When your country has been hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami, you’d think football – even the World Cup – tends to become a minor detail. You’d be wrong.
At 3.34am on February 27 this year, Chile fell apart. The Richter scale registered 8.8 and 93 percent of the country's population were left in the dark as power failed. First the ground shook for 90 seconds, then the waves came. The huge off-shore quake moved the earth’s axis 8cm and shortened the day by over 1.28 microseconds.
The city of Concepción moved 10 feet west. The capital Santiago was shifted 10 inches, and Argentine capital Buenos Aires, a thousand miles away, moved one and a half inches. Chile gained an extra square mile of territory after their strongest quake since 1960.
It left 521 dead, 200,000 homeless and 500,000 houses damaged. But it also left a flag. The flag in this picture. Ripped and muddied, this is the standard around which Chile will gather today as they prepare to face Spain to decide Group H at Loftus Versfeld tomorrow.
A chap called Bruno Sandoval rescued the flag (white for the Andean snow, blue for the sky, red for the blood of the independence fighters) from the ruins of Pelluhue, about 200 miles south west of the capital Santiago. At the time, Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera said his actions would “lift the spirit of a nation.”
And that La Roja flag is still doing its job, fluttering over the team’s plush base at the Ingwenyama resort near Nelspruit. Chile’s captain Claudio Bravo, their unbeaten goalkeeper in 1-0 wins over Honduras and Switzerland so far, says: “We brought the flag with us to remind the team of what happened. The whole nation is watching. We remember our disaster.”
The delightfully named defender Waldo Ponce said: “It’s extra motivation. I always go to the flag after we finish training. It shows the suffering of our people – but it also reminds us we can bring a little joy after what happened."
Back home, between gathering around televisions to watch their side in distant Africa, the rebuilding goes on. Pedro Poblete lives in Talca, right at the epicentre of the earthquake. He lost his off-licence/bottle store but argues: “The World Cup helps me forget I’m homeless. This flag shows we have suffered and bled. And continue to blee. The flag and the football soothes our pain.”
Fortunately for Chile, that soothing process is likely to go on for a while yet. As long as Switzerland don’t beat Honduras in Bloemfontein, they can even afford to lose against the world’s second-best side and they will still march on to the last 16.
In a tournament dominated by the Latin American teams, Spain’s opening loss to Switzerland means they are the side that has to do all the running at Loftus. Mind you, Chile have never beaten Spain. The last time they met, in 2008, the recently-crowned European champions crushed their former colony 3-0.
Spearheaded by Durban-born Mark Gonzalez, whose father Raul signed for Umlazi Bush Bucks in 1984 (I should know, I broke the story in the Durban Daily News!) Chile have got what it takes to be the surprise package at South Africa 2010, though they are ranked a mere 18 in the world.
Gonzalez scored the only goal against Switzerland and President Pinera, watching with earthquake victims in Concepción, issued his verdict: “Humberto Suazo is a great player, but today was not his day. I think that the best was Jorge Valdivia. He opened the field, he made beautiful passes and he gave the pass for Esteban Paredes to make the cross for Mark Gonzalez to score the goal."
That kind of political and emotional judgement, with the muddy flag flying in the background, might just spurs Suazo and Co on to greater things against Spain. The European champions had better be wary. They could be the last side knocked out in the group stages. This one could make England v Germany look pedestrian.