Stadiums, Ghosts & Games—Football’s International Intrigue

15 November, 2022


Francisco Letelier


As a Chilean kid in the Unit­ed States in the ‘60’s, soc­cer (fút­bol) kept my cul­ture alive. When my father and friends from oth­er Chilean and Latin Amer­i­can fam­i­lies decid­ed to form a youth team, I was proud to be a Chilean Pen­guin. My father and his friends would coach us every Sun­day and as our skills improved they want­ed our team to join a soc­cer league. After defeat­ing a few “Amer­i­can” teams, in one of my first brush­es with this par­tic­u­lar form of cul­tur­al prej­u­dice, we were told that we had an unfair dis­ad­van­tage and were not accept­ed into the league.

In D.C., we were fans of the Wash­ing­ton Whips, the team that played at the Dis­trict of Colum­bia Sta­di­um. Their squad was made up of most­ly African, Jamaican and Euro­pean play­ers, recruit­ed to play in the short lived North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League that was made up entire­ly of teams import­ed from for­eign leagues.

Look­ing back, it’s clear that soc­cer pro­vid­ed a cul­tur­al diver­si­ty miss­ing from most sports in D.C.

Once the largest slave trad­ing cities in the 19th cen­tu­ry, the Dis­trict of Colum­bia grew to be the first major­i­ty black city in the 20th.  It became known as “Choco­late City” through the 1973 funk song by Par­lia­ment, but con­tin­ues to this day to be divid­ed along col­or lines.

The Wash­ing­ton Whips (cour­tesy Fran­cis­co Letelier).

In 1968, we watched San­tos of Brazil play the Whips at an exhi­bi­tion game. Our home team was defeat­ed with world famous Pele assist­ing on the win­ning goals; I learned this kind of team play­ing was what set Pele and San­tos apart from many oth­er teams. But deep down, my father was a fan of Colo-Colo, a Chilean nation­al team huge­ly sup­port­ed by the work­ing class and named after an indige­nous Mapuche hero. Hav­ing grown up in “Indi­an coun­try” in the south of Chile, my father had a deep nos­tal­gia for his pichangas (Quechua derived word for impromp­tu soc­cer games) on rough fields with Mapuche boys who called him Col­i­longko (head of fire) because of his red hair.

Peo­ple all over the globe have mem­o­ries like this one, and since the game only needs a ball, a flat(ish) space, and a soc­cer goal made of what­ev­er is at hand, (sticks, shoes, cloth­ing), the game looks very much the same wher­ev­er you go.

In Chile, as in oth­er places in Latin Amer­i­ca and the world, soc­cer has grown to be a huge social force, embody­ing pop­u­lar sup­port for indige­nous rights as well as for inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty through, for instance el Club Palesti­no or sim­ply Palesti­no, one of our first divi­sion soc­cer teams. It is hard to imag­ine a world before soc­cer, but its glob­al pop­u­lar­i­ty relies on aspects of human cul­ture that use play and games as mech­a­nisms not only for recre­ation, but also for edu­ca­tion, cul­tur­al trans­mis­sion and survival.

A vin­tage poster of Pele play­ing at the D.C. Sta­di­um (cour­tesy Fran­cis­co Letelier).

Palin (pal-een), a field hock­ey played by the indige­nous Mapuche, is not just a game, although gov­ern­ment efforts to rec­og­nize it as a nation­al trea­sure have only fur­thered its rank­ing as such. Palin has been prac­ticed for cen­turies in order to strength­en polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al rela­tion­ships. Tra­di­tion­al­ly the game was an event replete with cer­e­mo­ny, prepara­to­ry rit­u­als and feasts in the days lead­ing up to the match, and includ­ed active par­tic­i­pa­tion by women, chil­dren and elders. An impor­tant palin match called for a Nguil­latún — a major spir­i­tu­al rite includ­ing song and dance car­ried out to insure good weath­er, abun­dant har­vest and health.

