By Andrew Downie
(Reuters) – Football has long mixed with politics in South America but the refusal of Chilean players to play a friendly against Peru in sympathy with anti-government protesters has taken action and awareness to a new level.
The Chilean football association called off the Peru match on Wednesday when players said they would not travel to Lima.
“We are footballers but before that we are people and citizens,” captain Gary Medel said on Instagram. “We know we represent the entire country and today Chile has much more important priorities than next Tuesday’s match. The more important game is equality and changing things so that all Chileans can live in a fairer country.”
The decision comes after almost a month of protests that began over a rise in metro prices and spread to encompass myriad grievances linked to inequality.
Millions of Chileans have taken to the streets, with at least 23 people killed and thousands hospitalised after clashes with police and army.
The movement is the biggest since the fall of right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990 and several Chilean players have posted support online, including Medel, Manchester City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aranguiz.
Chile is no stranger to football and politics coming together.
A portion of the country’s National stadium is fenced off as a permanent reminder of the people detained and tortured there by Pinochet’s soldiers in the 1970s.
The current league campaign has been halted nearly a month due to security concerns as the protests rage and officials do not know when it will end.
However, the decision not to travel to an away game is unprecedented and shows the intensity of the anger.
“Chile played here in the 1983 Copa America in the midst of huge protests against Pinochet,” Danilo Diaz, a columnist with the El Mercurio newspaper, told Reuters. “If they played then I can’t see why it is a problem to play now.
“I think the players are a bit afraid of the virulence of the reaction on social media. They are concerned about their friends and families.”
Chile’s women’s team last weekend played a double header against Australia, with no obvious backlash.
The players posed ahead of the first match holding a small poster that read “Chilean democracy tortures, rapes, maims and kills its citizens. (President) Pinera out”.
The protest was shared by the players on social media and Diaz believes the men missed a trick by not following their example.
“They could have made it political by taking a banner on to the pitch in support of the protesters,” he said.
“So far 23 people have died and it could be 24 by next week. They could have told the Peruvian players and the referee, we’ll stop the game in the 24th minute in tribute to those who died. That would have made headlines around the world.”
(Reporting by Andrew Downie in London, editing by Ed Osmond)