We hear a lot about the decline and fall of western civilization these days, but moral outrage at the behaviour of footballers is nothing new and, indeed, players at the World Cup finals this summer will have to go a long way to outdo the most serious incidents of player-on-player violence in the history of the tournament, many of which considerably predate the coming of colour television, to say the least. In this respect, the group match between Chile and Italy at the 1962 World Cup finals probably remains the most infamous example of a World Cup match that became something else. It wasn’t the first – three players, for example, were sent off during a quarter-final match between Hungary and Brazil at the 1954 tournament in Switzerland – but, even now, it sets the high water mark for outright violence on the pitch during what is supposed to be football’s showpiece tournament.

The second-hand nature of what went on during “The Battle Of Santiago” was evident from the moniker that the match subsequently acquired. The 1954 match between Hungary and Brazil had earnt the nickname of “The Battle Of Berne”, and prior even to that a match at the 1938 finals between Brazil and Czechoslovakia had earnt itself the nickname of “The Battle Of Bordeaux” after becoming the first match in the history of the tournament to see three players sent off. However, the clear back story, the fact that the host nation was involved and the fact that television pictures of what took place that day were shown around the globe combined to earn this particular match far greater notoriety than any of the pitched battles that had preceded it.

The 1962 World Cup finals, however, were shadowed by a human tragedy that almost threatened Chile’s very hosting of the tournament. The Valdivia earthquake, which struck Southern Chile on the 22nd May 1960 was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. It killed, according to estimates, between three and six thousand people, a number which was kept relatively low (to the extent that between three and six thousand deaths can be considered “low”) by the comparatively low population density of the area that it struck and the fact that many buildings in the area were built to take into account the amount of seismic activity in the area. For a country that had been in a state of slow economic decline for some considerable time, however, the cost was astronomical – the rebuilding programme has been reported (these things are never an exact science with earthquakes) at up to US$6bn, adjusted for inflation to 2010.

“Because we don’t have anything, we will do everything in our power to rebuild” were the words of Carlos Dittborn, the president of the Organization Committee but Dittborn died just a month before the tournament began, just as the race against time to get everything in place was finally won. In some respects, his comment was a criticism of some (including Italian football officials) who had inferred that the tournament should be taken from Chile, even though the Valdivia earthquake had struck more than two years before the tournament began and the rebuilding work was completed in time for its start. The most controversial pre-match comments, however, came from two Italian journalists, Antonio Ghirelli and Corrado Pizzinelli, who wrote a number of derogatory reports about the Chilean capital Santiago during the build-up to the match, including various assertions regarding the morality of Chilean women and describing the city as “a dump”.

A potentially bad situation was made worse by the reaction of the Chilean press, once they learned of the existence of these articles. One newspaper, El Mercurio, reprinted them, having first edited them to distort them, while another, “Clarín de Santiago” featured the headline “World War”. The desire of the press seemed to be to heighten the sense of patriotic fervour in the Chilean people, but the result was somewhat more extreme than this. Ghirelli and Pizzinelli had to leave the country for their own safety the day before the match, while an Argentinian journalist was mistaken for an Italian in a bar and was beaten up. The Argentinian link was significant for another reason – the Chileans were also unhappy that Argentinians with Italian passports were allowed to play for the Italian team.

It was against this highly volatile background that the two sides met in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago in their second group match, with Chile having beaten Switzerland and Italy having earned a creditable goalless draw against West Germany in their respective opening matches. In a futile attempt to try and pacify matters, the Italian players threw bouquets of flowers into the crowd (television footage shows the crowd gesticulating at the players as they did this although, perhaps surprisingly, none of the bouquets returned from whence they came), and the match got under way. One of the most enduring myths about the game is that it only took twelve seconds for the first foul to be committed. It wasn’t (it was actually about thirty seconds), but it didn’t take long for the atmosphere between the two teams to deteriorate.

Italy began the match reasonably impressively but the pushing and shoving didn’t take long to start, with the two teams initially seeming to be in some sort of competition to see which could out-simulate the other. The first sending off came after twelve minutes, when the Italian Giorgio Ferrini took a petulant kick at Chile’s Honorino Landa. It was a little swipe (certainly in comparison with fouls from both teams later on during the match), but it was enough for the referee, Englishman Ken Aston, to send Ferrini off. It wasn’t, however, quite that simple. Ferrini refused to leave the pitch and the match was held up for eight minutes while the police escorted him from it, kicking and screaming, and from there on everything started, albeit slowly, to descend into farce.

