"Good evening. The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football in the history of the game. This is the first time these countries have met; we hope it will be the last.
“The national motto of Chile reads 'By Reason or By Force'. Today, the Chileans weren't prepared to be reasonable, the Italians only used force, and the result was a disaster for the World Cup. If the World Cup is going to survive in its present form something has got to be done about teams that play like this.”
Some commentators today may pine for the days when men were men, but David Coleman’s words after the Battle of Santiago should teach them to be careful what they wish for. On the 2nd of June 1962, men were not men but thugs, football was a farce, and the World Cup’s reputation took a major nosedive.
The Battle of Santiago is often seen as an anomalously disgraceful affair, but in truth it was just the dirtiest, stupidest game in a tournament full of them. Italy’s opening match against Germany had been described as ‘wrestling and warfare’, with players more concerned about their own safety than winning the game.
Elsewhere, Argentina’s win over Bulgaria was disturbed by no fewer than 69 fouls – for context, the tempestuous 2010 final witnessed only 46. In the Soviet Union’s opening game, Eduard Dubinski’s leg was broken by Yugoslavia's Muhamed Mujic, who was subsequently banned by his own FA after FIFA failed to administer any punishment.
These displays of violence were often the result of the increasingly high stakes riding on games at the top level. “When one considers the merciless criticism that has to be endured by players for failure at national level, there is some provocation for a ‘win at all costs’ approach,” wrote Jimmy Hill in his Observer column.
Chile were motivated more by personal pride than footballing concerns. The Italian newspapers La Nazione and Corriere della Sera had launched astonishing tirades against the host nation, decrying it as a country where "the phones don't work, taxis are as rare as faithful husbands, a cable to Europe costs an arm and a leg and a letter takes five days to turn up.” The Chilean population, they claimed, were riddled with "malnutrition, illiteracy, alcoholism and poverty.”
The Italian players were to pay the price in blood for the sins of their countrymen. The first foul of the game came after 12 seconds. It is not documented when the first stamp, the first pinch and the first spitting incident took place, but all definitely occurred as the game quickly descended into a bloodbath.
The first punch is one that can be traced. Chile’s Leonel Sánchez, the son of a professional boxer, lashed out at Humberto Maschio with a brutal blow that broke the Italian’s nose. Somehow Sánchez went unpunished, with English referee Ken Aston later claiming that his back had been turned.
If Chile’s aim had been to provoke their opponents, they succeeded. Sánchez, again at the heart of it, flew into a challenge against Giorgio Ferrini and the Italian lost his cool. His retaliatory kick left Aston with no choice but to send off Ferrini, who was escorted from the field by Chilean policemen.
With blood boiling on both sides, a fiercely contested battle for the ball near the corner flag was always going to turn nasty. As Sánchez fell over under pressure from Mario David, he sat on the ball to try and protect it. The Italian hacked at him aimlessly, not caring whether he connected with ball or man.
Sánchez’s response was to stand up and strike David with a vicious blow to the jaw. “That was one of the neatest left hooks I’ve ever seen,” remarked Coleman in the commentary box, sounding almost impressed. Remarkably Sánchez wasn’t booked for this either, despite a linesman being just metres from the incident.
With no help forthcoming from the officials, David opted for mob justice instead. His flying kick on Sánchez was more taekwondo than football, and Aston immediately gave David his marching orders, reducing Italy to nine men.
The second half was not quite as barbaric as the first, although there was an old fashioned schoolyard scrap between Bruno Mora and Jorge Toro after the latter had dragged down the former. Aston, intervening again, forcibly separated the two but again neither was punished.
In between the fights, a football match threatened to break out. Jaime Ramirez finally broke Italy’s admirable resistance in the 73rd minute, before Toro found the bottom corner three minutes from time. Chile were the winners; Italy, and football, the losers.
Happy birthday to the great Jorge Toro. Champion with Colo-Colo in 1960 & Cup winner in 1958. Also 1962 WC contender where he reached 3rd place. Famous for his prominent role in the Battle of Santiago vs Italy. One of Chile's football treasures.— Colo-Colo in English (@CaciqueENG) January 10, 2018
Feliz cumpleaños Chino! 🎊🎂 pic.twitter.com/NOtsOhBjYc
Despite all the violence exhibited by the two teams, it was referee Aston who was crucified most after the game. One Italian journalist labelled him ‘an unmentionable English vermin’, and the Italian FA submitted an official complaint about his performance.
"I expected a difficult match, but not an impossible one," Aston said. "I just had to do the best I could. It did cross my mind to abandon the match, but I couldn't be responsible for the safety of the Italian players if I did. I thought that then and I still think it now. I tell you one thing: I didn't add on any stoppage time."
FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous was called upon to clamp down on the chief offenders and went on to make an emotive speech condemning the violence, in which he actually used the phrase “What will the children think?” unironically. But his words were empty: only Ferrini was banned; everyone else, including David and Sánchez, escaped with warnings.
The Battle of Santiago did at least give birth to two revolutionary ideas. Aston went on to develop the red and yellow card system to make bookings more transparent, but perhaps more significantly Jimmy Hill suggested that instant replays should be introduced. The age of technology in football was soon upon us, and thankfully the World Cup would never witness a game of such brutality again.