Leonardo Véliz woke with a jolt. It was still early morning but his wife was prodding his shoulder, her face creased with concern. “Something serious is going on out there,” she said. “It doesn’t look good.”

It was 11 September 1973 and Chile stood on edge. For almost three years president Salvador Allende had ruled the country following a historic election win as the world’s first Marxist leader to be chosen at the ballot box. Véliz was an open Allende supporter and had worked on numerous government projects as part of the Chilean Road to Socialism plan. But he was also one of the country’s most famous footballers.

“The coup was coming, we knew the coup was coming,” Véliz said. “And that morning everything changed.”

Sitting by the kitchen table, the young couple waited nervously by the radio. News reports of a military uprising came in and Allende made his final address to the nation. By midday Hawker Hunter planes screamed through the Santiago sky. The bombing of the La Moneda presidential palace began shortly after. Allende was killed, supposedly by suicide with a gun Fidel Castro had given him, and the military seized control of the country. Chile would not be the same again.

“We were very scared. I had always been involved in politics ever since I was at school and so I understood clearly what a military coup would be like. I knew this was very bad news not just for the country but for me personally because I was very openly left-wing,” Véliz said.

That same day the Chile team were due to report at their training base ahead of their trip to the Soviet Union for a two-legged play-off for a place at the 1974 World Cup. “When I found out Allende was dead I stayed at home and didn’t leave the house for three days; it was just too dangerous,” Véliz said.

His teammates were not as prudent. Several showed up at the Juan Pinto Durán training centre but were advised to return home and await news. That night’s flight was cancelled.

A group, including the captain Francisco ‘Chamaco’ Valdés, set off together back to the city just after the bombing had concluded. “We were given our kit and a white bag that had ‘Chilean National Football Team’ written across it in black letters,” Valdés told Axel Pickett for his book The Game of Brave Men.

Having to abandon their cars, the players embarked upon a daring mission across town to reach Valdés’s house. “It was all kicking off, we could hear shots being fired and every few metres we were stopped at military checkpoints with these soldiers screaming at us with guns in our faces,” the captain remembers. “I had to show them the bag and tell them: ‘Hey, I’m Chamaco Valdés from the Chile team!’”

It was a war zone, but for Chile left-back Eduardo Herrera and the reserve Nelson Vásquez the danger didn’t end there. After lunch at Valdés’s house, the pair took the seemingly preposterous decision to return to their hotel – which was located right in front of the presidential palace. “They weren’t from Santiago and couldn’t speak to their families; that was their thinking,” Valdés says.

Darting through streets, the players’ only defence was their team suitcase. “It probably saved my life,” Herrera said. “I still have it to this day.”

For the next few weeks, confusion and terror swept across the country. Commander of the Army, General Augusto Pinochet, had seized control and immediately ordered his opponents, principally communists and socialists, to be rounded up.

“Anyone who thought differently was hounded down and right from the first day anybody who was different suffered,” Véliz said. “Prisoners were taken and many people were tortured and killed. There was a huge division in the country and it destroyed many families. People started snitching and neighbours started turning each other in to the police.”

Pinochet soon severed links with Cuba and the Soviet Union and in just a few hours Chile and the Soviets went from ideological comrades to bitter enemies. The consequences for the national football team would be keenly felt. “Can you imagine being in that situation? We had no idea what was happening, radio and TV stations were shut down and we had to go and play in Moscow!” Véliz chuckled.

The game was scheduled for September 26, just two weeks after the military coup. The players continued to train in Santiago but it was unclear whether the game was going to go ahead. 

“We felt this fear every morning on the way to training with the military roaming everywhere, but I was especially afraid because I was openly a supporter of the president who had just been bombed by these people. For example, in my house I had a lot of Marxist music – LPs and cassettes – as well as books that I had to hide in my attic. I also loved collecting hats, wherever I travelled I bought one, and somebody had once given me a police cap as a present. To have something like that was considered an act of terrorism,” said Véliz.

In such a climate of suspicion and repression, whispers soon start crawling. The military was everywhere and people started to go missing. “Our goalkeeper told me he had seen dozens of dead bodies lined up in a warehouse,” said Véliz. “I believed him because he wasn’t the political type at all.”

Véliz’s fame probably shielded him, but not every player was quite so lucky. Nelson Vásquez’s father was the leader of the ETC transport union in Valparaíso. One night he didn’t return home from work. Until he was set free Vásquez refused to travel with the team. After several days he finally appeared and so on September 15, a 27-man delegation took the first flight out of the country since the coup.

“The main airport was closed and so we had to take a flight from Cerrillos, which was a small airport,” Véliz said. “We were all petrified at what was going on, but later we heard that the plane had to ascend really quickly when it set off to avoid being shot down by snipers.”

