Philip Barker

Last week’s decision to expel Russia from the 2022 FIFA World Cup is not entirely without precedent. The same thing happened almost half a century ago, albeit for different reasons when Russia was at the centre of the Soviet Union (USSR).

The process to finalise the 32 teams for the FIFA World Cup this November in Qatar includes a complex system of playoffs.

This was also the case in the build-up to the 1974 tournament in West Germany, though only 16 teams took part in the final stages.

In European qualifying group nine, the USSR were paired with France and the Republic of Ireland. They lost their opening match to France but won every subsequent game to finish top. 

They were now required to play the winners of South American group three in an intercontinental playoff before they could take their place in West Germany.

In South America, Venezuela had withdrawn from the group, leaving Peru and Chile to exchange 2-0 victories.

A one-off playoff, played in Montevideo, was won 2-1 by Chile.

Now came an intercontinental playoff scheduled for mid-September, 1973. 

By this time, political developments in Chile were causing panic waves in Washington and elsewhere. Chile had elected a Marxist President, Salvador Allende. That he had been feted by Cuba’s leader Fidel Castro added to the uncertainty.

On September 11, right-wing military forces in Chile launched a coup d'état with the secret backing of other agencies.

Candles are lit outside the National Stadium in Santiago to remember the victims of the Pinochet regime ©Getty Images
Candles are lit outside the National Stadium in Santiago to remember the victims of the Pinochet regime ©Getty Images

Allende perished in the attack on the Presidential palace and it later emerged that he had taken his own life.

General Augusto Pinochet, not previously widely known, became head of the new military Government.

The regime detained between 4,000 and 8,000 political opponents at Santiago’s National Stadium. There were already rumours that many were tortured.

The Kremlin broke off diplomatic relations but the World Cup qualifier remained on the schedule.

In fact, five days before the first leg, Chilean Central Football Federation President Francisco Fluxá met his Soviet counterpart Valentin Granatkin in Zürich.

The official FIFA Report relates that "all organisational, administrative and financial aspects of the matches were discussed". The meeting was also attended by FIFA general secretary Helmut Käser.

"Neither side had objections to make with regard to the match venues," it was claimed.

Yet when the Chilean squad arrived in Moscow, there was apparently some difficulty.

The moustachioed Carlos Caszely, ironically a left-wing supporter who voiced his opposition to Pinochet, was among those who did not resemble his passport photograph. As a result he was briefly detained by Moscow immigration authorities.

"Our stay in Moscow was surrounded by a total lack of courtesy," Fluxá claimed later.

The match itself ended in a 0-0 draw and Pinochet sent a message to Fluxá who had accompanied the team to Moscow.

"In the name of the Government, on behalf of the people of Chile, the most effusive congratulations to the team for the result obtained against the Soviet Union," the cable said.

Chilean newspaper El Mercurio headlined its report "Triumphant draw for Chile!"

Chile and the USSR never met after 1973, and Chile's men's team have only faced Russia once - in a 2017 friendly ©Getty Images
Chile and the USSR never met after 1973, and Chile's men's team have only faced Russia once - in a 2017 friendly ©Getty Images

Newspaper reports talked of "a big surprise", and paid tribute to the Chilean defence for "never panicking under Soviet pressure."

A few days later at a World Cup Organising Committee meeting held in Gelsenkirchen, Granatkin who was also a FIFA vice-president, made an application "to play the match in a neutral country and not in Santiago as had originally been decided on."

This was rejected by Juan Goñi, the Chilean member of FIFA's Organising Committee, but even so, FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous sent an inspection group to Santiago.

"If our observers find that security measures for the match are not assured in Chile, the match will be played elsewhere," he insisted. 

East German official Helmut Riedel and Hungarian Sandor Barcs turned down an invitation to join the group and instead the delegation comprised Käser and Brazil’s Abilio de Almeida, a man said to have close ties with the authoritarian Brazilian regime.

Käser asked: "If one should take into account each time the domestic conditions of a country, not organise a match where there are political detainees or where one mourns victims of a system, then tell me in which country one would safely organise a football match?" 

It was an attitude which echoed that ordained by International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage a decade before.

