Soccer and a Military Coup Collide in St. Louis Filmmaker's ESPN 30 for 30, The Opposition

Apr 22, 2014 at 6:00 am
click to enlarge Jeff Plunkett directs ESPN's new 30 for 30 documentary. - Jeff Plunkett
Jeff Plunkett
Jeff Plunkett directs ESPN's new 30 for 30 documentary.

Chile's 1974 World Cup team qualified for the international tournament by scoring a goal against no one in a stadium turned into a concentration camp.

This haunting but little-known piece of history is the subject of a new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary premiering tonight, The Opposition, from director, producer and St. Louis native Jeffrey Plunkett.

"That whole chapter in Chilean history is totally surreal," Plunkett tells Daily RFT. "It really is the equivalent to St. Louis waking up and Busch Stadium being turned into a prison."

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Plunkett, who played soccer at Parkway Central High School as a kid, says The Opposition isn't just a soccer movie. At its heart, Plunkett says, it's about the stadium, which starts as a theater showcasing the country's pride -- something St. Louisans can relate to with Busch Stadium, Plunkett says -- and falls dramatically to a place of violence, fear and regret.

Jeff Plunkett is the blondie on the bottom row, third from the left, in this 1990 shot of the Parkway Central squad. - Jeff Plunkett
Jeff Plunkett
Jeff Plunkett is the blondie on the bottom row, third from the left, in this 1990 shot of the Parkway Central squad.

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet lead a military junta against the Chilean government, seizing control over the country and throwing dissidents into a makeshift jail at the national stadium, Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Prádanos. Eventually, 40,000 people were imprisoned and tortured.

As their countrymen suffered, players on Chile's national soccer team were one win away from qualifying for the 1974 World Cup.

"The game is so popular that it's not surprising that there are these moments when soccer collides with bigger historical moments," Plunkett tells Daily RFT. "Those, to me, are some of the most interesting stories."

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Chile's opponent, the Soviet Union, refused to play in a stadium used for a month as a concentration camp. In a heartbreaking scene in The Opposition, prisoners peer from behind locked gates with guns aimed at their heads while an international delegation from FIFA casually inspects the stadium for proof of human-rights abuses.

FIFA, soccer's governing body, ruled in Chile's favor, ordering the Soviet Union to play at the national stadium or forfeit. The Soviets didn't show up.

But to officially win, Chile needed to score one goal. Against no one.

"There's so much going on," says Plunkett. "You've got these young soccer players, all they know is soccer, and they're suddenly in the middle of this political moment."

What follows demands that the players -- and the audience -- "question what it really means to play for your country," Plunkett says.

The Opposition premiers tonight at 6 p.m. on ESPN.

Follow Lindsay Toler on Twitter at @StLouisLindsay. E-mail the author at [email protected].