In 1964, Mario Benedetti described football as anesthesia. It was a social drug, co-opted and exploited by governments who encouraged the people to forget their problems. If only for ninety minutes, football was an escape from social and economic uncertainties that would otherwise control one’s life. Five years later, Benedetti’s words still held true.
May 15, 1969. Nacional of Montevideo hosted Estudiantes de la Plata in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final. It was Nacional’s second final in three years, having lost in 1967 to Racing Club of Argentina. It was another chance to win their first international title. Their rivals, Peñarol, had already won three. However, more than a chance to close the gap on their rivals, for fans the game was another welcome distraction.
Uruguay had been changing for years. A deteriorating economy led to a decline in the country’s once envied standard of living. For the first time, thousands of Uruguayans were leaving for better opportunities. Worker strikes and student protests became the norm of everyday life in Montevideo. In response to public grievances, the government moved from indifference to repression.
With social tensions reaching critical levels, President Jorge Pacheco declared a state of emergency in June 1968. The student and union movements were harassed, the press censored. Uruguay, once the freest and one of the most prosperous countries on the continent, was now in its deepest social crisis. In this setting rose Latin America’s most sophisticated insurgency, the National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros (MLN-T).
Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, the Tupamaros sought to liberate Uruguay from what it saw as a bitterly corrupt political order that, partnered with local and foreign capitalists, had continued to enrich itself while the rest of the country lived in economic misery. Adapting Che Guevara’s foco theory to Montevideo’s urban setting, the Tupamaros believed that through revolutionary acts they could inspire a popular insurrection against the government.
At the beginning, the Tupamaros avoided violent confrontation with the authorities, rejecting the use of terrorism. Instead, a unique tactic of armed propaganda was created to both embarrass the government and transmit the group’s political message to the Uruguayan people. In February 1969 they raided the Monty Financial Company, exposing fraudulent activities which led to the arrest of prominent individuals, including government officials. Four days later, they looted Uruguay’s most important casino, confirming their ‘Robin Hood’ image by publicly offering to return lost wages to the casino’s workers.
While they shook the relatively conservative, sleepy Uruguayan people, the Tupamaros captured the imagination of the disenchanted. That most acts were carried out without firing a single weapon added to the mystique of the young group. Whether these spectacular acts were right or wrong, it didn’t matter. The Tupamaros had the attention of the entire public, and the authorities.
In order to get around the increasingly state-controlled press, the Tupamaros once again looked to the experience of Cuba. In his book Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara stated that propaganda spread most effectively to the masses through the radio. A captive radio audience seemed a perfect fit for the group, and they soon began to plan the next major operation to spread their message.
The Tupamaros originally planned to take over Radio Rural, a station seen as the voice of the company unions in Uruguay. Scheduled for the night before May 1st, the guerrillas would pledge their support to the workers, urging them to join the armed struggle. However, the operation was aborted due to vehicle problems. The next target was to be Radio Sarandí, whose main voice was the legendary Carlos Solé.
He was the Gardel of Uruguayan football broadcasting. To remember Carlos Solé is to remember the glory years of Uruguayan football. The entire nation hung on his words during Uruguay’s triumph in 1950, and took on his desperation against Hungary four years later. Possessing a style that would be imitated ever since, Solé was a comfort for those longing for more prosperous and stable times.
For the Tupamaros, Radio Sarandí was an obvious choice. By far the most listened to broadcaster in Uruguay, Solé had a dedicated audience not only in the capital, but also the interior of the country. The date was set for May 15 during the Copa Libertadores Final held in Montevideo. In a football-crazed country, the Tupamaros were about to reach their largest possible audience.
60,000 people were at the Estadio Centenario. Those in the stands had radios to their ears, desperate for the voice of Solé to bring warmth and excitement to the spectacle. Those who weren’t at the stadium were at home, also listening to Sarandí. Even Peñarol fans, eager for their rivals to fail once again, were tuned in to the broadcast.
The whistle sounded, and the tenth Copa Libertadores final was underway. In the middle of the first half, on the other side of Montevideo the Tupamaros had arrived at their target.
They made their way to the Radio Sarandí transmitter. There were twelve Tupamaros, among them a radio technician. The caretaker of the premises and his family were quickly subdued, the guerrillas not requiring their weapons. Known for their meticulous planning, they had come well-prepared, even bringing a toy to calm the caretaker’s small child.
After a tense few minutes, the technician finally had the tape rolling. It was towards the end of the first, half then a low, grave voice replaced that of Solé.
The message you are about to hear is from the National Liberation Movement (Tupamaros)
“Uruguayans, today a worthless government restricts and deprives you. Do not lose hope”.
The spectators in the stadium and those at home couldn’t believe it. Once again, the Tupamaros appeared out of nowhere into the ears and homes of many, and more shockingly, they had penetrated the almost sacred refuge of Uruguayan society- its football.
Shock and confusion filled the Sarandí commentary box. “What just happened?” cried one of Sole’s assistants. “They cut the transmission” .. “It’s the Tupamaros! The National Liberation Movement!”
The recording lasted just over five minutes. The Tupamaros denounced the repressive measures of the government, they attacked the corrupt politicians and speculators, and of course condemned the intervention of the US embassy and the IMF. To the horror of Solé, his team, and the Montevideo police, the recording continued.
A third loop began when the police, heavily armed and in huge numbers, arrived at the transmitter. The Tupamaros had already disappeared, but a note was left behind. The transmitter was laid with explosives. The police, powerless and without ideas, simply stood around as the minutes went by.
Back at the Centenario, much of the crowd had forgotten about the football. The guerrillas still had a primetime, nationwide platform, and the Radio Sarandí commentary box was still hysterical. The recording continued, urgently calling on the Uruguayan people to support and join the struggle.
Solé was enraged. “If I ever get a hold of one of them, I’ll-..”
Back at the transmitter, the police were out of patience. Under orders to immediately stop the subversive broadcast, the police chief ordered the electricity of the neighbourhood to be cut off. It was an action fitting the desperate nature of the police, but the only way to get rid of the Tupamaros.
The police eventually forced their way into the transmitter. When they did, they were met with a few harmless fireworks. Once again the Tupamaros had toyed with the authorities, and once again they demonstrated their ability to reach anywhere and vanish just as quickly.
In total the message played six times, Solé’s broadcast interrupted for over forty minutes. Weeks later, Solé was sent a message. It was from the Tupamaros, apologising for the interruption to his broadcast.
It wasn’t last contact between Carlos Solé and the Tupamaros. His son, also named Carlos, later joined the group and was arrested, detained and allegedly tortured by the authorities. The Tupamaros were everywhere, and every Uruguayan was touched one way or another by the movement.
In the disbelief and panic caused by the radio takeover, few would have noticed that there was still a football match being played. Estudiantes were victorious 1-0, and a week later won 2-0 at home to be crowned South American champions for the second consecutive year. A few months later they went on to assault AC Milan in the Intercontinental Cup, a truly spectacular end to a series of absurdly violent fixtures towards the end of the 1960s.
The Tupamaros followed a similar trajectory to those Intercontinental Cup battles. From the early 1970s their more popular, daring acts of armed propaganda gave way to assassinations and outright terrorism. The new era of violence descended into a declaration of internal war by the authorities, and the guerrillas were effectively destroyed as an organization by 1973.
The Tupamaros agreed with Benedetti. While life became increasingly uncertain, football was the one place that was secure and untouched. It was the remaining comfort for the Uruguayan people, a façade of stability and happiness. But for this small, young band of guerrillas, the crisis engulfing Uruguayan society was simply too serious to escape.
** this piece was originally featured on The Antique Football