Inside Chile’s biggest football club

Estadio Monumental, home of Colo-Colo

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by South American football.
 
Whether it’s the wonderfully entertaining joga bonito produced by the Brazilian seleção over the years, the countless Argentine fútbolistas who’ve taken Europe by storm or players like Alexis Sánchez, whose flair and skill illuminates the English Premier League today, it’s reasonable to suggest that South America might just be the world’s premier continent when it comes to the planet’s most popular sport.
 
Perhaps it’s a cliché but like all clichés, it also happens to be true: fútbol in Latin America isn’t just an entertaining pastime, it’s a religious experience. Latinos are an inherently passionate people and that passion is borne out both on the field and in the stands.
 
And to someone who’s been raised on a diet of the bland plasticity of British all-seater stadias, there’s always been something extremely alluring about the frenzied atmosphere commonly found in the estadios of South America. Of course, with that frenzy quite naturally comes a degree of violence and danger, but if I’m honest, in an animalistic sort of way, there’s something quite appealing about that too.
 
When I began a holiday in Chile’s capital Santiago in September 2015, making my dream of attending a live match in South America a reality was high on my agenda.

Santiago de Chile in all its glory

As a Manchester City fan, I was initially drawn towards Universidad de Chile (a.k.a. ‘La U’), one of the country’s biggest clubs for whom Manuel Pellegrini once both played and managed.
 
However, the Chilean friend I was staying with is a huge fan of Colo-Colo, La U’s fierce rivals, and she simply wouldn’t have it. Colo-Colo also happened to be playing at home against Unión La Calera a few days after my arrival, so that settled it.

Club Social y Deportivo Colo-Colo is undisputedly the biggest and most successful club in Chile. Since its foundation, the club has never been relegated from the Chilean Primera División and has a record 31 league titles and 10 Copa Chiles to its name.

The club was formed in 1925 by a man named David Arrellano who led a group of young footballers away from Deportes Magallanes, another Chilean club, after they’d experienced institutional problems.

The name ‘Colo-Colo’ comes from the cacique (or chieftain) of the Mapuche tribe, a group of indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile, southwestern Argentina and present-day Patagonia. To this day, the club’s crest bears the image of cacique Colo Colo, who battled in the Arauco War against the Spanish Empire, along with a horizontal black band symbolising the eternal mourning for David Arrellano, the club’s founder and player, who tragically died while playing for Colo-Colo in a friendly against Real Valladolid in 1927.

David Arrellano will never be forgotten

As you’d expect, as well as being the country’s most decorated team, Colo-Colo is also the best supported club in Chile with ‘El Popular’ being one of its many nicknames (‘El Eterno Campeon’ — The Eternal Champion — is another). A survey carried out in 2012 by Spanish newspaper Marca estimated that 42% of Chilean football fans support Colo-Colo and wherever you travel in Chile, from Punta Arenas in the south to Arica in the north, you’ll come across white and black shirted hinchada (ultras), many of whom you won’t want to get on the wrong side of.

A couple of days before the match against Unión La Calera, I travelled to the stadium with my Chilean friends in order to purchase our tickets. Foreign visitors are required to present their passport both at the point of purchase and upon entry to the stadium, presumably in case anything untoward happens during your visit, and tickets for this fixture were priced at 17,000 Chilean Pesos — around £16.

We parked our car in the car park and made our way around to a row of portacabins which act as the Colo-Colo ticket office, but not before the affable car park attendant joked “Hey, you’d better not be here to steal our trophies!”.

The previous day had been September the 11th, the anniversary of the 1973 military coup in which General Augusto Pinochet seized control of Chile following an early morning assault on La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, which culminated with the then president Salvador Allende taking his own life. September the 11th is a strange and important day in Chile which Chileans mark with emotional candle-lit vigils in and around Estadio Nacional, home of Universidad de Chile and Chile’s 2015 Copa America final triumph over Argentina, but also the site of one of the country’s largest concentration camps during Pinochet’s reign of terror, where thousands of Chilean men and women were held captive and tortured, many of whom are still missing, presumed dead.

The statue of Salvador Allende which stands outside Santiago’s La Moneda

September the 11th is also a day on which the sense of fear and injustice still present in the Chilean people often spills over into the streets, where young men in the poorer neighbourhoods of Santiago stage pitched, bloody battles with los Carabineros, the country’s military police. This hostility was still very much in the air on my first visit to Estadio Monumental, the home of Colo-Colo, and my Chilean friends informed me, in no uncertain terms, that the young Colo-Colo supporters hanging around the stadium were not to be engaged with and absolutely not to be messed with.

My friends also elected to mention at this point that if somebody happened to walk past Estadio Monumental, even on a non-match day, wearing the shirt of Universidad de Chile or Universidad Catolica (another of Colo-Colo’s Santiago rivals), they’d most likely have their face slashed if they were lucky, or be stabbed to death if they weren’t.

Gulp.

At the entrance to the ticket office stood a man in his thirties with a bucket at his feet across which he’d stretched a Colo-Colo shirt. “He’s saving up for a ticket for the match” my friend informed me. “I accept Pesos, Dollars…Yen…” joked the man. We laughed, dropped a couple of hundred Pesos in his bucket, and briskly walked back to our car with one eye over our shoulders.

