The copper lining of Chilean football

Chilean miners?  heard it.  Chilean miners that played football?  been done.  Football clubs that rely on Chilean mines?  Hmmm.  Okay then Nick Rosano, tell us more.

Throughout history, everywhere from art to currency to computers to food, copper has shaped the way we live in ways most of us don’t even think about. It even shapes the fortunes of your football team….Well, at least if you live in Chile, the country that accounts for a third of the world’s copper production.

Looking at a map of Chilean football, you will find it littered with local derbies (clásicos), though one of the rivalries sticks out as peculiar. Separated by 600km of the driest desert in the world, Cobresal and Cobreloa play out El clásico del cobre, the Copper Derby, pitting two teams who live -and could very well die - with the Chilean copper industry, against each other.

Both clubs were founded in the late 1970s (Cobreloa in 1977 and Cobresal in 1979), but since then, the clubs have taken radically divergent paths, despite both existing under the auspices of CODELCO, the state-owned copper mining company.

Cobreloa, based in Calama, a city of 143,000, and inexorably linked to the immense Chiquicamata copper mine, emerged as the standard bearers for provincial football in Chile, reaching two Copa Libertadores finals and establishing itself as one of the dominant forces of Chilean football during the 1980s. Since joining the Primera División in 1978, the club has never relinquished its spot, and has continued to be successful in the 21st century, winning both the Apertura and Clausura tournaments in 2003 and the 2004 Clausura.

Despite Cobreloa’s meteoric rise, playing in the Copa Libertadores just four years after its foundation, it remains very much under the control of CODELCO. Originally, the manager of the Chquicamata mine would select the president from a shortlist prepared by the club’s 16 board members, and even now, the president of CODELCO Norte (the company’s northern branch) must approve any president elected by the board. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the presidents of the club have previously been part of the CODELCO operation in the surrounding areas, including the current club president, Juan George.

Cobresal, on the other hand, has lived and almost died with the fate of the tiny El Salvador mine and its eponymous mining encampment of 7,000 (which is not even considered a town). Naturally, the team has followed a fairly less distinguished track than Cobreloa. Like their counterparts to the North, Cobresal enjoyed a relatively successful run in the first division throughout the 1980s, even defeating their rivals in a 1986 playoff to earn their only Copa Libertadores berth to date, in which they won once and drew five times, failing to get out of their group. Cobresal arguably went one better in 1987, winning their first and only national title by beating Colo Colo 2-0 in the Copa Chile final, including a goal from a young Ivan Zamorano, who lit up the competition with 14 goals in 14 games.

Between 1980 and 1989 copper prices rose by 50% and continued to remain strong until declining back to 1980 levels in 1992, when Cobreloa won their last title for 11 years and Cobresal experienced its first relegation. Despite the economic shock Chile felt from mass privatizations under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1973-1989; the copper industry remained tied to the state by law and was thus partially protected from the economic upheaval. Though it is imprudent to ignore the on the field factors, including playing staff such as Zamorano for Cobresal and Héctor Puebla - a 16 year servant of the club - for Cobreloa, the undiminished ties between the clubs and Chile’s vibrant copper industry (and the funds that link provided) were an unquestionable factor in the rise to prominence of both clubs.

However, a club that is deeply tied to an industry such as copper mining will also inevitably face some serious obstacles. In 2005, CODELCO president Juan Villarzú announced that the El Salvador mine would be scheduled to close in 2011, citing high operating costs, partly due to the remote location of the encampment, nearly 200km from the provincial capital of Copiapó. Because of this announcement people started to emigrate from El Salvador and in the 2008 Clausura championship, Cobresal averaged only 1,238 spectators in the top flight, the lowest attendance of any professional club in Chile, first or second division.

The sharp drop in copper prices after steady growth certainly did not help things during the global recession of 2008. Both Cobreloa and Cobresal battled relegation and were forced to sell off their biggest assets. Notable players such as Alexis Sanchez, Jean Beasejour, and Lucas Barrios came and went through the ranks of Cobreloa, while many of the footballers that ply their trade with Santiago’s biggest teams have kept the two clubs competitive for a year or two before moving on to greener pastures. While these kinds of moves are inevitable to some degree given the market for footballers both within Chile and throughout the world, they represent a far cry from the kind of power the clubs could wield during the booms of the copper industry. Furthermore, the additional financial doubts put the clubs at the whim of potential buyers and could seriously affect the clubs’ efforts to contend for honours in future.

Though Cobresal explored a number of options to keep itself alive, including merging with other clubs or transferring its operations elsewhere, its time in the remote location at the base of the Andes was extended in early 2010 when then-president Michelle Bachelet announced a revision of the state’s decision to close the mine. This decision effectively gives El Salvador and Cobresal a ten year lease on life, but when 2021 rolls around, the dedicated few who brave the hot, dry days and freezing nights to see their team take on the best Chile has to offer will have to add a football team to a long list of things to look for as their work in the desert grinds to a halt.

You can follow Nick on twitter @nicholasrosano

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