World Cup qualifiers are special matches. In South America, there are only 16 meaningful matches over four years to decide which 5 soccer mad countries make it to the World Cup. In North America, there are only 10.
Each game is a grinder. The pressure is high. Any screw up can mean dropped points and the potential to miss the World Cup. In most countries outside of the US, the entire country stops for each match. On match day, Chileans gather round their tvs to watch the game, accompanied by friends and family, piscola, beer and sometimes day long asados. The national mood rides on the result: a win national ecstasy, a loss, national depression, followed by assigning blame and national soul searching.
Last week, Chile sat in 6th place, on the outside looking in after 9 matches. On Tuesday they lost a hard fought away game to bottom feeder Peru 1-0 where they should have drawn and the entire country went into depression.
Next up was Uruguay, probably the best per capita soccer team in the world and a team Chile hadn’t beaten in something like 25 years. At 3.8m people, Uruguay are the reigning South American champs and took 4th place in the last World Cup. Chile needed a home win or else they would be in deep trouble and were at risk to miss the first South American World Cup since Argentina ’78.
My friends Mike (visiting from the US), David, Pepe and I got tickets to go to the match. It was my first South American World Cup Qualifier, though I’ve been to US qualifiers and World Cup games in Germany and South Africa. We met up in my apartment to have a few beers, then took a taxi to Chile’s Estadio Nacional. We got there just in time to hear the national anthems.
Our tickets were for a general admission section in the corner and it was really full, but we ended up with seats low down, but still with a good view. The crowd was electric, willing Chile to score. Chile obliged in the 11th minute, scoring right in front of us. The crowd went nuts. Chileans really believe they could win. The crowd was on Uruguay’s striker Luis Suarez the entire game, especially after he punched a Chilean defender in the face and got away with it.
Uruguay pushed back from the start of the second half and Chilean fans were suffering badly. Fans cursed players and screamed abuse at Uruguayan players and refs, while singing songs to support the team. Our section had a significant number of families attending together. Fathers attending with their young daughters all screamed as if they were alone with their best friends. Chile scored again in the 77th minute and the party was on. Uruguay brought on Diego Forlan who had a few close chances, but it wasn’t enough. Chile had won. Everyone left the stadium happy. Everyone was together, something that doesn’t happen very often in Chile. Chile was back on track, moving up to a tie for 4th.
We walked a bit, then caught a cab to watch the US take on Mexico in Mexico City, a place the US has only won once in 75 years. We watched surrounded by dejected Mexican fans as the US got its second away point in Mexico in World Cup qualifying and solidifying their road to the world cup. Although the US still doesn’t have the passion for soccer that much of the world does, the vocal US crowd in Denver in a driving snow storm for the victory over Costa Rica and the over 7m tv viewers for USA/Mexico shows that soccer is growing and gaining popularity. At 60% of a typical monday night football game, that’s huge progress. If you get a chance to see a world cup qualifier even if you’re not a big fan, take it.