SANTIAGO, Chile — A haunting, yellowish glow radiates from the tiny section of empty wooden benches and crumbling concrete behind the north goal at Estadio Nacional. All around this space there is noise: 47,000 soccer fans screaming and jumping in delight as Chile’s national team plays Ecuador in the opening game of the Copa América.
But no one sits on those wooden benches. They are reserved in perpetuity, a somber memorial to the thousands of people who were beaten and tortured here 42 years ago in the home of Chilean soccer.
The Estadio Nacional, site of six games in this year’s Copa América, including the final on July 4, is perhaps the most infamous sports arena in the world. For nearly two months after the Sept. 11, 1973, military coup that overthrew Chile’s Marxist president, the stadium served as a makeshift prison camp where as many as 20,000 men and women suffered at the hands of the military junta, led by the army chief, General Augusto Pinochet, that had seized control of the country.
“The stadium became a synonym for the cruelty of the Pinochet regime,” said René Castro, one of the longest-serving prisoners at the stadium. “They did unspeakable things to us there. Now it is a place for football. People have fun there.”
Estimates vary for the number of people who were imprisoned there, and official records say that 41 people were murdered in the stadium in the eight weeks it served as a detention center.
For weeks after the coup, the military rounded up political and social activists and suspected supporters of the former president, Salvador Allende, and brought them to the concrete edifice, which was built in 1938 and hosted matches at the 1962 World Cup, including Brazil’s 3-1 victory over Czechoslovakia in the final.
“I can remember some of the other prisoners talking about going to games there,” Mr. Castro said.
It was the stadium’s intended purpose — international soccer, or at least the prospect of it — that eventually forced the Pinochet government to end its use as a prison camp on Nov. 9, 1973. That month, officials began preparing it for Chile’s scheduled World Cup qualifying match against the Soviet Union. The teams had played a scoreless tie in Moscow in the first leg, but when the Soviets complained about the site of the return match, saying the stadium was a place of blood, FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, said it would investigate.
Many of the prisoners, including Mr. Castro, were rounded up and taken below on the day FIFA officials arrived, into dressing rooms underneath the stadium where they could not be seen from the playing field. At gunpoint, Mr. Castro said, they were instructed to remain silent. But other prisoners were left in the bleachers that day, and remembered watching the men from FIFA go about their inspection.
“We wanted to yell out and say, ‘Hey, we are here, look at us,’ ” said one of those prisoners, Felipe Agüero, who was held captive for about a month. “But they seemed only interested in the condition of the grass.”
A soccer fan who said he had attended many games at the stadium in his youth, Mr. Agüero was a 21-year-old student and member of a small political party in Allende’s socialist coalition. In an interview at his Santiago office of the Ford Foundation last week, where he serves as a program director for human rights in the Andean region, he described his treatment inside Estadio Nacional.
He said he was blindfolded and subjected to routine beatings, including being thrown against the concrete walls underneath the stands, at times headfirst. He said he was subjected to “massive amounts of electricity” over his whole body and burned with cigarettes.
He has since returned to the stadium to attend soccer matches, he said, “but it took me a long while to go back.”
Today, Mr. Agüero and Mr. Castro, despite the agony they endured there, endorse the use of the stadium as a venue for entertainment. Over the years, Estadio Nacional has hosted concerts and political rallies but also 70 games in the Copa América, including Chile’s 2-0 victory over Ecuador in the tournament opener and its 3-3 tie with Mexico on Monday.
In 1987, in the waning years of the Pinochet dictatorship, Pope John Paul II led a mass there, defiantly calling the stadium a place of pain and suffering.
Near the end of the Pinochet regime, Chile’s government moved to reclaim the stadium from its bloody past. It was used as a polling site for the 1988 plebiscite that signaled the end of Pinochet’s rule, and later during the first post-Pinochet democratic elections for president and Congress. In 1990, a massive and joyous political rally was held there to celebrate the victory of Patricio Aylwin, the first democratically elected president. Edward M. Kennedy, the former senator from Massachusetts, was a guest of honor.
The stadium continues its democratic role today as a voting station. But for most Chileans, it is best known as the home of the national soccer team, La Roja.
Former prisoners say they would like to see more done to memorialize what happened there. In addition to the preserved seating area behind the north goal, there is a small, dank and dusty museum underneath those stands with well-known photographs from that time, a ghostly reminder of what Mr. Castro called the “insane” mentality that produces brutality for no reason. There is also a standing monument on the grounds outside the stadium, and other areas in adjoining facilities also have been left as they were during the terror of 1973.
“It is good what they have,” Mr. Agüero said. “But I would like to see the government do more to make it really stand out as a memorial. This way, it will be harder for people to forget.”
Mr. Castro agrees, as does Roberto Navarrete, who said he was shot through the left arm in 1973 on the night he was arrested as an 18-year-old medical student. He said that he was rounded up while providing first-aid in a poor Santiago neighborhood the night of the coup, and that he did not receive medical attention for the wound for several days. Instead, he was beaten.
Mr. Navarrete said he was relieved when he was removed from the stadium to what he considered a less inhumane Santiago prison to finish his one-year sentence. While in that jail, he was allowed to watch the 19-second charade of the Chilean victory over the Soviet Union that November. When FIFA’s inspectors mandated that the game be played, the Soviets boycotted.
Even with no opponent, FIFA required Chile score a goal to secure its place in the 1974 World Cup. So the Chilean players dutifully lined up in their uniforms at midfield, waved to the supporters in the half-filled stands and then passed the ball down the field nine times before blasting it into the unguarded net, ensuring an absurd 1-0 victory.
“That was a perfect example of the farce that whole thing was,” said Mr. Navarrete, who went into exile in London and lives there today as a scientific researcher. “I remember watching and thinking, ‘That’s right where I was standing.’ ”
Mr. Navarrete said that he continued to follow the fate of La Roja this month in the Copa from his home in England, rooting especially for Alexis Sánchez, the star forward who plays in London for Arsenal. Mr. Navarrete said he first went back to the stadium with his brother several years after the return of a democratically elected government. It was an emotional experience.
“You can’t help looking around and remembering,” he said. “But I have processed all those memories.”
The first time Mr. Castro, 74, returned to the stadium was about four years ago, when the band U2 performed a concert there. An artist, Castro worked with U2 during his exile in San Francisco and became friends with the band’s lead singer, Bono. During the concert, Bono called out, “René Castro, this is your house, too!”
At his beachfront home in Concón, Mr. Castro demonstrated how he and others were made to stand with their hands against the walls while passing soldiers battered their lower backs with the butts of their rifles.
“They would demand: ‘Where are the guns? What are the plans? Who are you working with?” Mr. Castro recalled. “I had no answers for them.”
At least one American was among those killed in the stadium: Frank Teruggi, an economics student and social activist whose story is a subplot in the 1982 film “Missing.” Teruggi’s younger sister, Janis Page, is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at New Mexico State. In 2007, she visited Santiago for the first time. Upon discovering she was staying close to the stadium, she said she made a conscious effort to avoid it.
But she said she was happy that others can enjoy it now, and that sports, music and democracy have returned to a place that was once synonymous with terror. It is O.K., she said, as long as the memorials to those who were abused and killed, including her older brother, remain.
In an email, she drew a connection between the passion of the youth who enjoy sports and those who strive for social justice.
“Ultimately,” she wrote, “that is what brought my brother to the stadium.”
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(via NY Times)