The Long Read: Deepest, Darkest Peru – The Estadio Nacional Disaster

by | Aug 11, 2018

Bradford, Hillsborough, Heysel. Chapocoense, Il Grande Torino, The Busby Babes. The history of football is pock-marked with tragedy off the pitch, and perhaps the worst of all came at the Estadio Nacional de Peru in Lima on the twenty-fourth of May 1964. To fully understand the tragedy, where it came from, and why it remains shrouded in mystery even in Peru, though, is to have to understand some of the changes that swept through Peru as a country throughout a tumultuous two decades from the middle of the 1950s on.

Common knowledge

In short, the “common knowledge” version of what happened that day goes something like this. On the twenty-fourth of May 1964, Peru were at home against Argentina in a crucial qualifying match for that year’s Olympic games. Peru went into the game, held at the Estadio Nacional de Peru in Lima, requiring a draw to ease their passage to that summer’s games in Tokyo, but were trailing by a goal to nil when, with six minutes of the match left to play, the Uruguayan referee Ángel Eduardo Pazos disallowed what would have been a Peruvian equaliser, an action which resulted in a pitch invasion, tear gas being fired by the police, and ultimately a crush that killed, officially at least, three hundred and twenty-eight people.

Well, let’s begin at the beginning. In May 1964, Peru were very close to qualification for the Olympic games and there was a feeling that this was a team on the rise. They’d only entered the World Cup qualifiers for tge first time in 1958 but had qualified for the 1960 Olympic Games, where they were beaten by France and Hungary before winning their final match against India. Their position was reasonably good. They needed a point from their penultimate match against Argentina, with Brazil awaiting in their final match.

A contentious decision

A capacity crowd of 53,000 turned out at the Estadio Nacional for the match. Despite a decent performance, however, Argentina did sneak themselves a lead, and time was running out when a cross led to a fifty-fifty challenge between Peru’s Kilo Lobaton and an Argentinian defender which resulted in the ball bouncing into the back of the goal. Referee Ángel Eduardo Pazos, however, had other ideas. There was already a perception of bias on the part of the referee amongst the Peruvian crowd on account of Uruguay’s close proximity to Argentina, and many of those in attendance were already enraged by his decision to disallow the goal when a bouncer by the name of Bomba – by contemporary reports “well known” – invaded the pitch to attack the referee and was stopped by riot police, and roughly taken from the pitch.

A second pitch invader, one Edilberto Cuenca, less fortunate than Bomba. He was taken to the side of the pitch and beaten by the police, who also set their dogs on him. This occurred, of course, in full view of an already furious crowd, who responded to this by launching a barrage of missiles at the growing riot police presence around the stadium. Their response was to fire tear gas canisters into the crowd. With the whole incident having taken only a few minutes, the stadium was still almost full, and the stampede that followed was a result of cold, blind panic. Thousands of people fled for the exits, but there was a problem. One was still locked.

Rather than standard gates, the Estadio Nacional had solid, corrugated steel shutters at the bottom of tunnels that connected to the street level, but why these shutters were closed with just six minutes of the match left to play is not a question that has ever been satisfactorily answered. As people reached the bottom of the tunnels, there was nowhere for them to go. As the crowd built up as a result of the locked gate and an initial reluctance on the part of those who’d made it that far not to go back into the chaos behind them, people began to asphyxiate. Eventually, under the weight of bodies piling up against it, the gate burst open. Rioting continued across the city of Lima into the night.

And here’s one of the problems with our understanding of what happened that day in Lima. The number of dead officially given only counts those who died from asphyxiation or other crushing-related damage, and it is almost certain that this is an understatement. No-one exactly knows how many the total number of dead might have been, although contemporary reports believed that it may have been as high as five hundred. It has been suggested that the police switched quickly from tear gas to live ammunition, and that there was a cover-up of this which began very quickly after things started to spiral out of hand.

