Pinochet’s Coup d’État and how the Soviet Union missed the 1974 World Cup

Despite winning the first edition of the European Cup in 1960, the Soviet Union’s national football team never did well on the biggest stage during the rest of the 1960s. The side took part in the World Cup for the first time in 1958, where they reached the quarter-final, and between their debut and the tournament in Mexico in 1970 the Soviet Union qualified all four times, but the best result was a fourth place in 1966. In the semi-final, the Soviet side lost 2-1 to West Germany, a score that was repeated in the third-place match, where they lost to Eusebio’s Portugal. The fourth place finish in England marked the end of the Lev Yashin era, despite him also being in the squad for the following World Cup without seeing any playing time.

After that disappointing decade, the 1970s gave reason for optimism among the Soviet football fans. In June 1972, the Soviet national team reached the Final of the Euros, and despite losing the final to Gerd Müller’s West Germany, the result signaled that the Sbornaya was back among the elite. Dinamo Kyiv goalkeeper Yevhen Rudakov, who was later that year nominated for the Balon d’Or for the second time and Dinamo Tblisi defenders Murtaz Khurtsilava and Revaz Dzodzuashvili all made the Team of the Tournament.

USSR line-up for their semi-final encounter with Hungary in the 1972 European Cup.
USSR line-up for their semi-final encounter with Hungary in the 1972 European Cup.

Later that summer, the Summer Olympics was held in West Germany, and once again, the Soviet team delivered a promising performance. The Soviets arrived in West Germany with a relatively young and inexperienced squad, but the new players quickly proved their worth. Most noticeable was a 21-year-old Dinamo Kyiv striker, who had only represented the Sbornaya twice before the tournament. The striker went to become one of the Soviet Union’s greatest players and the all-time top scorer of the team. His name was Oleg Blokhin, and in the six Olympic matches, he scored six times.

Oleg Blokhin was also in the starting line-up when the USSR team took on France in the first qualification match to reach the 1974 World Cup. After losing the opener in Paris 1-0, the Soviet side cleaned the table with victories in their next three matches. First, they won 2-1 in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland, and in May 1973, they once again defeated Ireland, this time 1-0 in Moscow. In the final match, France was defeated 2-0 after late goals by Blokhin and Volodimir Onyshchenko.

With the first place in Group 9 secured, the Soviet Union was ready to take on Chile in two play-off matches for a spot at the World Cup the following summer.

The first match was set to be played in Moscow on September 26, 1973.  It was however overshadowed by the Chilean coup d’état that started two weeks earlier. With support from Richard Nixon’s United States, the Chilean president Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military and police force. The socialist Allende, who was democratically elected in 1970, sought the Chilean way to socialism, which meant he nationalized several industries, including Chile’s copper industry, as well as the health-care system. The nationalization of the copper industry, which was often owned by Americans, resulted in the United States cutting their financial support to Chile, to instead support the opposition.

When Allende took over Chile, 2.7% of the population owned 70% of the land, but with the Allendes nationalizations, the situation changed quickly. Furthermore, Allende also raised the salaries of lower and middleclass Chileans, as well as increase the subsidies for families and pensions.

Unfortunately, for Allende an American blockade of goods caused the variety of available items to remain limited, which meant that the Chileans didn’t have the any opportunities to spend their money. With financial support from the American intelligence service CIA, many workers went on strike, and the unhappiness with Allendes work, as well as a failed military coup in June 1973, caused Allende to issue an election on September 10th to find out if the people still preferred his socialist policies.

Realizing that this would remove the legitimacy of the coup d’état that was planned for September 11th, Augusto Pinochet, who was appointed Commander-in-chief in August after the failed coup, personally called Allende, convincing him to postpone the election a week for ‘security reasons’.

At 4.30 in the morning of September 11th, the Chilean navy started the coup, when they occupied strategic spots along the coast while they also arrested leftists and killed those who were seen as dangerous. For the rest of the day, the military continued their conquest, taking over radio stations, unions and different government bodies and ministries. At 11:00 am, the bombardment of Allende’s Presidential Palace began, and five hours later, his body was carried out after he had committed suicide.

The bombardment of Allende’s Presidential Palace.
The bombardment of Allende’s Presidential Palace.

After the coup, anyone with even the slightest leftist tendencies were systematically hunted down and within the first few days of the coup, tens of thousands had been arrested with many of them being imprisoned at the national stadium in the capital’s Estadio Nacional in Santiago. At the same time, all political parties were outlawed, and Pinochet quickly emerged as the leader of the new junta.

Poster from the first match in Moscow.
Poster from the first match in Moscow.

With the first match in Moscow ending 0-0, everything was open before the return leg. Despite the efforts from the junta to keep the stadiums role as prison a secret, the Soviet Union issued a formal request to FIFA to move the match to a neutral ground outside of Chile, claiming Soviet sportsmen couldn’t morally play on a field stained with the blood of patriots.

Sbornaya dominated the match, and only miracles by the Chilean defenders and goalkeeper kept them from scoring the goals they needed to secure a spot at the World Cup. Former Spartak Moscow defender Evgeny Lovchev later revealed that there was huge political pressure on the players to beat the new political enemy, and that this pressure was the primary reason the players couldn’t score and win the game.

In response to the complaint, FIFA launched an official investigation and a delegation visited the stadium in Santiago. Despite there still being prisoners at the stadium while the delegation visited, FIFA found no evidence to back up the Soviet claims, and they made it clear that the match would not be moved.

Estadio Nacional in Santiago - Used as a prison camp after the 1973 Coup d’État.
Estadio Nacional in Santiago – Used as a prison camp after the 1973 Coup d’État.

Because of FIFA’s decision, the Soviet national team chose to stay home in Moscow, and thus forfeited the match. However, despite this, the match wasn’t cancelled, and 18,000 spectators showed up to watch Chile qualify for the World Cup.

After singing the Chilean national anthem, the players kicked off the game before they slowly passed the ball down the field before it was eventually shot into the empty goal in the Soviet half. After this, the match ended as the players left the field.

While it was admirable that the Soviet Union lost a spot at the World Cup due to moral reasons, it is highly questionable that it was the only reason. Football was often used as a propaganda tool by the Soviet authorities, but while it could be used to put society in a positive light, the opposite could also be the case if the results failed. In 1952 for example, the reigning champions of CSKA Moscow were disbanded after a Soviet team primarily consisting of CSKA players had failed at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki, where they lost to Yugoslavia – the archrivals from the Communist bloc.

It is highly likely that the authorities wanted to avoid a defeat to Chile, a country that went from being Marxist to a close ally of the United States. Had the result from the first match been more positive and a victory been assured, it is likely that the Soviet players would have travelled to Santiago to play, concentration camp or not.

Following the forfeited play-off match, it wasn’t until the World Cup in 1982 that Oleg Blokhin once again, now at the age of 29, got the chance to represent the national team in an international tournament, when the Soviet side qualified for the World Cup in Spain. Before that, the Soviets had missed opportunities to qualify for the 1976 and 1980 Euros as well as the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

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