I was 20 years old and had come to Chile to study. I also hoped to meet some of the surviving allies of leftist President Salvador Allende, who had been toppled in the 1973 coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. I didn't care that the team Colo Colo was playing Universidad de Chile, a squad affiliated with the college until 1980. I didn't understand why security police were everywhere, or why someone threw a flaming brick at me as I walked to the cheering section for La U, as the Universidad team is also known.
All I could think of was: My God! This is National Stadium, where the bleachers were once filled with dissidents of every stripe after the coup, a mass waiting room for those about to be executed or tortured. This is where women were raped for the crime of wearing pants.
And it was at nearby Chile Stadium where the great Victor Jara — the Bob Dylan of Chile and a political activist (or was Dylan the Victor Jara of the U.S.?) — was murdered by the Pinochet regime. Jara's fingers were mutilated in front of thousands of other prisoners. He attempted to sing songs of resistance, his hands bloody stumps, only to be gunned down as people in the stands tried to join him in chorus.
I didn't want to be near these places any more than I would want to watch a baseball game at Auschwitz.
But a friend saw the pained look on my face and started to explain some of the history behind this rivalry. I learned that Pinochet called himself "President of Colo Colo" during his rule. My friend, a former student at the university, told me that the school had been the center of radical ferment, which Pinochet crushed. He told me about the students tortured, murdered, disappeared or, if they were lucky, expelled — not from the school but from the country. He told me of the students who remained, forced to study in the gray conformity of dictatorship. He told me of programs called limpieza cabezas (head cleaning) in which students were forced to listen to lectures on neoliberal economics.
All of a sudden it made sense to me why the tension in the stadium — five years after Pinochet had stepped down — was so palpable, with separate seating for La U and Colo Colo fans.
By 1995, Chile had existed uneasily as a nominal democracy for four years. Yet there had been no reconciliation and no reckoning for the victims of the Pinochet era. Pinochet's rule led to the deaths or disappearances of nearly 3,200 people and the torture of thousands more. Yet no one had answered for these crimes. The general, as a condition for stepping down from power, had been allowed to rewrite the constitution to make him and his cohorts immune from prosecution. And he was also still in charge of the army.
In such a climate, I realized why this was so much more than a game. It was a place of catharsis. In a country where emotive expressions are frowned upon, it was a place to scream to the heavens, to howl at injustice and to take a symbolic pound of flesh against your enemies — under the guise of a soccer match.
It was also the place where I saw my first live soccer match. It was where I finally got it. The insane endurance on the field; the powerful fakes, twists and turns; the explosion with every goal. As a basketball junkie, I saw why this — and not hoops — was the beautiful game. Basketball, at its best, is about teamwork and acting in concert with others. But too often, it's one guy making a move while four stand around.
That day, I didn't see anyone — players or spectators — just standing around. There I was, dancing in the aisles as La U and its fans avenged 20 years of pain and defeat. It felt good to imagine Pinochet hearing about this game and gnashing his capped teeth.
Of course, neither I nor anyone in my section were fooling ourselves that this was somehow an actual "victory," with the fates of so many victims unresolved. It was symbolism, pure and simple. But it was also an expression of humanity, of resilience and release.
Now Pinochet is dead, never forced to take residence in the cage he so richly deserved. But as a Chilean friend e-mailed me after Pinochet's death: "In Chile, we have always known the truth about this evil man. It does my heart well that jail was his immediate future, and that he knew it." This is right. Any public humiliation Pinochet received at the end was the result of a movement of ordinary folks who never gave up. If the cheers for La U back in 1995 offered even a shard of support to those who felt their cause was just, then it was worth every last exquisite shout.