Leaving behind family and friends in such terrifying circumstances was not an easy decision. For the two weeks that followed, the Chilean players weren’t able to communicate with anyone back home. For Véliz it was just one of his worries. “I was scared because it was a long trip from Chile to Argentina, Brazil, Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, France, Switzerland, Frankfurt and then Moscow, so I had packed a lot of music for the trip. But I had stuff by Quilapayún, which was a group made up of communists, and artists like Victor Jara who was singing about socialism. It was a big risk because I thought they might check my bags,” Véliz recalls.

In Switzerland Chile played Neuchâtel Xamax in a warm-up game. Véliz was made captain and the team won 1-0, but events in Chile would again drive home the reality of events unfolding in the aftermath of the coup. “It was the first time I was captain and so I was really proud,” he said. “But I mainly remember that day because it was the same day that Pablo Neruda died. I was so sad, I couldn’t believe it; another famous communist killed.”

Officially, the world famous poet had died of prostate cancer, but there are many Chileans who still believe Pinochet had ordered doctors to poison him. If the acclaimed Neruda was a target, then everyone deemed subversive would also be on the military’s list. With no communication, players’ doubts and fears ran wild.

Internazionale cancelled a friendly on political grounds while the Soviets doubted the game would take place at all. According to the head of the Chilean Football Federation, Francisco Fluxá, his Soviet counterparts only wanted to know one thing: “Where is your team?”

Fluxá had travelled separately and was forced into making ad hoc logistical arrangements. His star player, Elias Figueroa – still considered one of the best South American defenders – was only given permission to travel by his Brazilian club Internacional at the last minute and then he arrived in Italy not knowing where he needed to be and with just $100 in his back pocket.

There’s no doubt that luck played a part in getting all the team – minus Carlos  Reinoso who was denied permission to travel by his club – to Moscow on time, but Fluxá’s connections also helped smooth the way. “In Switzerland we were picked up by one of the team’s directors, a really friendly, charming man,” said Véliz. “He took us to his house, but I guess we should say it was more like a castle or a mansion. It had a swimming pool, four-poster beds and a wine cellar where, when he took a bottle out, a door opened behind. It was something magnificent, absolutely out of this world. And I will always remember his name: Mr Joseph Blatter.” 

Even when the team finally arrived in Moscow the problems continued. The main striker Carlos Caszely, who was the team’s other Allende admirer, was denied entry into the country. According to Soviet authorities his passport photo didn’t convince and so three uncomfortably cold and frustrating hours were spent arguing that Caszely had simply grown a bushy moustache since his picture was taken. “It was a very hostile reception and nobody helped us,” Véliz said.

Nobody dared talk about politics for fear of the repercussions that might have on their family back home. The Soviets were also keen to quash any mention of the game. “There wasn’t one newspaper story and nobody has ever seen footage of the game,” Véliz said. “But when we walked onto the pitch there were 60,000 people whistling.”

Chile knew they were up against it. After Venezuela had withdrawn from the South American qualifiers, Chile needed only to beat neighbours Peru to qualify. Both countries won at home, meaning the two rivals faced each other in a decider in Montevideo which Chile won 2-1. But nobody was convinced. 

Chile’s manager was the German coach Rudi Gutendorf, who went on to manage a record 18 national teams. As well as being a close friend of Allende, players remember him for his eccentricity. Owning a pet poodle made him a figure of derision, but it was his partner, sunbathing topless beside the training pitch, who provided the lasting memories of his time in charge.

After the coup, Luis ‘El Zorro’ Álamos stepped in. He had just led Colo-Colo to their first Copa Libertadores final and had also been the Chile coach at the 1966 World Cup. 

Against all odds, on September 26 Chile squeezed out a 0-0 draw, with Álamos’s decision to field Figueroa and Alberto Quintano together for the first time considered crucial. “Our central defenders cleared everything that came in their way that day; they were immense,” Véliz said. 

With no recording of the game it’s difficult to say for certain, but there was perhaps another factor that favoured Chile: the Brazilian referee Armando Marques. He too was staying at the Ukraine Hotel and it was there that Fluxá ran into him armed with packet of highly sought after American cigarettes. The two began talking and inevitably conversation led to the situation in Chile in which Marques said, “Thank God that [Allende] government has fallen.”

Marques was a virulent anti-communist and supposedly turned a blind eye to the rough tackles and challenges that Chile dished out. One man who certainly had an influence was Figueroa, who played in Brazil and spoke Portuguese. “As a Brazilian, who are you going to favour here, ref?” he asked. “The team from Europe or South America?”

No pennants were exchanged, no anthems played and after the game the Soviets refused to have dinner with the Chileans. “We had a few drinks to celebrate and then left for the airport the next day. Nobody could stop thinking about what was happening back in Chile,” Véliz remembers.

Only one Chilean journalist had covered the match and the next day a newspaper screamed: “The Soviet Union couldn’t even beat us at football.” 