It is easy to under­stand how palin was one of the first prac­tices the Span­ish tried to quell in the South­ern Cone. Dur­ing the cen­turies long wars against the invaders, young Mapuche men dreamt of being effec­tive war­riors against the invaders and palin improved dex­ter­i­ty and resis­tance in com­bat. Many are sur­prised to learn that the war for domin­ion by col­o­niz­ers over the Mapuche was nev­er vic­to­ri­ous. Chileans were only able to dri­ve the Mapuche resis­tance to the south­ern edge of the great Bio Bio riv­er; the war last­ed cen­turies and by many cal­cu­la­tions con­tin­ues today. At one point the Chilean Army had to out­law palin among it own troops, which were made up of mes­ti­zo sol­diers, seduced by the pow­er and promise of the game, along with a fair amount of gam­bling and aguar­di­ente (dis­tilled spir­its of grape). The Eng­lish first brought fút­bol to Chile and in 1867 the Fed­era­cion de Fút­bol de Chile was formed. Soon, the game was deeply ingrained in the iden­ti­ty and cul­ture of the nation, sup­plant­i­ng the rebel­lious qual­i­ties of palin even among indige­nous Chileans.

The game of palin (cour­tesy Fran­cis­co Letelier).


Today every nation has a par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship with the “beau­ti­ful sport” of soc­cer, or foot­ball (as it is known every­where except in the U.S.). Lati­no nations and those in the Mid­dle Eastern/North African (MENA) region, how­ev­er, share inter­est­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. Sports and phys­i­cal activ­i­ties have been part of the MENA region for cen­turies and, like the games of indige­nous Amer­i­ca, reflect geog­ra­phy, nature and cos­mo­log­i­cal rela­tion­ships. Fan­ta­sia, a com­bi­na­tion of rid­ing and shoot­ing, has par­al­lels through­out the world and is still prac­ticed in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Fal­con­ry, a tra­di­tion­al rela­tion­ship to birds of prey, reveals obser­va­tions and inter­ac­tions with ani­mals and birds span­ning cen­turies. Its prac­tice is lim­it­ed to a few, but may hold keys to renewed rela­tion­ships with the nat­ur­al world. Camel rac­ing con­tin­ues to be an immense­ly pop­u­lar sport in the Ara­bi­an Penin­su­la, but it comes with a trou­bling con­tem­po­rary twist. Today’s races increas­ing­ly have robot­ic jock­eys rid­ing the back of camels. It makes for a scene far from roman­tic images of Bedouins and oth­ers who depend on the ances­tral rela­tion­ship with camels for sur­vival and trans­porta­tion.  Sail­ing and horserac­ing are also tra­di­tion­al sports. Their own­er­ship and par­tic­i­pa­tion struc­tures long ago moved them away from being pop­u­lar pur­suits and, like the For­mu­la One Grand Prix rac­ing pur­sued by the roy­al fam­i­lies in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, are increas­ing­ly the domain of the rich and pow­er­ful. Archery and wrestling also have strong tra­di­tions appear­ing in leg­ends and Islam­ic teach­ings, but they can­not com­pete with the now firm­ly estab­lished domain of soc­cer as the most pop­u­lar and acces­si­ble of sports.

The logo of the cher­ished Colo-Colo team (cour­tesy Fran­cis­co Letelier).

Regimes and polit­i­cal lead­ers through­out the world use sports to mobi­lize con­stituen­cy, build nation­al iden­ti­ty and strength­en legit­i­ma­cy. The pen­du­lum may swing, but sports are tools used by roy­al fam­i­lies as well as by those who seek to point out the fail­ures of oust­ed regimes. High achieve­ments by sport­ing fig­ures are always an oppor­tu­ni­ty for pow­er to self con­grat­u­late. Glob­al audi­ences learn about oth­er coun­tries through their sports stars and the state uses their suc­cess­es to project images of moder­ni­ty and stability.

As a young ath­lete and del­e­gate to the 11th World Fes­ti­val of Youth and Stu­dents in Havana, Cuba in 1978, I was cho­sen by the Chilean del­e­ga­tion to run a lap dur­ing the open­ing of the fes­ti­val. Sev­er­al oth­ers were cho­sen, includ­ing young ath­letes from the Alger­ian, Moroc­can and Pales­tin­ian del­e­ga­tions. We looped the Esta­dio Lati­noamer­i­cano behind Alber­to Juan­tore­na (El Cabal­lo), the larg­er-than-life Cuban ath­lete who won both the 400 and 800 meter titles at the 1976 Mon­tre­al Olympics.

