Football in the deep South

Punta Arenas, Chile, is pretty much as far south as you can go on the South American continent. Sitting on the Magellan strait, opposite Tierra del Fuego, the town of 130,000 is barely 60km from Cabo Froward where a cross marks the end of the landmass.

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The entrance to the Estadio Ramon Canas, Punta Arenas, Chile.

But even here, inevitably, football makes its mark. The Estadio Municipal Antonio Rispoli Diaz, a larger sports complex grafted onto the old Estadio Ramon Canas, claims to be the southernmost stadium in mainland Chile. Only its near neighbours in Porvenir and Puerto Williams are further south, and they are both on Tierra del Fuego. Even in the absence of a game, it was worth checking out.

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The main stand at the Stadio Ramon Canas in Punta Arenas, Chile.

The highlight is undoubtedly the crenelated stand. It’s some way back from the new artificial playing field, with what looks like a velo-track circling the arena. The stadium is home to Club Deportivo Prat, named for a naval hero who distinguished himself in action against Peru as the northern city of Iquique was secured for Chile. It’s supposedly the leading team in Punta Arenas, although with three local tournaments, there’s strong competition for that prize. But it has a somewhat run-down feel. Without a game on, the stand seemed forlorn and exposed to the Antarctic winds that lash the city. The uncovered wooden terracing opposite also felt like something of a relic; a diminutive winners’ podium lying pitchside seemed untouched for years.

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Another view of the main stand, with the velotrack in front.

But the game has a long history here, buoyed by waves of immigration from all over Europe. In 1898 the town hosted an expat England vs Scotland clash, recorded in a letter to the Dundee Evening Telegraph by a Mr. JH Foggie, one of the Scottish players. He told his hometown paper about the game in a town of 7,000 that was becoming “a second Panama” due to its cosmopolitan mix of residents.

The letter, which must have taken a while to get back to Britain, appeared in the paper on Nov. 12, 1898, and reports on a 2-1 win for a Scotland team that was “much heavier than the English, but not so fast”.

“The Scotch team was represented from Ross and Inverness in the North to Dumfries in the South, and was captained by an old Dundonian (Foggie), while Arbroath was well represented by A. W. Christie. Kirkcaldy more than did its duty in Nicol, a first-class player and athlete. Stirling, too, had a steady player in Forester. The match was voted a great success, and a return match is already on the cards,” our correspondent recalled.

Whether that return match ever took place is not clear, but football certainly endured. Reports from the Magellan Times in the 1920s carry accounts of the British Athletic Club competing for the Yugoslav Cup. An upcoming game against ‘Victoria’ prompted the warning that “they will be up against a first division eleven so some changes will be needed if they are to win”. Today, of course, Punta Arenas boasts no English-language newspaper; the old British Club in town steadily had to ease its entry requirements from ‘Brits only’ to ‘English speakers welcome’ and, eventually, locals of British origin regardless of language. It finally closed in 1981, property impounded by the Banco de Chile after failing to pay the rent.

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An old photo of football in Punta Arenas, on display in the town museum.

But this frontier town on a major world sea route didn’t only attract Brits. Young men from all over Europe headed here, often seeking a chance to shake off humble origins and become men of stature in a foreign land. Esteban Scarpa Kovacevic was among them, one of the more illustrious names in the town’s significant Croatian community. He arrived from the Dalmatian coast and played a key role in the local fire brigade, which still has its HQ in the old Croatian district. He was also a keen photographer and film-maker, and a recent exhibition of his life at the Regional Museum included a few tantalising snaps of early football.

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Scarpa Kovacevic and friends posing at the football ground.

In modern day Chile football is the sporting king. Back-to-back Copa America wins have put Los Rojos on every advertising hoarding in the 8,000km length of this country. The big clubs, though, tend to come from the big cities – especially Santiago, where Rispoli Diaz went to play for Colo Colo. Club Prat, celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, has enjoyed plenty of local success – seven times a regional champion since the establishment of the Punta Arenas FA in 1964 – but national recognition is more elusive. There have been four appearances in the Zonales Sur championship, one of which saw the team claim second place overall in the top tier of regionalised Chilean football. On three occasions Prat have played in the Tercera, the third tier of the Chilean league. Twice they’ve been in the Chilean Cup proper. Even at the edge of the world, the light of football flickers on.

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