The situation in Chile had worsened. Pinochet had deployed helicopters across the country searching for subversives. The Caravana de la Muerte was a death squad that began rounding up tens of thousands, but with no space in the jails the government needed other large public spaces to intern victims.

Nowadays almost everyone in Chile is aware of the unimaginable horrors that took place inside the Estadio Nacional, the venue for this year’s Copa America final. It was the country’s largest detention centre, but ten other stadiums also became state prisons.

Even as one of the country’s most famous footballers and hero of the Chilean side that had stoically held out against the Soviets on enemy terrain, Véliz would not be spared some of the pain that went on behind those walls. Upon arriving back in Santiago and being reunited with his family he was told that an uncle had gone missing. Days passed and nobody heard a word. With fear mounting, Véliz decided to go and find out. 

“I was petrified to go down there,” he said. “We didn’t know exactly what was going on inside the stadium but word was spreading from people who had been held there so we had an idea. I was so scared that I didn’t dare enter the Nacional through the main gates and talk to the commander, so instead I shouted to one of the conscripts by the gate. He knew me and called me Pollito, which was my nickname. I told him I wanted information on someone and he advised me to come back the next day.”

Wearing his Colo-Colo shirt, Pollito returned the following day and was given just three words: “He is alive.” A few days later the uncle was released. “We didn’t know this at the time but in declassified documents it was later revealed that, soon after taking power, Pinochet had ordered football to be left alone. He understood that football was immensely popular. We were lucky, but look what happened to the arts where so many musicians, poets and writers had to escape the country or worse.” 

Around 40,000 people are estimated to have passed through the Estadio Nacional between September 12 and November 9. Hugo Lepe, an ex-footballer who was the leader of the trade union defending player rights, was one of those arrested. “When we got back from Russia, we learned about Hugo,” Véliz said. “He had set up a union to help players, and he believed in socialism and liberty and in changing the world into a better place. That’s why they took him.”

As captain, Chamaco Valdés took responsibility of finding him. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I had to find him,” Valdés told El Clarín. After a few calls a meeting was arranged: with General Pinochet himself. “It only lasted about 15 minutes and I told him that as Chile captain I was worried. He told me that he would find him, but he hoped he wasn’t an activist,” Valdés recalls.

Along with other players, Valdés spent a month and a half searching for Lepe, before the trade unionist was finally freed from the Estadio Nacional. “That was horrible,” said Véliz. “We all knew Hugo and Chamaco Valdés went to the stadium several times trying to find out if he was there. I don’t think he was tortured though, not like Alfonso Reyes.”

Reyes was the Chile team doctor and also worked at a clinic in the centre of Santiago. He was a communist and was known to help the poor and left-wing activists with free health care. On the day of the coup, Reyes was in his surgery when a distraught and ragged woman requested to see him. It was Allende’s lover, Miria Contreras Bell, and he saved her life by wrapping bandages around her entire body so that nobody would recognise her. In December 1973 Reyes was arrested while at work and spent 11 months behind bars. “Out of all the people involved in Chilean football he suffered the most,” Véliz said. “He was tortured many times; it was horrific what happened.”

If footballers were able to wrest certain concessions from the military regime to help friends and family in isolated cases, what lay around the corner would underline the limitations of their fame.

Just a few weeks before Chile were set to host the Soviet Union in the second leg of the World Cup playoff, the communist nation sent a cable requesting a change of venue away from the Estadio Nacional. Fifa had already approved the game in Santiago but nonetheless sent a delegation to investigate. They checked the showers and made sure the pitch was in good condition, before summarising, in perhaps the most foolish and injudicious report in the history of football, that “life was back to normal.” The Soviets of course refused to budge: “We will not play on a pitch stained with the blood of Chilean patriots.”

On 21 November 1973 eleven Chilean footballers turned up at the Estadio Nacional against a ghost opposition. There were a little over 17,000 spectators watching for a game that lasted just 30 seconds. “Imagine what I was feeling going into that stadium for one of the most risible games in football history,” said Véliz. “It was an absolutely disgraceful match that should never have taken place. Fifa had told us that we had still  to turn up in our kits, kick off and score, even though there was nobody there.  What were those people watching thinking? Perhaps they had come to laugh at us.”.

Not even the nation’s footballing heroes felt they could stand up to the regime. “If I was fully aware of everything that was going on back then like I am now, I would never have played; I’d have resigned from football,” Véliz said. “But they’d have treated me as a traitor.”

Furthermore, years later Véliz would learn that the military regime might still have been holding prisoners inside the stadium on the day of that game despite Pinochet’s claims this had ended on November 9. “A good friend of mine told me he was there,” Véliz said. “He could even hear the crowd from where he was locked away.”

Pinochet would rule Chile for the next 17 years. To this day, the true extent of the suffering and appalling human rights abuses committed during this era is still being uncovered. “It’s sad because I spent most of my career playing and coaching under a dictatorship,” Véliz said. “But at the same time football has been my life and I might be not be here without it.”