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The Battle of Santiago

The most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game”.

Those were the words used by British commentator David Coleman to describe the group game between the hosts Chile and Italy in the 1962 World Cup.

It has become known simply as the “Battle of Santiago”.

Chile had been awarded the World Cup in 1956 but preparations for the tournament were severely disrupted by an earthquake in 1960, the worst ever recorded in human history. It meant that their infrastructure had been severely damaged, with some foreign reporters deciding it was madness to allow the tournament to proceed as planned.

Two Italian journalists in particular did not hold back. They described a country where the phones didn’t work, taxis were as rare as faithful husbands, and that whole swathes of the population were subject to poverty, illiteracy, alcoholism, and prostitution.

When their articles were translated into Spanish there was outrage, and Chilean newspapers responded in kind. They call Italians fascists, over-sexed, drug addicts and in league with the mafia.

The two Italian journalists were forced to flee the country, whilst an Argentinian member of the press corps who was mistaken for one of them was beaten up so badly that he was hospitalised.

By the time the match kicked-off in front of a hostile home crowd, emotions were running high on both sides.

It took 12 seconds for the first foul to be committed, and, within eight minutes, Italy were down to ten men. Left-half Giorgio Ferrini was sent off by the English referee Ken Ashton, but refused to leave the field. He was eventually marched off the field by policemen.

Running battles continued all over the pitch, and Ashton did nothing when Chile outside left Leonel Sánchez landed a left-hook on Italian right back Mario David. That was in retaliation for a  foul by David minutes earlier.

Ashton later explained that his back was turned to the incident. When David attempted to exact his own revenge on Sánchez by kicking him, this time Ashton did see it, and he too was sent off. That was the prelude to more violence, with Sánchez breaking the nose of another Italian, Humberto Maschio with a left hook.  Ashton’s eyesight again seemed to fail him as Sánchez remained on the field.

A burning sense of injustice remained with the Italians for the rest of the tournament.

Half-time did little to cool tempers, and three times more the police had to come on to the field to help restore order. In the end Chile won the match with two late goals and would go on to reach the final, eventually losing to Brazil.

Ashton never refereed a World Cup match again, although he did achieve later fame as the inventor of yellow and red cards.

In the aftermath feelings continued to run high. Italian restaurants were boycotted in Chile, whilst, in Rome, the army had to be deployed to protect the Chilean embassy.

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