Twen­ty-two African nations boy­cotted those Olympics. Orga­nized by Tan­za­nia, the boy­cott was a protest against the par­tic­i­pa­tion of New Zealand in the games, as their team had toured apartheid South Africa. Sports pro­vide a dra­mat­ic are­na for social protest and none more so than the Olympics. The famed Black pow­er salute by Amer­i­can gold medal­ist, Tom­mie Smith and bronze medal­ist, John Car­los at the podi­um after the 200 meter race at the 1968 Mex­i­co City sum­mer games led to their ban­ning from the US team, but the act became icon­ic as a sym­bol­ic protest. As Fidel Cas­tro remind­ed us in his speech at the sta­di­um on that day in Havana, “El deporte es tam­bi­en, la rev­olu­cion” (sports are also the revolution).

Those were inspir­ing days, short­ly after my fam­i­ly’s escape from the dic­ta­tor­ship in Chile and my father’s sub­se­quent assas­si­na­tion by Pinochet’s agents. As a mem­ber of the con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion, along with four oth­ers from diverse coun­tries head­ing a tri­bunal in the Cuban Con­gress build­ing, we wel­comed Yass­er Arafat and sat to share a cup of tea with him before he addressed del­e­gates from 125 coun­tries. At the time, Pales­tine was bid­ding for entry into FIFA, hav­ing pur­sued mem­ber­ship since 1946; the nation only gained entry after numer­ous attempts in 1998. In 2005, Pales­tine pro­posed that FIFA sus­pend Israel from com­pe­ti­tion because of its apartheid poli­cies against them, but was unable to gain need­ed sup­port for a vote. Nonethe­less, FIFA mem­bers did sup­port an amend­ment to form a com­mit­tee to mon­i­tor Israel’s com­pli­ance with FIFA guidelines.

Since then Israel has con­tin­ued poli­cies of non-com­pli­ance through trav­el restric­tions, arrests and attacks on play­ers, the refusal to allow the build­ing of facil­i­ties on the West Bank and the ban­ning and tear-gassing of Pales­tin­ian sports events. The call for a sus­pen­sion of Israel remains ongoing.

Boys play­ing soc­cer (cour­tesy Fran­cis­co Letelier).

The Arab Spring upris­ings for democ­ra­cy and free­dom in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syr­ia and Yemen unleashed events that cre­at­ed today’s polit­i­cal land­scape. Dur­ing this time, the role of foot­ball sup­port­ers in oppo­si­tion to repres­sive regimes came to the fore­front. These regimes con­trolled the pub­lic space, dimin­ished demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, vio­lat­ed human rights and closed down com­pe­ti­tions and sta­di­ums to silence oppo­nents and pre­vent gatherings.

In Chile, our nation­al sta­di­um was put to the same use as Kab­ul, Afghanistan’s Ghazi Sta­di­um under the Tal­iban (1996–2001). In both nations, sta­di­ums were used to pun­ish, tor­ture and mur­der per­ceived polit­i­cal and reli­gious oppo­nents. Just recent­ly, on Sep­tem­ber 9, 2022, the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) final­ly approved a strate­gic frame­work on human rights. The IOC pres­i­dent stat­ed that the mis­sion of the Olympic move­ment is to con­tribute to a bet­ter world through sport and that, “human rights are in fact firm­ly anchored in the Olympic charter.”

The new frame­work is an impor­tant move fol­low­ing the release of a report by UN High Com­mis­sion­er for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, on seri­ous human rights vio­la­tions against Mus­lims in China’s Uyhgur Autonomous region. (Bachelet, the for­mer pres­i­dent of Chile, was her­self a vic­tim of impris­on­ment and tor­ture by the Chilean mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship led by Augus­to Pinochet from 1973 to 1990.) Vio­la­tions of Chi­na’s minori­ties came to glob­al atten­tion as it host­ed the Win­ter Olympic games in Bei­jing ear­li­er this year. Many feel that dur­ing the World Cup, sched­uled to begin on Novem­ber 20, 2022 in Qatar, sim­i­lar rev­e­la­tions will also come to world attention.

