You could hardly believe it. Arturo Vidal, one of Chile’s main men, involved in a serious car accident involving his wife, his Ferrari, and within minutes, an entire nation. He had been drinking, and was travelling at an extremely high speed. For Vidal, his wife, and others to survive such an accident was unbelievable.
Even more unbelievable was that this was barely a week into the Copa América, held in his home country. It is Chile’s greatest chance of finally winning the tournament, an achievement that has eluded them for 99 years. The past week, Vidal had been the difference for Chile, scoring in their first two games. So how could this happen? An entire nation was relying on him. In a matter of hours, Vidal went from hero to hospital, police station to court.
Further defying belief was what occurred hours later. Coach Jorge Sampaoli announced that Vidal would not be sanctioned by Chilean football authorities. He had made a mistake, and he was forgiven. Vidal, tears in his eyes, pleaded forgiveness from the Chilean public, and promised them the Copa. A tournament win had never been closer, and Vidal was too important to let go.
The scandal reminded me of another time in Chile, albeit sixty years ago. It was during the Copa América of 1955, when players of the Uruguayan national team were similarly forgiven for their own indiscipline.
The Uruguay of 1955 and the Chile of 2015 share a similar, sorry story. Both national teams were arguably in the best moments of their respective footballing histories. For Uruguay, the 1954 World Cup team was perhaps their greatest ever, only a goal away from a third consecutive World Cup decider. However, after 21 games undefeated in Olympics and World Cups, they finally lost out to the amazing Hungarians in the Semi Final. It was the beginning of the end.
Sixty years later, Chile were in a similar position. The World Cup was held in Brazil, and Chile possessed a star team with an exciting, solidified footballing identity. However, an unlucky draw and an unforgiving crossbar ensured that Chile were eliminated by the hosts in the second round. A year later, they would have their best chance at long-awaited success.
Back to 1955, and the Copa América in Santiago. Despite being unable to count on Obdulio Varela, as well as foreign-based stars including Ghiggia, Schiaffino, and Hohberg, Uruguay still boasted a strong team and were among the favourites for the title. Featured in the squad were World Cup winners Roque Máspoli, Matías González, Víctor Rodríguez Andrade, Julio Pérez and Óscar Míguez, in addition to another five players from 1954.
As Chile has done in 2015, Uruguay opened the 1955 Copa with a victory. They won 3-1 against Paraguay, with goals to Borges, Abbadie, and Míguez. However, in the second game, Uruguay ran into problems with a 2-2 result against Chile. In 2015, the hosts suffered a similar setback, a 3-3 draw with Mexico.
Days later, just like 2015, the actions of a group of players set to threaten Uruguay’s Copa América campaign.
With permission from their coach, Rodríguez Andrade, Óscar Míguez, Roberto Leopardi, Waldemar González, Guillermo Escalada, Walter Morel, and Julio Pérez left the Uruguay camp for a night out in Santiago. They promised to return at 1am.
Coach Luis Corazzo, grandfather of Diego Forlán, waited for his players. They didn’t return until 5am. They say that Míguez had dragged his teammates to a tango show in Viña del Mar. Just like Vidal, this had happened before. Indeed, quite a few Uruguayans, most notably Míguez, had a history of poor behaviour while away with the national team. Punishment was expected to be handed down.
As with Vidal, however, there was no action taken against the Uruguayan players. The issue was dropped, attention diverted, and the focus was back on victory in the Copa. Winning is everything to Uruguay, and the authorities were not going to let a little misconduct, even it was that of seven players, get in the way of victory.
With the incident forgotten, Uruguay won their next game 5-1 against Ecuador. The decision to forgive the players for the greater good of Uruguayan success appeared to be justified. Uruguay were on their way to a ninth title.
It wasn’t to be.
The next game was against Argentina, and the Uruguayans were utterly devastated 6-1. It was the largest defeat they had ever suffered in the Copa América. Uruguay lost their final match against Peru, and Argentina went on to win their tenth South American title.
Uruguay’s fall from the top of world football was confirmed in that humiliating campaign of 1955. Uruguay’s successes had come and gone, and it showed in a tired, distracted, and ill-disciplined squad. Unable to come to terms with Uruguay’s falling prestige, the coaching staff and other authorities chose to forgive and forget. Winning the tournament was more important than the conduct of the players and respect for the national team. They were all made to paid for it.
What becomes of Chile in the 2015 edition is still unknown. Will the presence of Vidal galvanize the team, helping them to their first ever title? Or will the decision of Chile’s football authorities, whose failure to punish the player for a serious criminal offence, all for the desperate need to win something, ultimately result in another Chilean failure?
Either way, even if they do fail, Chile will have another opportunity to get that first win next year, in the Centenario edition of the Copa América.
If so, it would be yet another parallel to that Uruguay side of sixty years ago.
Indeed, the year after the 1955 debacle, Uruguay were once again crowned South American champions. The supposed ringleader of the previous year’s antics, Óscar Míguez, was the tournament’s best player, and Uruguay took their revenge against Argentina in the decider.