Every tackle seems over-exaggerated and every reaction to every tackle is likewise. It feels as if every kick that doesn’t smack against someone’s ankles is withdrawn at the very last possible second and the players, presumably concerned about what will happen if they dwell upon the ball for too long, seem in an ordinate hurry to pass it on (or, in the case of Chile when within about forty yards of the Italian goal, shoot) as quickly as possible. Possibly the definitive of the moment came when the Chilean Lionel Sanchez and the Italian Mario David got entangled in a corner of the pitch. David took a couple of kicks at Sanchez, who got up and – perhaps appropriately, since he was the son of a professional boxer – flattened David with a left hook to the jaw. Extraordinarily, Sanchez was not sent off, but David’s revenge was as sickening as it turned out to be expensive – a flying kick to Sanchez’s head saw him join Ferrini in the Italian changing room before half-time.

In the second half, the violence continued. Sánchez, who was evidently living a charmed life, punched one of the Argentine-born Italian players, Humberto Maschio in the face, breaking his nose. The kicking, niggly tackles, over-reaction and the general air of menace all continued apace, though. In the background, a football match was trying to get out. The Italians, down to nine men, were grimly hanging on for the draw that would have given them a fighting chance of staying in the competition, but late goals from Jaime Sanchez, with a header after the Italians failed to properly clear deep cross from the left, and a long-range shot from Jorge Toro that found the bottom corner of the net and made the two points safe for Chile, knocking Italy out with a game to spare.

There is no question that Ken Aston’s performance was considerably below par, and it seems as if every significant decision that he gave favoured the home side. There is nothing – not even, really, unsupported rumour – to suggest that Aston was bribed. Did he miss all of the significant incidents that would have punished Chile? Was he intimidated into giving (and missing) the decisions that he gave (and didn’t give) by the boisterous home crowd? Aston died in 2001, so we may never know for certain. He certainly seemed on the ball with his famous post-match quotation, that “”I wasn’t refereeing a football match, I was acting as an umpire in military manoeuvres”, but he never refereed a World Cup finals match again.

Neither side was formally punished by FIFA over their behaviour during the match. Italy were knocked out by the result, but won their final, meaningless match against Switzerland 3-0 to finish third in the group, while Chile lost against West Germany in their final group match but qualified for the next round anyway. In the quarter-finals, they beat the USSR 2-1 thanks to an uncharacteristically sloppy performance from Lev Yashin, the Soviet goalkeeper, who conceded a very soft goal to give the host nation the lead. They eventually came unstuck in the semi-finals against a Brazilian side that was infused with the brilliance of Vava and Garrincha, each of whom scored twice each as Brazil won 4-2 in Santiago.

A couple of days later, the match was broadcast in Britain with an introduction from David Coleman that would, if he had never had uttered another word on the BBC, have been enough on its own to earn him a place in broadcasting legend. It is an introduction (which can be seen at the bottom of this page) that is full of spluttering, indignant pomposity. This wasn’t just sermonising. It was the full Reverend Billy Graham:

Good evening. The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.

Perhaps, though, The Battle Of Santiago was the end of an era. Five and a half weeks after the match, the Telstar satellite was launched, and 1962 was the last World Cup that could only be seen across the world by rushing cans of tape to an airport and flying them home. One of the most noticeable aspects of the match was the shamelessness of it all. It is possible that, psychologically, the players only felt aware of the match itself and the crowd in the stadium. The notion that their actions would be seen across the globe was an alien concept, and it is worth pointing out that all of these “Battles” – Bordeaux, Berne and Santiago – came in an era when mass, global media was a pipe dream.

Although players are infinitely more aware of the cameras and the fact that the whole world is watching them now, we still get the occasional bouts of temper at matches. Four years ago, Germany and Argentina as well as Portugal and the Netherlands came to blows during (or immediately after) their matches. Somehow, though, the rage the seems to be coursing through the veins of the Chilean and Italian players almost half a century ago feels that much more raw and visceral. And if a fight starts during any matches and somebody starts telling you that players didn’t act like that “in their day”, it might be worthwhile pointing them in the direction of this match and politely asking them when, exactly, “their day” was.