Furthermore, the lack of detail over the rioting mirrors a lack political lack of will in Peru to ever fully address what happened that day. The rioting which took place afterwards was serious. There were further encounters between a mixture of political activists, angry supporters and the riot police which ran until late into the evening. Houses, a betting shop, and a Goodyear tyre factory were set alight by rioters, whilst there was a break-out at a local prison and at least a hundred cars were stolen. It is astonishing to think that it is still not known how many people were killed as a result of this horrific sequence of events, more than half a century after they took place.

Political upheaval

How, though, might this have come to pass? One thing that seems clear is that the haste with which events unravelled at the Estadio Nacional that day did so with almost unseemly haste – so quickly, it might be argued, as to make a tragedy inevitable from the moment that the riot police started firing tear gas canisters into the crowds. Well, it had certainly been a turbulent couple of years in Peru, from a political perspective. Two years earlier in 1962, a victory for the centre-left Peruvian Aprista Party was halted after they failed to quite reach the one-third percentage of the vote required to be able to form a government. The new government was overthrown by a military junta led by Ricardo Pérez Godoy on the eighteenth of July 1962 on a pledge to oversee new elections the following year, but by the start of 1963 Godoy was starting to show signs of wanting to outstay his welcome. He was in turn replaced by General Nicolás Lindley in March, with a promise to hold the elections in July swiftly reinstated.

That summer saw a victory for Fernando Belaúnde Terry, who was running for the presidency with the backing of the reformist Popular Accion and the populist Christian Democrats, win by a comfortable margin. It is understandable that tensions might have been high. The centre-left party might not have got the one-third it needed to secure the ability to form the country’s next government, but it did get the highest proportion of the vote. Under the Peruvian constitution, its Congress should have decided whether it was close enough to be given the chance to, but this decision was snatched away by the military’s decision to stage a coup, and a right-wing win in the following year’s election only stoked resentment amongst a proportion of the population. Under such circumstances, it might be argued, it’s small wonder that this particular match, played less than a year after the 1963 general election, might have been played in a febrile atmosphere for more reasons than merely anything related to football.

Bodies removed

Official obfuscation surrounding the number of people that day certainly doesn’t seem trustworthy. There is plenty of eyewitness evidence to suggest that people were killed by gunshot wounds from shots fired by armed police. The judge who was appointed to investigate what had happened that day, Benjamin Castaneda, later told the BBC’s Piers Edwards in an interview that he arrived at a hospital having been told that there were people dead from gunshot wounds only to be told that two bodies had already been removed. Castaneda concluded that the official death toll of three hundred and twenty-eight did not “reflect the true number of victims, since there are well-founded suspicions of secret removals of those killed by bullets”, before accusing a government minister of provoking the violence in order to justify a broader law and order crackdown.

Only two people were ever reprimanded over the events of the twenty-fourth of May 1964. Jorge Azambuja, the police commander who ordered the firing of tear gas into the crowd, was imprisoned for two and a half years. The other, you’ll be completely unsurprised to hear, was Benjamin Castaneda, who was fined for filing his report six months late and failing to attend the autopsies of all three hundred and twenty-eight of the asphyxiation victims. The report was subsequently rejected by the government.

The government of Fernando Belaúnde Terry, however, didn’t last that long either. Belaúnde had acted quickly upon becoming president of the country, investing heavily and improving social security payments. On the economy, however, he was not so strong and in 1967 the Peruvian currency, the Sol, had to be devalued. A year later, following widespread anger at his decision to pay the Standard Oil Company compensation for the handing over of two lucrative oil fields. Belaúnde in turn was ousted in a military coup in October 1968, replaced by Juan Velasco Alvarado, a left-wing military general who would run the country as a dictatorship for the next seven years before, already effectively immobilised by ill health, he in turn was ousted in a military coup in 1975, and democratic elections to the country returned three years later. Belaúnde returned as a second spell as president in 1980.

The show must go on

As always in football, of course, the show went marching on, although at least the rest of the Olympic qualifying games in the South American group were cancelled. With Argentina having already qualified for the finals, Brazil defeated Peru by four goals to nil to qualify for that summers Olympic Games tournament in Tokyo, at which the gold medal was claimed by Hungary, with Czechoslovakia claiming the silver medal and East Germany the bronze.

