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Jun 18, 2014

Chile's new generation evident on pitch

Fans in Santiago, Chile, celebrate Chile's win over Spain. The victory sends their national team to the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup.
Fans in Santiago, Chile, celebrate Chile's win over Spain. The victory sends their national team to the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup.

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Nobody is sleeping in Santiago tonight. The honks and cheers will last until the sun starts to rise over the Andes, and the memories of them will last even longer. People stand in the streets waving huge flags at passing cars, whose passengers lean out of their windows and wave small ones back. It's a hug-a-stranger kind of party, the rarely seen pure expression of joy.

Right now, a huge, modern city is basically ceasing to function -- people filling the streets, carrying enormous flags and banners. About a half-hour ago, Chile beat Spain 2-0, eliminating the defending World Cup champions and sending Chile into the round of 16. When the game ended, people danced in the streets. The employees of the Dunkin' Donuts locked the doors and closed, celebrating with everyone else. People spilled out of restaurants and apartments, offices and bars, wanting to be together, forming in huge clusters, hugging and jumping and screaming. My photographer and I grabbed the first cab to drive past, and now he's in the streets around the hotel taking some final pictures, and I'm in the room writing. I pulled a chair up against the window, which is where I'm sitting as I write.

Peeking through the gaps in the skyscrapers, the snow-capped peaks form a bowl around the city. On Apoquindo Avenue, which is directly below, cars honk in time to the cheer that echoed around the city for the past few hours: Chi, Chi, Chi. Le, Le, Le. Viva Chile! Fans step into traffic and hurl rolls of toilet paper. The honking of tiny motorcycle horns and big truck horns and buses and cars and vans, along with the vuvuzelas, cheers and chants, have turned the soundtrack of Santiago into a low-humming buzz, one that will last all night.

Journalist and novelist Pablo Azocar revels in Chile's 2-0 victory over Spain on Wednesday.
Journalist and novelist Pablo Azocar revels in Chile's 2-0 victory over Spain on Wednesday.

Even before the explosion of joy, which hinted at emotions long repressed, Chilean fans sensed something special about this team, and the palpable joy accompanying that hope is what drew me here. Santiago is a strange town. This morning, I visited Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda's house and found whimsy -- in a pair of enormous, two-foot-long black wingtip shoes on the floor of one of his many bars and in the fact that he had more bars than bedrooms. I found anger -- in two different protests going on downtown -- and I found a generation of Chileans who are just now coming of age.

- Thompson: Cup leaves some longing for home

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From 2011 to 2013, in what is called the Chilean Winter, student-led protests over the lack of public education rocked the government. This movement created a new wave of activists, who found the courage to stand up to violent police retribution and still fight for their beliefs.

Four or five of the student leaders are now in parliament, including the almost mythic Camila Vallejo, a young communist organizer turned elected official, who is -- how do we put this? -- extremely attractive. The New York Times called her the "world's most glamorous revolutionary," and she has twice as many Twitter followers as there are people in her district and more than 100,000 more followers than the best player on Chile's national team. She is perhaps the brightest star to emerge in a generation of stars.

"Beautiful and brilliant," says Pablo Azocar, a journalist and novelist whose many works include a book about Augusto Pinochet, the brutal dictator who ran a totalitarian murder and torture regime from 1974 to 1990. We'd met in a mostly empty bar to watch the Netherlands-Australia match. Looking cool in his corduroy jacket and blue jeans, he takes out a pack of Pall Malls cigarettes, and, over a pitcher of sangria, Azocar describes the reputation of Chile's team, which plays aggressive, hard-charging soccer, sometimes to its own detriment -- always pressing, always attacking. "Everybody loves it," he says. "Even if they lose, they go forward. They take risks."

The coach who brought this style to Chile -- he resigned three years ago after a successful 2010 World Cup -- is Marcelo Bielsa. Not only did he give the team confidence, he also became a powerful political symbol in the country. The South Africa World Cup took place soon after right-wing president Sebastian Pinera took office. Bielsa invited the former president as his guest -- snubbing Pinera -- and, after the tournament, when Pinera invited the team to visit for a photo opp, Bielsa refused to shake Pinera's hand.

"Something changed when Bielsa came to Chile," Azocar says. "He made a cultural revolution in some way. It's a part of the social change that had been happening in Chile."

The new coach, Jorge Sampaoli, is a disciple of Bielsa, and he has taken the mixture of politics and football a step further, identifying with Vallejo and her fellow student protestors.

"Progressive people play offense," he has said.

The style of this new generation and that of the national team are the same, the coach says, and though it's not clear which came first, or how the chain of influence is put together, the team carries civic importance. "[Bielsa] made a relationship between the left-wing students, and how they behave politically, with the players," Azocar says.

He smokes cigarette after cigarette, trying to explain what is happening during this World Cup. Finally, he says the emergence of this generation of politically active students, which is mirrored by the likely coincidental, but nonetheless symbolic, rise of an aggressive national team, is proof that the ghost of Pinochet is finally being sent away.

"Pinochet, in some ways, is still here," he says, "but less and less and less."

I ask him to remember the last time he saw Chileans as united around something as they are about this team. The question startles him because he cannot come up with an answer. He blows out a cloud of smoke, buying time to think.

"Never before," he says finally.

Fans will no doubt be glued to Chile's next match Monday vs. Netherlands, as the winner will top Group B.
Fans will no doubt be glued to Chile's next match Monday vs. Netherlands, as the winner will top Group B.

The game starts, and Azocar is the oldest person in the bar. The tables and empty spaces inside are filled with urban hipsters turned nonironic nationalists, most of them too young to ever remember being ruled by a dictator. That Chile is fading into history, and, while it might remain fodder for activists and journalists, a new generation is trying to spend less time on ghosts and more time fighting for the nation it wants to inherit, and one day pass on. Azocar rubs his hands and says, "I'm nervous. I'm nervous."

A brass band with a drum line marches down the street, plays an impromptu concert, then filters into the bar to watch. Azocar smiles listening to the music, and when the camera zooms in on the Chilean team walking slowly through the Maracana tunnel -- bound for the field -- he sighs. Sitting at the table closest to the screen, his eyes shine. The young crowd screams the national anthem and leads round after round of Chile chants once the game begins, proud of the place where it lives. He seems proud of them, constantly turning away from the television to watch them watch the game. Long ashes hang from the tips of his Pall Malls. He is transfixed.

"I can't explain," he says.

He looks around again.

"Young people," he says.

Chile scores and scores again, and both times he joins the crowd, leaping to his feet, pumping both his fists in the air. The team lives up to its reputation, charging after every ball, aggressive and fearless. A player runs at Spain's keeper, who is punting a routine ball, and tries a flying karate kick to try to make a play.

Azocar chain smokes during stoppage time, and then, it's over, and the crowd spills into the streets, dancing and singing, filling the avenues. They've been inside since Pinochet first took power and are only now stepping back into the sun. Tonight, on the wild streets of Santiago, during a celebration this generation will always hold dear, nobody wants to be inside.