Victory From The Depths Of Suffering: Chile’s 1962 World Cup: Part 1

The opportunity to host a World Cup is a prestigious achievement that elicits pride amongst its citizens. Understandably, countries routinely face obstacles when preparing to stage a World Cup, testing their resolve. Yet few countries faced such adversity as a World Cup host than Chile. 




Chile’s preparations to host the 1962 World Cup had been two years in the making after FIFA invited them to bid for the hosting rights in 1954. The organisation wanted the 1962 edition to be held in South America and Argentina had also stated their desire to host the prestigious tournament. The last two World Cups had been staged in Europe and FIFA poured cold water on West Germany’s interest in hosting. Argentina may have been the favourites but Chile had an ace up their sleeve in Carlos Dittborn. 

The Brazilian born diplomat had enjoyed success as president of Chilean side Universidad Católica, winning the domestic league in 1954, their first title in five years. A year later, Dittborn would be appointed head of CONMEBOL, South America’s football governing body. Despite Chile having a man of such influence, there were many reasons why Argentina were favourites to host the World Cup.  

Their infrastructure was significantly better than Chile’s and their transport network could handle millions of commuters. Argentina had at least five stadiums in Buenos Aires, each one boasting a capacity of over 40,000. In addition, they had multiple stadiums across the country in cities like Rosario, Tucuman and Santa Fe.  

D-Day was on the 10th June 1956 at the FIFA Congress in Lisbon where delegations of both countries would give presentations to the FIFA general assembly on why they should host the 1962 World Cup. Brenda Elsey, in her book Citizens and Sportsmen: Futbol and Politics in Twentieth-Century Chile, wrote how the mood among Chileans was: 

“….most predicted that Argentina would win the bid. Some Chilean journalists went so far as to implore the federation to give up in order to avoid the disillusionment that failure would bring to the public.” 

Argentina’s delegation chose Raúl Colombo to speak to the assembly first. Colombo’s speech was long, around 70 minutes, quite extensive in detail. His country’s bid proposed that seven venues would host matches, as well as hotels to be built or renovated to accommodate traveling fans. Colombo spoke glowingly of Buenos Aires’ transportation network and was confident it could handle the increase in demand. He ended his presentation by proclaiming Argentina could host the World Cup tomorrow.  

After Colombo’s speech, it was Dittborn’s turn to speak for Chile. The ex-diplomat would recollect to El Mercurio, one of Chile’s biggest and oldest papers, what he said to the general assembly: 

“The brilliant speech {by Raúl Colombo} lasted an hour and ten minutes, after which I took the stage. I only needed 15 minutes. I didn’t show any documents, I just briefly explained who we were and what we were like, and I invoked the letter and the spirit of article 2 of the FIFA Statutes, according to which the governing body’s function was to use the Jules Rimet Cup to promote football in less-developed countries. 

My argument contained only four points: our consistent record in attending the tournaments and congresses organised by FIFA; the institutional and political stability of our country; our nation’s tolerance of beliefs, races and other ideas and its sporting climate; and that article of the FIFA Statutes.” 

Dittborn had gambled by making his speech vastly shorter than Colombo’s. What it lacked in length it made up in it’s content. Dittborn’s words were measured, detailed and crucially pointed to the founding ideals that FIFA stood for. The gamble worked and Chile beat Argentina 32-11 votes with 13 abstentions. The reaction back home was one of jubilation. 

Alas, winning the bid was the easy part, as their proposals now had to be implemented. The organisers were at pains to make sure the competition reached the whole of Chile. The selected venues reflected it: the capital Santiago, Viňa del Mar, Rancagua, Arica, La Serena, Antofagasta, Talca, Concepción, Valdivia and Talcahuano encompassed the length and breadth of the country. The organising committee worked non-stop for four years to get everything ready and had made good progress. Then disaster struck. 

Chile was hit with a series of devastating earthquakes between late May-early June 1960. The worst earthquake was in Valdivia on the 22nd May, which measured 9.4-9.6 on the Richter Scale. Tsunamis produced waves of over 80ft in areas off Chile’s Pacific coast. Several provinces bore the brunt, which left many towns and cities badly damaged. 200,000 people were left homeless in Valdivia and nearly half of the city’s buildings had been destroyed.  

Overall, 2,000 were estimated to have been killed in Chile, yet the real figure could be up to 6,000. Towns, cities, coastal outlets and rural areas were pulverized at the sheer power of this natural disaster. Two million homes were thought to be destroyed and the earthquake that struck Valdivia is regarded as the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. 

The death and suffering inflicted on the country prompted Dittborn to meet with Chile’s president Jorge AlessandriDittborn offered to return public funds given to the organizing committee.  Alessandri refused, instructing Dittborn to continue preparations for the World Cup in two years. The president felt the people’s spirits needed to be lifted after going through such a traumatic experience. Many wondered if Chile were even in a position to host the tournament. The human cost was high, but so was the damage to property, infrastructure and vital communication networks. Unsurprisingly, government funding after 1960 towards hosting the World Cup was scant. 

Help would soon arrive through various means. Several football associations from different continents donated money to Chile. FIFA provided vital technical assistance to Chile’s organising committee and financial support. Chile’s efforts in getting ready to host the competition recovered due to the groundswell of aid, but also under Dittborn’s inspirational leadership, working tirelessly to make sure his country was ready.  

Dittborn had to make alterations to the original plan with some venues unable to host matches after the earthquakes. The host cities were now reduced to four: Santiago, Viňa del Mar, Rancagua and Arica. They remarkably managed to keep things on schedule and ready to welcome the world by late May 1962. Tragically, Dittborn would not live to see the culmination of his hard work. He would die of a heart attack on the 28th April 1962 – a month before the World Cup. 

The hours, days, months and years that Dittborn invested was nothing short of heroic. It was his passion, determination and resilience that resulted in Chile overcoming the earthquakes’ terrible damage. Dittborn rarely took a day off or heeded the advice of his doctors to rest. The incessant fixation on making sure Chile would host the World Cup led to his deteriorating health. The stadium in the northern city of Arica was named after him just before the World Cup in honour of his efforts. 

With Chile ready to host the World Cup, all eyes turned to events on the field and how the hosts would fare in front of their people. 

By: Yousef Teclab

Photo: Gabriel Fraga