Today, con­tro­ver­sial nego­ti­a­tions between the IOC and the Tal­iban regime in Afghanistan are now under­way. Suc­cess­ful nego­ti­a­tions would lead to the Tal­iban allow­ing women and girls to play sports, but the new­ly adopt­ed IOC frame­work also com­pels the com­mit­tee to address basic human rights regard­ing vio­lence, health, liveli­hood, iden­ti­ty, and the right to par­tic­i­pate in pub­lic life. Nonethe­less, in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber from the Panam Sports Gen­er­al Assem­bly in San­ti­a­go, Chile, IOC direc­tor James Mcleod expressed sat­is­fac­tion about nego­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban regime. Inter­est­ing­ly, nego­ti­a­tions began only last year in a meet­ing arranged by Qatars’s emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

It’s a con­fus­ing moment in Qatar, whose emir has plen­ty of rea­sons to urge for nego­ti­a­tions of this kind. The nation is vying to rep­re­sent the Arab world as host of the World Cup and has drawn sup­port from across the mem­ber states of the Arab League. They see their bid as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bridge the gap between the Arab world and the West, but Qatar is an exam­ple of the way con­trol of oil and gas con­tin­ues to be cen­tral to pow­er, wealth and con­flict around the world and the land­ing of the World Cup in Doha under­lines this fact. 

Most read­ers of inter­na­tion­al events know that Qatar faces intense crit­i­cism from human rights groups over its treat­ment of migrant work­ers, but many do not under­stand the scope of the infra­struc­ture built for the World Cup, and do not real­ize that such work­ers and oth­er for­eign­ers make up the major­i­ty of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion.  FIFA Pres­i­dent Gian­ni Infan­ti­no has urged coun­tries to avoid protest­ing against Qatar’s human rights record, “Please let’s now focus on the foot­ball! We know foot­ball does not live in a vac­u­um and we are equal­ly aware that there are many chal­lenges and dif­fi­cul­ties of a polit­i­cal nature all around the world.”

Blast­ed by Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, Human Rights Watch, a slew of polit­i­cal lead­ers, foot­ball asso­ci­a­tions, ath­letes and fans, the com­ments by FIFA sound alto­geth­er naïve in a world that depends on mil­lions of migrant work­ers to keep its wheels turn­ing. Human Rights Watch does, how­ev­er, admit that Qatar has made notable reforms, but also finds them “nar­row and weak­ly enforced.”

Cou­pled to exist­ing laws cur­tail­ing the rights of women and the arrest and abuse of LGBT peo­ple, Qatar has a lot on its hands. Many are call­ing for a fund to com­pen­sate harmed migrant work­ers (#PayUp­FI­FA), a strat­e­gy recent­ly reject­ed by Qatars’s Labor min­is­ter. Qatar has right­ly coun­tered that Euro­pean nations have no prob­lem with Qatar when enter­ing ener­gy agree­ments and part­ner­ships. To state that dou­ble stan­dards exist the world over as we col­lec­tive­ly plunge into the age of cli­mate change is easy. The plights of migrant labor must be addressed not only in Qatar, but also in the lib­er­al democ­ra­cies of Europe and the Amer­i­c­as. Few per­cep­tive crit­ics con­cern­ing Qatar feel that com­pen­sa­tion for labor­ers will fore­stall the har­vest of glob­al­ized pow­er and con­trol rep­re­sent­ed by the World Cup.

The first match of the World Cup will be between Ecuador and the host nation, Qatar. Chile lost its play­off match to Ecuador but hoped to regain its stand­ing for com­pe­ti­tion in an offi­cial com­plaint filed with FIFA con­cern­ing the nation­al­i­ty of one of the play­ers of the Ecuado­ri­an team. The news from both Chile and Ecuador was dom­i­nat­ed by this squab­ble for weeks, and even as it became clear that the rul­ing would favor Ecuador, it also became evi­dent that the fer­vor of Latin Amer­i­can nations to qual­i­fy for the largest sport­ing event in the world over­pow­ers those who would boy­cott the event.



Latin Amer­i­can play­ers pre­fer to demon­strate on the field and through media. Socrates, the leg­endary Brazil­ian mid­field­er who scored 22 goals in two World Cups, led pro-democ­ra­cy move­ments against the Brazil­ian dic­ta­tor­ship. Chilean play­er Car­los Caze­ly is well remem­bered for his oppo­si­tion to the Pinochet regime and his sup­port of the “No” move­ment that led to democ­ra­cy. Today the Colo-Colo team has a club of fans known as the White Claw Antifas­cists, Antifascis­tas de la Gar­ra Blan­ca. White Claw fans par­tic­i­pate in the Voz del Sur orga­ni­za­tion along with oth­er anti- fas­cist fans of soc­cer clubs in Bolivia, Mex­i­co, Brazil, Argenti­na and Colom­bia who com­bat racism, xeno­pho­bia and homo­pho­bia on the streets and with­in stadiums.

