On Sunday 10th June 2012 the city of Arica that lies in the extreme north of Chile was in party mood, remembering fifty years since it hosted a World Cup Quarter Final between Chile and the USSR in which the home side ran out 2-1 winners, the script seemed to be written for the locals to be celebrating success again exactly half a century on from Chile’s best ever performance in a World Cup.
Incredibly the football club of the city wasn’t formed until 16 years after it hosted seven World Cup matches. Since their formation as Deportes Arica, the club have languished in the second tier of Chilean football for the majority of their existence and have even found themselves in the third division not long ago. They have also been through liquidation which brought about a renaming process to Club Deportivo San Marcos de Arica. As with many clubs in the extreme regions of Chile they still suffer from a serious lack of funding and national coverage which hinder their progress. Shirts of Colo Colo and Universidad de Chile are always present in the city and the stadium, Arica is sadly just a second team for many supporters but the ground has a friendly feel. Their only real success came in the early eighties with a Primera B title in 1981 and a fourth place finish in the top division in 1984. They were relegated the following year however after losing key players to bigger clubs.
When I moved to Arica at the start of 2011 they were struggling at the foot of the Apertura and playing in front of a couple of thousand people in a very small temporary stadium next door to the Carlos Dittborn which was being renovated. They looked in danger of returning to the third division but a change of coaching and management along with some new signings timed with the move back to their true home brought about a remarkable recovery in the past year and the loyal fans are looking upwards for once.
A year on from surviving a relegation scare San Marcos de Arica were now looking seriously at ending a twenty-seven year wait for a return to top division football and in the 89th minute of their final home game of the season, forward Renato Gonzalez, one of the players of the season, raced through to seal a 3-0 win over Union Temuco it looked like the wait was coming to an end. Moments before that third goal, news had swept around the ground that their two rivals for the Primera B Apertura title had failed to win meaning San Marcos were to become champions of this division for the first time since 1981 and qualify for an end of year play off for promotion.
A couple hours earlier the teams had ran out just before midday into a fervent atmosphere and to a rousing rendition of the hymn of the city and the club. ‘Arica Siempre Arica!’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve7kf2EOxnc) is always belted out by the locals at every home game and on this day it had some extra intensity. The game itself started without much incident. A couple of half chances aside the home side were cautious and nervous whilst the away side’s main threat was from set pieces. The early afternoon heat seemed to sap the energy of the players and crowd alike as the first half wore on and anxiety grew.
The half time interval offered some light entertainment to distract us from the nerve shredding. Leonel Sanchez, a star player for Chile in the 1962 World Cup entered the field of play to polite applause to take a penalty in front of Arica’s small but tuneful ‘Barra’. Sanchez faced a man dressed in a Spider costume. This was of course a tribute to legendary USSR goalkeeper Lev Yashin who earned the nickname The Black Spider for his ability to make impossible saves. In the quarter final against Chile in Arica in 1962 he played one of the games of his life following a unusual drop in standards in the group stages. The Black Spider made save after save but eventually Sanchez found a way past him on that day in 1962 and today wasn’t to be any different as Sanchez sent ‘La Araña Negra’ the wrong way to the delight of the thousands inside the Carlos Dittborn stadium.
Arica started the second half on the front foot but soon found themselves down to ten men as midfielder Angelo Gonzalez received his second yellow card of the match for a late challenge. Things were looking ominous for the home side. They were a man down and needing a goal. Rivals for the title, Barnechea were winning 2-1 away against Naval, the pressure was really on. They kept attacking however and moments later striker Joel Estay won a penalty after some hot headed goalkeeping meant the Temuco number one had to bring the talismanic striker down even though Estay was moving away from the goal. Reliable penalty taker Nestor Contreras drilled his penalty low into the net to scenes of great joy all around me.
It didn’t take long for Arica to build on the lead but the second goal did come in rather bizarre circumstances as Union Temuco pressed the self-destruct button. Joel ‘El Matador de Arica’ Estay, was again at the centre of it all as he chased down a ball in the channel, muscled out a defender and entered the penalty box, he preceded to lose control of the ball and the danger appeared to have passed but in a moment of madness a covering defender for Union Temuco inexplicably swung an arm into the face of Estay and Arica had their second penalty of the game and Union lost their man advantage. Nestor Contreras despatched his penalty right into the corner to send the crowd of more than 10,000 fans into raptures as you can see here, just about! http://tinypic.com/r/210yeli/6
Sixty-seven minutes had passed and Union Temuco had barely offered a goal threat all afternoon. The home crowd were just waiting on news from two other games and if results went their way then the party could begin. A few minutes remained when suddenly some fans in the main stand and the players and staff on the Arica bench started celebrating. News had come through that title rivals Barnechea had conceded a last minute equaliser. The whole stadium erupted with joy at this moment. Arica had done it with a game to spare. They made it 3-0 and it wasn’t long after that the final whistle sounded that fans of all ages raced onto the pitch to greet their heroes. The crowning moment arrived when goalkeeper Pedro Carizza led a lap of honour around the pitch with the Primera B trophy held aloft with delighted Arica fanatics following behind cheering and dancing in triumph.
It was during this chapter that spirit crushing news had started to filter through the stands that Barnechea had actually won 2-1 and the title wasn’t Arica’s just yet. It was a scene reminiscent of the closing stages in the second tier of English football last year at Loftus Road when Norwich City found an injury time winner to halt QPR’s celebrations. Fans walked out the stadium in disbelief; some hadn’t heard the news and were still celebrating. The sound of car horns were present hours after the stadium had cleared. All around the city many fans carried on celebrating regardless. Meanwhile supporters of other clubs took to Twitter to laugh at the farcical episode.San Marcos de Arica still have a chance to have the last laugh as they go into the final week of Apertura season in pole position with a two point advantage over Barnechea. A point at Deportes Concepcion for Arica will probably seal the title for a side that has played with great attacking intent home and away throughout the year so far. If they do slip up; Barnechea, the smallest club in the division, will have a great chance to win promotion for the second consecutive year.
Many fans are going to be watching on big screens inside the Carlos Dittborn but many will fly down to the south for the ultimate match of the Apertura campaign. A few committed souls will even go by coach which could well end up taking up to forty hours each way but I’m sure it will be worth every second and peso of the journey to see their heroes lift the trophy without any doubts.
San Marcos de Arica take on Deportes Concepcion on Sunday 17th June 2012 at 12pm local time.