In the three months that we’ve been in Chile, we’ve seen events drenched in emotion.
We’ve seen the agonizing pain of surviving loved ones holding up large black and white photos of their sons, husbands, uncles, daughters, and nieces who were disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship in the 70s and have never returned.
We’ve seen the exuberance of Chileans drinking terremotos and eating anticuchos for days as they celebrated El Dieciocho on September 18, the national Day of Independence.
But perhaps the greatest show of feeling came last night, when the country’s national soccer team punched its ticket to go to Brazil next year for the World Cup, the planet’s largest sporting event.
The unifying power of sport has been commented on before.
In Invictus, the film based on John Carlin’s book, Clint Eastwood shows how Nelson Mandela donned the once-hated green jersey of the Springboks rugby team to bring the nation together in its quest to win the Rugby World Cup the year after the first free and democratic elections.
Here in Chile, the country remains deeply divided about the legacy of the Pinochet era, but there there was no apparent division within the nation last night.
The cancellation by non-profit Inria-Chile of their previously planned Data Tuesday was the first sign of the game’s significance.
The second came in Papi Pollo, a rotisserie chicken joint near our apartment that I go to regularly. Amidst the heat and grease of the french fries, sopaipillas and whole chickens that a man in white shirts and pants cut with impressive dexterity, the other worker, a stocky man with black hair and a round, open face, told me that he was giving all his attention to the evening’s game.
He was concentrating so hard that he gave me an extra 1,000 pesos for the half chicken I was taking back to our apartment.
You can give me this if you want, I said, but the charge is 3,500 pesos, not 2,500.
It’s important to focus on the game, but you have to focus on money, too. We laughed and shook hands after I gave him all the money.
I left our building and went out in the warm, clear evening air shortly before the game started.
I walked up Providencia Avenue, stopping at the newspaper stand that also sells candy and portraits of iconic music stars like Elvis that are hung on a fence on the other side of the sidewalk. About a dozen people had formed a half circle around the color television that had been carefully placed atop a stand so that all could see.
Most were sitting, and a few were standing.
I bought a coke to help establish my legitimacy and started snapping pictures.
The first 25 minutes of the game were generally in favor of Chile, whose players were wearing red shirts and who were playing in front of 67,000 fans at Estadio Nacional, the national stadium. They were issuing full-throated roars from the moment the referee blew the whistle to start the match, which Chile only needed to tie to advance to La Mundial.
Things were quieter at the kiosk, where the group watched intently, grimacing when Ecuador threatened and holding their hands up when Chile threatened, but did not score.
But they didn’t stay that way after a header by Alexis Sanchez zipped past the Ecuadorean goalkeeper and into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead. Sanchez ripped off his shirt in ecstasy.
The crowd gathered around the television didn’t do that, but erupted in joy, yelling, screaming, jumping up and down and punching their fists in the air.
I continued to take pictures until one of the celebrants came over and told me in English with the utmost seriousness: Enough.
Enough with the pictures, he said. You can stay here and watch the game with us, but stop taking pictures.
So I left.
Paseo Orrego Luca
I walked further up the street, crossing over to the other side and stopping at Paseo Orrego Luca.
It’s an outdoor drinking establishment enclosed on three sides by buildings and filled with tables that sat comfortably under large, tan umbrellas and beneath the light provided by yellow, red, green and orange lanterns.
Adapting a page from South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup in 2010, the owner of the place, which was doing a very brisk business in french fries and beer delivered by bustling waiters, set up at least a dozen televisions of varying sizes so that everyone could easily see the action.
The crowd, many of whom were wearing red shirts and a number of whom sported jester hats with the national colors, also exploded in jubilation just as I was pulling up, when Gary Medel deposited the ball from a Sanchez header into the net for a 2-0 lead.
The margin held until halftime.
Chile played more conservative soccer to start the second half, and the game Ecuador squad pressed forward.
The goal caused some apprehension among the multitudes at Paseo, but the hosts were never seriously threatened after that.
As the minutes wore down into injury time, the chant of “Chi-Chi-Chi, Le-Le-Le, Vi-va Chi-le!” grew less anxious and increasingly confident.
So, too, did the verses of an ode to the tournament their team has never won, but was about to join.
“Oh, viva la Mundial,
la Mundial, la Mundial,
Viva la Mundial.”
Long live the World Cup.
The referee blew the final whistle and the celebrations began in earnest. Fists punched in the air.
Horns honking from passing cars.
Kids banging on the windows of the buses they were riding.
A woman in the back seat shaking her ample bosom as all around her laughed.
My camera had just about died, and I was feeling the effects of having gotten just two and a half hours of sleep, so decided to head back home.
But before I did, I returned to the kiosk where I had been watching.
The owner, lean and tall with at least a day’s stubble and a blue sweater, was there.
Felicidades a Chile, I said.
Congratulations to Chile.
I started singing the World Cup tribute song when I entered the building.
The doorman, who had watched the game on television, smiled widely.
I congratulated him, too, and said that Chile deserved the win.
Ecuador was good, I said, but Chile was better.
And now they’re going to the Mundial.
I sang the song again, raising my voice as I walked by the apartment next to us, whose residents often party into the wee hours of the weekend.
The festivities lasted for hours.
Oh, viva la Mundial. La Mundial, La Mundial. Viva la Mundial.