Brazil, who’d qualified at the expense of Peru, had a very unusual tournament. They were denied a win in their opening match against the United Arab Emirates by an eighty-eighth minute equaliser. They won their second match against South Korea by four goals to nil, only to see the UAE put ten goals past South Korea without reply in the final round of group matches two days later as they lost to the eventual winners Czechosloviakia to seal an early elimination from the tournament. The Brazil team of 1964 wasn’t the team of Vava, Garrincha and Pele, but the was still a major surprise.

Peru’s past & future

For Peru, however, a period of substantial growth in the history of the game in the country shuddered to a halt with the 1964 disaster. Olympic qualification is taken considerably more seriously in South America than in Europe, and the team’s 1960 qualification had only been its second, with it’s first, in Berlin in 1936, having ended in acrimony after a controversial match against Austria led to their expulsion from the tournament after a parade prevented them from presenting their defence to the International Olympic Committee against allegations from their opponents, who claimed that the Peruvian players had manhandled the Austrian players and that spectators, one holding a revolver, had “swarmed down on the field” during a match which Peru had won by four goals to two whilst having three further goals disallowed.

The IOC demanded that the match be replayed behind closed doors, so Peru withdrew their entire team from that games along with Colombia, with further expressions of support coming from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Mexico. There were angry protests at the German consulate in Lima at perceived interference from the German Reich on behalf of Austria, with Oscar Benavides Larrea, the president of the country at the time, describing the decision of the IOC to demand a rematch as “the crafty Berlin decision.” Qualification for the 1960 Olympic Games had, therefore, been something of a vindication for Peru on more than one front, quite asides from feeding into the feeling – swollen by winning the Copa America in both 1953 and 1957 – that this was a team on the rise, but this proved to be a high water mark in terms of Peru and the Men’s Olympic football tournament. They haven’t qualified for an Olympic games since.

The World Cup would prove to be more fertile ground for Peru. They’d entered the first tournament in 1930, losing their first match against Romania by three goals to one in front of just 300 people – the smallest ever to attend a World Cup finals match – and becoming the first team to have a player sent off in a match at the tournament, before losing narrowly to the eventual champions Uruguay in their other group match in Montevideo. Qualification for the finals in 1970 began the beginning of something of a golden age for the team. That year they lost to Brazil in the quarter-finals after having beaten Bulgaria and Morocco in the group stages before losing against West Germany.

Eight years later in Argentina, they defeated Scotland and Iran in the group stages before drawing against the Netherlands to qualify for the second group stage, where they lost to Brazil, Poland and Argentina – the latter in a match heavily suspected to have been rigged to give a misfiring host nation the goal difference they needed to qualify for the final of the competition – and in Spain in 1982 they drew with Italy and Cameroon before getting thrashed by Poland in their final group match to be eliminated from the tournament. This, however, turned out to be the end of the golden era for the national team. It would take until 2018 for Peru to qualify for the World Cup for a fourth time, and last summer they couldn’t get through the group stages again, losing by an odd goal to both Denmark and France before beating Australia in their final match.

Following the disaster of 1964, the government declared a seven day period of mourning for those that had died, whilst national flags were flown at half-mast and all public engagements were cancelled. A decision was also taken to lower the capacity of the Estadio Nacional to 42,000 people, and the stadium has been renovated several times since 1964. To get a sense of the scale of the Estadio Nacional disaster, though, we might wish to consider that even if we stick to the official death toll of three hundred and twenty-eight, the number of people killed that day was still thirty-eight people more than lost their lives at Hillsborough, Burnden Park, the Bradford Fire, Heysel and during the 1971 Ibrox Disaster combined. But more than half a century on, we still don’t know the exact number of people who died directly and indirectly as a result of football’s worst ever tragedy.

Further reading:

A contemporary report of the day from the New York Times.

A contemporary report of the day from the Guardian.

A superb account of the day from the Football Pink.