Chilean sports date back centuries to a traditional Mapuche game called “palin”. Similar to hockey, and later named “chueca” by the Spanish, the sport is still played today, and since 2004 has benefited from public funding after being declared a national sport by the Chilean government.
Chile went on to participate in some of the first international sporting events of the modern era. It was the only Latin American nation at the first Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, where the Chilean Luis Subercaseaux competed in the 100, 400 and 800-meter races. Chile then hosted the football World Cup in 1962, along with other leading football events like the 1987 Youth World Cup and the 2008 Women’s Under-20s World Cup in 2008. In 2014 the country will host the Odesur South American Games.
The Chilean rodeo tradition, one of Chile’s national sports, began during the Spanish colonial era, and is now the main recreational activity in rural parts of the country’s central region. In a circular courtyard or medialuna (‘half moon’) two cowboys, or huasos, attempt to stop a young steer at a run. Though it receives less press coverage than football or tennis, rodeo attracts thousands of fans and in certain years has even enjoyed a larger audience than football.
Passion for football
Chile’s robust football tradition began when a group of British immigrants founded the ‘Everton’ football club, named after the English team, in Valparaíso in 1909. The passion for football mushroomed and when Chile hosted the World Cup in 1962, it became indisputably the most popular sport in the country.
The Chilean national football team is known as La Roja, or ‘the reds’. La Roja’s best international result was third place in the 1962 World Cup, and they also took third place at the 1993 under-17s World Cup in Japan, the 2007 under-20s World Cup in Canada, and the bronze at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
The fans and the public follow matches and tournaments fervently, including the technical feats of their sports idols. The Chilean national team often attracts larger audiences to its local qualifying matches than Brazil and Argentina, both countries that have won several world titles. In the qualifying matches leading up the 2010 World Cup, Chile’s fans supported their players like no other national team in this part of the world, with an average public of 60,000 per game – according to FIFA statistics, this ranked Chile 21st out of the 203 FIFA national teams.
The most popular clubs in the national league are Universidad de Chile and Colo-Colo. The latter team, which bears the name of a legendary Mapuche leader, was crowned champion of the Copa Libertadores de America, the main South American club tournament, in 1991.
Chile has boasted a number of world-class football stars. In recent decades the defender Elías Figueroa and the strikers Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas achieved world fame on the soccer pitch, with Figueroa considered the best Chilean footballer of all time.
Zamorano and Salas, who led Chile’s national football team to the second round of the 1998 World Cup, have also been distinguished by the FIFA as being among the 100 best players of the 20th century. Current Chilean stars include Humberto Suazo, Matías Fernández and Alexis Sanchez.
In 2010, the world witnessed the inspiring performance of Chile’s national football team as it qualified for the soccer World Cup for the first time in 12 years. Boasting an exciting new generation of players led by Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, the team achieved second place in the qualifying matches, their best showing ever. In South Africa, the Chileans played an exciting brand of football and advanced to the second round in a tough group that included World Cup winner Spain.
Glory on the tennis court
Chilean tennis has enjoyed a rich history of champions. In 1937 Anita Lizana won the US Open and was considered the best in the world at the time. In 1958 and 1960 Luis Ayala reached the French Open finals; in 1976 the Chilean Davis Cup team, comprised of Patricio Cornejo, Jaime Fillol, and Belus Prajoux, reached the finals against Italy; in 2003 and 2004, Chile won the team World Cup held in Düsseldorf.
More recently, Chile has made an impressive mark on the international tennis circuit. Marcelo Rios became the world number one player on the ATP ranking in 1998, a feat that no other Latin American had then achieved. He was later honored as the “Chilean Sportsman of the 20th Century” by the country’s General Directorate of Sports and Recreation.
Rios won 18 tournaments and played another 13 finals on the professional circuit between 1995 and 2001, making him the Chilean with the most wins on the tennis circuit in history.
Chile’s next tennis great was Nicolás Massú, who triumphed over a world-class line-up of players to win the gold medal in singles at the 2004 Olympic Games, Chile’s first Olympic gold medal in any sport. Standing beside him on the podium was his compatriot Fernando González, who took the bronze medal in singles, and the two capped off an impressive Olympic performance by also taking the gold medal in doubles.
González’s career went from strength to strength, and he went on to take the Olympic silver at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Ranked among the world’s top ten players in recent years, he was recently named the most outstanding Chilean athlete since 2006 by the specialized press.
Sport for all in the great outdoors
Chile’s favorable climate, privileged natural spaces, and excellent private and public facilities encourages a wide range of physical activity. Every weekend thousands of Chileans can be seen jogging or riding their bicycles through parks and squares, while a seemingly endless variety of sports are enjoyed by an increasing number of Chileans, including tennis, horseback riding, skiing, football, tennis, rugby, skiing, kayaking, swimming, polo and golf. For the more adventurous souls, the country also offers opportunities for extreme activities in the air, mountains, or water.
Each region of the country offers different conditions for a wide range of athletic activities. The northern part of Chile provides perfect venues for high-altitude mountain sports, including hiking expeditions up volcanoes such as Ojos del Salado, the highest in the world at 6,891 meters above sea level. More daring athletes can try their hand at “sand boarding” and paragliding.
Chile’s 5,000-kilometer coastline provides several spots with near-perfect waves for surfing, as top world participants of the sport discover at Pichilemu where the national championship is held each year.
In winter, Chile offers the best ski and snowboard slopes on the continent. Valle Nevado, Portillo and El Colorado, are just a few of the ski resorts near Santiago that attract tourists from around the world. In addition, Chile’s ski areas are the training site for many Olympic ski teams from Europe, the United States and Canada.
The Pacific Ocean and the reservoirs, rivers, lakes and lagoons in the central and southern regions provide almost endless options for water sports such as rafting or kayaking down river rapids, including in the Futaleufú River, one of the most challenging in the world. Chile’s fly fishing is widely considered among the world’s best by avid anglers who regularly flock to the country’s bountiful rivers.
This post is also available in Spanish