Cup finals with a muted acknowledgment.

Caszely with his Chile team before the fateful match
Caszely with his Chile team before the fateful match

Caszely, a national star by then, did not want to play but had to take the field for his family’s safety. He had gone across the continent to ply his trade because he thought it wasn’t safe for him or his family to be in the country in the wake of the oppression. But that day he was ashamed of his and his team’s action,

That team did the most ridiculous thing in history. It was a worldwide embarrassment.

This frustration boiled over a few months later when in June 1974, Pinochet beckoned the team for a send-off before their departure to Germany. On that fateful day, Caszely recalls how he had  felt with the approach of a man wearing a cape, dark glasses, and a hat: “A cold shiver went down my back from seeing this Hitler-like looking thing, with five guys behind him…When he started coming closer I put my hand behind me and didn’t give it to him.” A reaction resultant of his courage to protest ,embedded in his mind since his formative years.


That snub to Pinochet was one of the first public acts of remonstration against the dictator. Caszely had to pay the price though as his mother was imprisoned and tortured for his son’s political views. “I said no to dictatorship on every level: no to dictatorship, no to torture . . . So they made me pay for that with what they did to my mother.

They could not prepare properly as no team wanted to visit Chile for friendlies. During the entire tournament in West Germany, La Roja  was treated like prisoners. They were surrounded by Pinochet’s military men and not allowed to speak to any outsiders. It was hardly an environment to play the game of football. And the inevitable happened eventually. Things took a toll on Caszely as he lost his temper in Chile’s very first match against West Germany and was sent off by the referee Doğan Babacan. Chile lost the match and Caszely was recorded in the history books as the first player to be given the marching orders. Notably, red and yellow cards had already been introduced in the previous World Cup (1970), but no one had the dubious distinction of being sent off as of then. Chile eventually bowed out of the tournament from the group stage failing to win any of their matches.

After the World Cup, Caszely played four more seasons in Spain with RCD Espanyol where he did reasonably well. He though reached the pinnacle of his game in his second stint with Colo Colo (1978–1983). Caszely won the league thrice in this period and also became the league’s highest goal scorer in three successive years from 1979 to 1981. Latin American audience too were not deprived of witnessing his mesmerizing skills as Caszely was named the Best player in 1979 Copa América. But continental glory again  eluded him as La Roja missed out to Paraguay after a seemingly never-ending three match final tie.

That has been the case with Caszely, always. He was never able to taste team success beyond his country. He probably would have had the best shot at World Cup in 1978 but for Pinochet’s intervention which prevented him from getting selected. Caszely got a final chance to redeem himself at the 1982 World Cup. Lady luck seemed to finally smile on him as Chile was awarded a penalty for a foul on Caszely in their first match against Austria. Ignoring the coach’s instructions from the side-lines, Caszely stepped forward to convert it but ultimately dished out an awful kick. Again, Chile bid adieu without winning any of their group stage matches, in fact they were defeated in all three.

Sport is a cruel adventure. Fans can suddenly be asking for the head of their beloved and that is exactly what happened with Caszely. His missed kick from 12 yards out transformed him overnight from a national hero to the biggest   turncoat the country has ever seen. He was accused of playing it safe for his country, not putting the adequate efforts and saving his energy for the club teams where he was earning big. Caszely, though continued his impeccable domestic career and called it a day in 1985 after notching up 105 goals in 170 appearances during his seven year spell at Colo Colo. By then he had also found the net 29 times in 49 appearances for the national team. But his biggest day on the field was yet to come.

Caszely was to play his farewell match before calling it a day as professional footballer. The venue was the famous National Stadium, Santiago where everything began more than a decade back. Contrary to the near empty stadium on that day, more than 80,000 people flocked in, cheering for Caszely. Fury against Pinochet had gathered much momentum by then and the government was feeling the heat. This match had all the ingredients to turn into a political protest saga and hence not a single TV channel dared to broadcast the game. But that did not dampen the spirit of the crowd.

Very few prisoners were fortunate to have been released by then. Majority could not see the sun for their entire life; many were not even counted for. But those free now,  could ill afford to miss the match that was way more than a simple game of football. Politics had shrouded the game by then. It was an outburst of a country suffering from oppression for decades.  Caszely was one of   them; he had dared to stand tall against the power even at the expense of his loved ones. Caszely was more than a footballing hero,he was the symbol of bravery his countrymen were very proud of. Everyone wanted to be like him, but they could not dare to – that day was their chance for redemption.  Earlier Caszely had put his country down by being red carded, by missing the spot kick, and unfortunately he did not get a chance to  hold his head high. But his country did not want to squander this opportunity. It was may be a unique way to say sorry to their beloved son for making him a scapegoat, and ridiculing him and his family for his failures at the World Cups.

The congregation in Caszely’s farewell match has been recorded as one of the first mass gatherings of regime opponents. It happened at a crucial juncture for a nation that for over a decade had been bullied by the bullet and the torture chamber. Three years later, in 1988, Olga Garrido, Caszely’s proud mother, publicly opened up to the torture and humiliation she had gone through. Things were so intimidating that she could not, till that point, disclose those to her own family. Caszely, sitting beside his emotional mother during the live show, called for the notorious dictator’s expulsion. All this culminated in Pinochet being dethroned as the Chileans voted against him. That match had ultimately reached its crescendo and rose above all hurdles to utter Chile’s most famous words Nunca mas (Never again). A person, courtesy of his immense self-respect and determination, had woven the seeds of a revolution. The National Stadium in Santiago since then has been in the news only for sporting purpose. None bigger than being the venue for the nation’s first international accolade, Copa America 2015.

Caszely happened to meet with Pinochet at a reception at La Moneda in 1988. Out of sheer courtesy, this time Caszely greeted him. Pinochet, by now a waned, spent force and well aware of his impending exile, asked Caszely for a photograph to portray an improving image. But, Caszely refused to pose for the picture. His ideologies had not changed.

For me it was a tremendous joy to say ‘no’ to the dictator on behalf of Chile. It was a stern protest to many years of horror, torture and human rights violations. Caszely was content to have helped his motherland in his own little way to return to democracy.

Caszely seems at peace with himself today, he anchors numerous sport-related TV shows on Canal 13, a Chilean-based TV station.  Caszely is very close to his roots. In his idle time, he still enjoys a game of football at an amateur level for a team called “Colo Colo 1973”, comprising former Colo Colo players. His work to promote Latin American football was acknowledged by the continent in 2009 with the Award of CONMEBOL.

carlos caszely
Carlos Caszely during 1968 [Source: Mercado Libre]

Ever since I was a little boy and I started walking, holding my father’s hand, in the district where people play against a wall, against a tree, against a mound, against a big stone, against your opponent, with a football, a plastic ball, a rag ball, a paper ball, even a tin can, if there’s nothing else . . .” he always found a way to play. Despite the regime’s repression and intimidation, Caszely’s conscience and his passion for the game could not be silenced.

Follow the story of football rebel Carlos Caszely, as he returns to the stadium which served as a concentration camp during the military coup –


Feature Image Source:  michellebachelet.cl