We arrived early at Estadio Monumental on the day of the match. My friends had given me three specific instructions which would hopefully ensure my safety during my visit; don’t let anybody hear you speaking English, if anyone asks you for money, give them some, and whatever you do, don’t wear anything blue or anything which could be misconstrued as the colours of ‘La U’.

As soon as we got out of the car my nostrils were flooded with an unpleasantly familiar odour. “What on earth is that smell?” I asked. “It’s called ‘sanguche de potito’” replied my friend “Which means ‘ass sandwich’”. Upon closer inspection I noted it was some kind of intestine slopped between two slices of bread. “Very popular with the poor people” said my friend “Would you like to try one?”. I politely declined.

Anyone for an ass sandwich?

We entered the stadium without a hitch, but not before catching a glimpse of crowd control Chilean style. By the side of the road were parked two huge green trucks bearing the emblem of los Caribineros. “That one is a water cannon” said my friend “And we call that one ‘the skunk’ — tear gas”. I hoped and prayed that the use of neither truck would be required during my visit.

Once inside the stadium we were presented with a thin newspaper which acted as a free match programme. I scanned the teamsheets for familiar names but came largely unstuck, except for Colo-Colo’s number 15, the former Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic stalwart Jean Beausejour. My friend told me to also keep an eye out for Gonzalo Fierro, Colo-Colo’s captain, and Esteban Paredes, their 35-year-old star player.

English League Cup and FA Cup winner Jean Beausejour, now of Universidad de Chile

For reasons unexplained, neither team came out onto the pitch for a warm up meaning the pre-match entertainment consisted mainly of an amusing, repetitive video giving instructions on what to do in the event of an earthquake. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this information would come in handy when, a couple of days later, Chile was rocked by an earthquake measuring 8,5 on the Richter Scale which made the Santiago apartment building I was staying in tremble and sway.

Estadio Monumental David Arrellano, to give it its full title, is a strange stadium in that its construction is submerged into the ground meaning it looks tiny from the outside but actually has the capacity to hold over 47,000 people. We were seated on one of the sides of the ground, a safe area populated mostly by families and placid onlookers. Behind the goal to our left was where the ‘Garra Blanca’ were situated, Colo-Colo’s organised supporter group (or Barra Brava as they call it in this part of the world) whose activities have a heavy emphasis on hooliganism. Although the violence and danger had been one of the many things which had attracted me to Latin American football in the first place, after everything I’d heard and seen so far during my trip, I was more than happy to observe it from a distance on this occasion.

The ‘Garra Blanca’

The other end of the stadium housed the visiting supporters from La Calera, a small town 70 miles northwest of Santiago. No word of a lie, I counted them and literally only 16 people had been brave enough to make the trip. Given that Estadio Monumental is a risky place to visit even for home supporters, can you really blame away fans for not travelling in numbers?

Unión La Calera’s brave away following

As the two teams entered the pitch, the ‘Garra Blanca’ let off flares and smoke bombs and we were treated to the magnificent, awe-inspiring sight of the sun casting a red hue as it set on the Andes mountains which frame the stadium, a spectacle which would far surpass any of the football on display on this occasion.

An awesome sight which this picture doesn’t even come close to doing justice

Earlier in the day I’d begun following Colo-Colo’s official Twitter account and was surprised to read a tweet from a fan who, in response to a request for people to say what they were hoping for from the evening’s match, had said “I don’t want a boring, easy win, I want some stress!”. Perhaps being ‘The Eternal Champion’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Within seven minutes of the match kicking off, that particular fan would perhaps have been disappointed to see his team take the lead. Beausejour cut in from the left and fired a shot across the Unión La Calera goalkeeper and into the far corner of the net. 1–0 Colo-Colo, and you sensed the game was probably pretty much over as a contest already.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was as electric as I’d hoped it’d be and Unión La Calera, to their credit, made a decent fist of trying to get themselves back into the match. I was amused to note that whenever the away side were awarded a corner in front of the ‘Garra Blanca’, a steward would hold a flimsy umbrella over the head of the taker in an attempt to protect them from missiles thrown from the crowd.

Despite Unión’s best efforts, however, after 25 minutes they found themselves 2–0 down after a smart passing move resulted in a goal from Paredes. Then, just before half time, a goal from Colo-Colo’s captain Fierro tripled their advantage and it was most definitely game, set and match.

Colo-Colo captain Gonzalo Fierro celebrates his goal

For long periods of the second half the match appeared to be sleepwalking towards its conclusion until, in the 62nd minute, Unión pulled a goal back through Maximiliano Bajter and for a moment it looked like we might have a game on our hands afterall.

Sadly though, the only team that looked like scoring again in the final 30 minutes were Colo-Colo. They didn’t, and the match finished 3–1. We made a hasty exit just before the final whistle so as not to collide with the ‘Garra Blanca’ on the way out, who probably would have been in a good mood anyway, but you can’t be too careful.

Although the football on display perhaps wasn’t quite up to the standard I’m used to, I have to say that my first experience of Latin American football was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was fun, interesting and a little scary, but I lived to tell the tale and it’s something I’ll definitely be looking to do again in the future, whether it be in Chile or elsewhere in the region.

As for Colo-Colo, they went on to beat Universidad de Chile 2–0 in the final Superclásico of the season, a victory which effectively sealed the 31st league title in their illustrious history.

If David Arrellano could see what became of his creation, I’ve no doubt he’d be very proud indeed.