It has become nor­mal for Chilean nation­al teams to make polit­i­cal state­ments con­cern­ing move­ments for social jus­tice both on and off the field, despite admo­ni­tions and fines from gov­ern­ment and sports author­i­ties. The fact that Chile is vying to host the World Cup in 2030 is also an influ­ence on the type of pol­i­tics and the actions tak­en by fans, play­ers and teams.

The upcom­ing World Cup will occur at a time when protests are increas­ing in Iran over the death of Mah­sa Ami­ni, the 22 year old Kur­dish woman detained by moral­i­ty police for alleged­ly wear­ing her hijab head scarf “improp­er­ly.” Mah­mood Ebrahimzadeh, a famous Iran­ian play­er who played in past World Cups, now lives in exile and is one of the many Iran­ian sports fig­ures in exile and with­in Iran who are call­ing for action against the regime. Ear­li­er this year, secu­ri­ty forces barred women from enter­ing the foot­ball sta­di­um in Mash­had, dis­pers­ing them with pep­per spray. Many are now call­ing for FIFA to elim­i­nate Iran from the World Cup.


Mo Salah, the Egypt­ian foot­ball play­er for liv­er­pool, stands in front of the mur­al ded­i­cat­ed to him.


Mohamed Salah is Egypt’s great soc­cer star, play­ing for Liv­er­pool’s Pre­mier League. With 44 goals in the 2018 sea­son he set a scor­ing record, grabbed head­lines and became an inter­na­tion­al celebri­ty. It is said that one mil­lion Egyp­tians wrote his name on bal­lots in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2018. Salah is known for his gen­er­ous char­i­ta­ble works and his care­ful nego­ti­a­tion of polit­i­cal space. His ret­i­cence over polit­i­cal mat­ters has been crit­i­cized in a nation where ultra fans are polit­i­cal­ly out­spo­ken and par­tic­i­pate in vio­lent and often dead­ly clash­es with regime secu­ri­ty forces, but his role as a cul­tur­al and reli­gious ambas­sador is unde­ni­able. Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Abdel Fat­tah al-Sis­si nev­er miss­es the oppor­tu­ni­ty to use Salah and soc­cer to bol­ster his plan of gov­ern­ment and bend it to his own par­tic­u­lar vision of the nation, but as not­ed else­where it’s a prac­tice used by rulers before and ever since the sport of soc­cer extend­ed its influ­ence over the world.

Many, like me, are often per­plexed by how big sports com­pe­ti­tions dom­i­nate the atten­tion of the mul­ti­tudes, but those who ignore the larg­er mean­ing of inter­na­tion­al sports only lim­it their under­stand­ing of human­i­ty as a whole. The inter­sec­tion of soc­cer with social and cul­tur­al con­di­tions is unique in each indi­vid­ual nation and pro­vides under­stand­ings not eas­i­ly found else­where. Impuls­es that lead to games and play are cen­tral to human­i­ty and trag­i­cal­ly many of these have been hijacked by struc­tures that reduce sport into some­thing less than what it could be.

In my vision of a pos­si­ble future, Mapuche war­riors of all gen­ders on horse­back wave palin sticks as they join oth­er rid­ers on camels, who race with mag­nif­i­cent fal­cons towards a place where we gath­er to put an end to the min­ing and extrac­tion prac­tices that have brought our cul­tures, his­to­ries, games and com­mon sur­vival to an unde­ni­able precipice. It’s a fan­ci­ful vision, so in the mean­time I will watch some of the World Cup, know­ing that we live in inter­est­ing times and that any­thing can hap­pen, and prob­a­bly will.



Sport and Polit­i­cal Lead­ers in the Arab World,” Dr. Mah­foud Amara.
Qatar min­is­ter accus­es Ger­many of ‘dou­ble stan­dards’ in World Cup crit­i­cism,” Reuters.
Polit­i­cal Foot­ball: The World Cup’s Mid­dle East Chal­lengers,” Atlantic Council. 
Islam­ic Repub­lic Resorts To Threats To Keep Foot­ballers Out Of Protests,” Iran International.
Egyp­t’s Mohamed Salah, Foot­baller with a Big Heart,” Africa Report.
Palin: un encuen­tro espir­i­tu­al, social y políti­co,” Museo Mapuche.
Pales­tine ‘lacked sup­port to ban Israel from Fifa,” Al Jazeera.


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