CHILE’S top division kicks off on January 24 and the likelihood is a team from the capital city, Santiago, will emerge as champions come December 2020. Santiago has provided more than 75% of all title winners and remains the hub of Chilean football.
Chile will be hoping the league will be able to proceed without disruption for the 2019 campaign was abandoned in November after civil disturbances prevented the programme to play-out its last six stages. Heated street protests, triggered by the government’s decision to raise public transport fares by 3%, raged on for almost two months in Santiago and 27 people lost their lives. Eventually, the league was ended after 24 games and Universidad Católica were declared champions. They had a 13-point lead over Colo-Colo at the time.
Santiago is the largest city in Chile with a population of 6.5 million and is normally a relatively safe place compared to some Latin American locations. However, the recent riots were not only enough to curtail the 2019 football season, they also deprived Santiago the chance to host the Copa Libertadores final between Flamengo and River Plate. The game, which would have been the first one-off decider since CONMEBOL changed the format of the final, was switched to Lima, Peru.
The city has a multitude of football clubs, in fact when the Chilean league started in 1933, all eight teams were from Santiago. Today, there are six clubs from the capital in the 18-team Primera División.
Colo-Colo, from Macul, a commune in the central-eastern region of Greater Santiago, are the most successful and popular club in Chile. According to Statista, 42% of the population of Chile are followers of Colo-Colo. Universidad de Chile, who came next in the research, have 20% of the population.
Colo-Colo own their stadium, the Estadio Monumental David Arellano (the club’s founder), a 47,000 capacity ground. The club used to enjoy the patronage of the infamous General Augusto Pinochet, are unique as the only Chilean club to win the Copa Libertadores, which they clinched in 1991 by beating Paraguay’s Olimpia. Los Albos were runners-up in 1973 and Santiago sides Universidad Católica and Union Espanóla have also reached the final.
Colo-Colo’s fan group, called the Garra Blanca, is among the most feared in Chile. Other clubs, such as Universidad de Chile (Los de Abajo) and Universidad Católica (The Cruzaders) also have Barra Brava. Little wonder the big derby games often erupt into violence. In the 1990s, a Colo-Colo fan, Ricardo Pittcon, was killed after a clash between his club and Universidad de Chile. This sparked off a wave of football-related violence and as a result, Chilean attendances dropped dramatically.
In 2002, Colo Colo were declared bankrupt after they failed to pay part of a USD 400,000 debt. They were in deep trouble at the time, with players and employees owed money and emotions running high, so much so that groundstaff revolted and took over the Monumental to demand payment of wages. The club had run-up debts approaching USD 30 million.
Ahead of Colo Colo being auctioned, former player Ivan Zamorano, who finished his career with the club, tried to buy them. But a joint stock company, Blanco Y Negro, took the club over in 2005. In June of that year, Colo Colo became the first South American football club to launch an Initial Public Offering (flotation), raising some USD 31 million and wiping out its debts.
While Colo-Colo is the club everybody wants to beat, the Classico Universitario, the meeting between Universidad de Chile – who were also declared bankrupt in 2006 – and Universidad Católica, also raises the blood pressure. Universidad de Chile’s home ground, the Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Prádanos, is based in Ñuñoa, and has a notorious history. When Pinochet was in power, the stadium was turned into a torture and death camp. In 1973, the USSR was due to travel to Santiago for a World Cup play-off against Chile but they refused to play in the stadium due to its past use. As a result, USSR were eliminated and Chile went to West Germany for the 1974 World Cup.
The stadium was also the venue for the infamous “Battle of Santiago” which took place in June 1962 during the World Cup. Chile beat Italy 2-0 and two Italian players were sent off. Apparently, the mood was set before the game when two Italian journalists described Santiago as a “backwater dump” and went on to criticise the city for its malnutrition, illiteracy and poverty. The Italian press men had to flee the country as the locals turned on them.
Universidad Católica, the current Chilean champions, play at the Estadio San carlos de Apoquindo in Las Condes, an area inhabitated primarily by affluent people, giving it the nickname, “Sanhattan”. The Santiago elite have long favoured the club, but their average crowds are considerably lower than both Colo-Colo and Universidad de Chile. While these clubs draw a regular crowd of approaching 25,000 , Católica’s attendances are around 10,000.
Other clubs in Santiago owe their formation to foreigners. Palestino and Unión Española were founded by immigrants from Palestine and Spain respectively. Similarly, Audax Italiano started life as a club for Italians who had settled in Chile.
Chile, until its recent problems, was seen as relatively stable country compared to some of its neighbours. Despite the events of late-2019, Chile was the 33rd most competitive economy in the world )and the top Latin American nation) in a study by the World Economic Forum. Santiago’s poverty rate is below Chile’s 15% but the city has a significant gap between the rich and poor and the cost of living there is 100% higher than the rest of the country. The average annual salary is the equivalent of around £ 7,000. As for the revenue expectation for a major football club, Colo-Colo generated around £ 25 million in the financial year 2018.
Economists expect Chile’s GDP – of which 45% is attributable to the capital city – to grow by 3% per annum in each of the next half dozen years. Even though the recent disruptions may drag on that figure, they also believe Chile’s economy is small and flexible enough to withstand setbacks from the riots. Football clubs in Santiago, who saw their season curtailed in the last few months of 2019, will feel a lot happier once the 2020 season gets underway.
Stadium photo: Sergio Musella (CC BY-NC 2.0)