"I have been to Santiago and the situation is quite normal," Käser said on his return.

He had received assurances from the Chileans that there would be "no anti-Soviet manifestations", and that "the safety of the visiting delegation was guaranteed and there is no increase in danger to them."

FIFA assistant secretary René Courte later emphasised the point.

"All we want to know is if the playing conditions are right, our investigation committee said conditions in Santiago were fine so we are going ahead with the match," Courte insisted.

Granatkin had protested personally to Rous who sounded out the members of the World Cup Organising Committee but 15 of the 21 thought the match should go ahead in Santiago. This brought a forthright response from Moscow.

"Santiago stadium has been turned into an area of torture and execution," its message said.

"Soviet sportsmen cannot play in a stadium stained with the blood of Chilean patriots," it affirmed.

"Well known that as result of Fascist upheaval to overthrow legal Government, atmosphere of bloody terrorism and repression prevails."

It accused FIFA of "blindly following Chilean reactionaries," and insisted that the match be played in "a third country".

The Chileans countered that "this was an unjustifiable and unrealistic attitude outside of sport."

Käser now sent a confidential message to Fluxá.

"Would it be possible to play in another stadium in order to stop world wide press campaign against the National Stadium?" Käser asked.

He suggested that Viña del Mar, and its stadium used when Chile hosted the 1962 World Cup, might be used.

Fluxá's response was not promising. He accused the Russians of reneging on an agreement to provide a film of the first leg. 

"This caused financial hardship to the Chilean Federation," Fluxá claimed.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was responsible for the murder and torture of thousands of political critics and leftists ©Getty Images
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was responsible for the murder and torture of thousands of political critics and leftists ©Getty Images

Eventually the Russians said nyet with a terse cable.

"FIFA decision about venue of match not acceptable to Soviet footballers who confirm their refusal to play game in Chile", it said.

"Regret that FIFA did not follow commonsense and not reconsider its decision."

They insisted that "the USSR Football Federation does not withdraw from World Cup 1974."

Even so, the match in Santiago went ahead with only one team in attendance.

Article 22 of the 1974 FIFA rules stated "if a team does not report for a match... the team shall be considered as having lost and the match awarded to the opposing team."

The Chilean players lined up for the national anthem in front of around 15,000 spectators on a sunny afternoon. They kicked off the match and passed the ball unchallenged before a symbolic goal was scored by captain Francisco Valdés.

In the stadium the scoreboard displayed the message "Youth and Sport united in Chile today", and beneath it the "result" of the match.

"According to the regulations, Chile were declared group winners" said FIFA's report.

"It was a charade, an absolute falsehood,” Chilean star Elías Figueroa said. "It went against all sporting philosophy, against the essence of sport, against all of it."

A match against Brazilian club Santos had also been arranged for the same day, but the Chileans, perhaps dispirited by what had gone before, conceded five goals without reply.

The USSR were among many notable European absentees from the 1974 World Cup, including Spain, Portugal, France, and England who had been eliminated by Poland.

In the days that followed Soviet state news agency TASS went on the offensive against FIFA President Rous who was English.

"Feeling in international sporting circles is that Rous pursues selfish aims in the dispute over the match," TASS correspondent Yuri Yegorov wrote.

"His plan is believed to consist of knocking out the Soviet team and this provoking the socialist teams which have announced their boycott of the tournament," Yegorov continued.

"This will open the way to the finals for England which suffered a setback in the elimination rounds", Yegorov suggested somewhat fancifully.

The stand taken by FIFA may well have been a contributory factor in Rous losing the FIFA Presidency to Brazilian João Havelange the following year.

The Soviet Federation was fined $1,700 (£1,300/1,550€) and forfeited the $330 (£250/€300) entry fee.

In June 1974, Chile lost their opening match of the finals against West Germany.

The only goal of the match was a long-range effort from Bayern Munich’s maverick defender Paul Breitner, a man who had read the works of Chairman Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx.

Chile drew their remaining matches against East Germany and Australia but were eliminated at the first-round stage.

By a peculiar coincidence, neither the USSR nor Chile reappeared at the World Cup finals until 1982 but the events of those dark days in 1973 remain the subject of grim remembrance in Chile to this day.