The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Chile’s Forgotten National Champions

For Cobresal, the past year has been like something out of a movie: a team that has never won a title became the Chilean national champion, only to be broken apart; an entire region was wiped out by natural disaster and rebuilt itself.

by Lauren Steele
Feb 18 2016, 6:15pm

Photos by Grant Legan

"Just like every story, this will end. When the mine dies, everything here dies with it. The town will die. The team will die."

Cristian Cortés Avendaño looks around Copper Stadium. It holds 20,000 fans, has lights that were installed less than 20 years ago, and manages to radiate bright white and glaring orange, somehow untouched by the dust of the world's driest region, Chile's Atacama Desert. This is where everything Avendaño knows and loves exists. Everything he knows and loves is the Cobresal Miners futbòl club, and the tiny mining town of El Salvador in which they barely prosper.

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As the team's media and business manager, Avendaño knows firsthand the story that has made the truth of the past year stranger than fiction. A team that had never won a title became the Chilean national champion, only to be broken apart. An entire region was wiped out by natural disaster and rebuilt itself. As he recounts it all on a hotter-than-usual winter day in August, Avendaño fights back tears. He gets goosebumps despite the harsh sun and sharp aridity.

Most important, he smiles.

The Miners practice on Copper Field. Photo by Grant Legan

Salvador sits at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet on a flat plateau in the middle of the Atacama Desert. There are roughly 7,000 people living here, and all of them are present for one reason: copper mining.

The mine was purchased 55 years ago by the National Copper Corporation of Chile, Codelco. Codelco is the largest copper-producing company in the world, generating about 11 percent of total global supply. The company originally had little intention of mining here—taxes were high, and many mines in the area were being shut down. So when the company did decide to commission the mine, its subsequent production came as a surprise. The mine increased Chile's total output of copper by about 450,000 tons per year; out of relief, Codelco officially named the mine El Salvador, or "the Savior."

Today, mining remains the life's breath of this wheezing village. The streets are highway-wide, the better to accommodate copper trucks, and are lined with split-level and ranch-style homes with russet red, white, and marigold paint jobs and fenced-in yards. The nearest city, Copiapò, is 130 miles away. Two flights come and go from the capital of Santiago to Copiapò daily, and 90 percent of the passengers are miners.

"People who are here are here for a purpose. To work," says Juan Silva Riveros, the current Cobresal GM. "No one just comes to Salvador. They are either here to work in the mine or to play soccer. That's it." Riveros arrived in Salvador as a Cobresal player in 2001. He came to play, but he stayed to work. After his stint on the field, Riveros was hired as a stadium technician, climbed the office ladder, and eventually took the lead as the team's gerente deportivo (general manager) in 2007. He is young for a GM—47 years old, and with no gray hair. But most retired soccer players are young.

Imagine Barry Sanders working at a car factory in Detroit after his time with the Lions. It seems weird, but that's reality in Salvador. Nearly six out of ten Cobresal Miners play until they retire at, on average, age 35. They then go to the mines to work. When you've been playing soccer since you were five years old, struck out for the pro leagues at 17, and held a career that requires no education and has a lifespan of less than 20 years, it makes sense to stay in the place that you have made your home. Players are established in the community. The families they created are here, and mining is good money. After Franklin Lobos, one of Cobresal's—and Chile's—most valuable strikers from the 1980s, retired, he failed as a cab driver and decided that mining was the best way to put his two daughters through college. Lobos was one of the 33 miners trapped in the San Jose mining accident in 2010, only 60 miles southwest of Salvador.

Midfielder Nelson Sepúlveda came to Salvador from the hard-knock neighborhoods of Santiago to play for Cobresal at the age of 17. Now, at the youthful age of 24, he is considered a team veteran. He wants his future to be the Salvador exception. "I want to play for Cobresal until I can play no more," he says as he holds his two-year-old daughter, Agustina. When I ask him about fearing a fate similar to Lobos, he looks at me as if he already has it all figured out. "I graduated high school at 16 and got my certificate in accounting before I came to play professionally. But no matter what happens, I will always owe what I have become to Cobresal."

Juan Silva Riveros in his office. Photo by Grant Legan

Cobresal began as a ragtag amateur club in 1979, commissioned as a trial to determine how mining camps could benefit economically from the presence of a fútbol club. From the trial phase, they played their way up into the Asociación Nacional de Fútbol Profesional (ANFP) league system. The club is and always has been owned by Codelco and run under an associative business model. Today, there are 1,700 associates who each pay the annual fee of 7,000 Chilean pesos to support the club; more than 700 of them go to work every day in the copper mine visible from the stadium. Their fees, along with the investments from Codelco, keep the club alive. Associates and their families are granted access to team's grounds, so if you walk into the weight room on any given day, you'll see miners bench-pressing alongside the team captain. The gym's log-in book is brimming with years' worth of scrawled names in smudged pencil and smeary ink—some signatures, others autographs.

After a tumultuous decade with multiple relegations in the 1990s, the Cobresal Miners have remained in the top-tier Chilean Primera Divisiòn since 2001. They've finished the majority of those seasons at the bottom of the league rankings, unable to compete with the most successful and popular clubs in Chile, Colo-Colo and Universidad Católica. Both teams are located in the capital city; both enjoy lucrative sponsorship deals that allow them to sign Chile's best players; both play in beautiful arenas; both have name-brand kits. They are perennial favorites in the Primera División Clausura Cup Championship, which every spring decides the league's champion. Colo-Colo alone has won the title 30 times.

Last year, Cobresal entered the Clausura Tournament with a rare winning record in the regular season. That's when disaster struck. On March 25, flash floods and mudflow destroyed Atacama. In a region where the average rainfall is 0.06 inches, the two inches that came down from a freak low-pressure system that day was too much for the desert's hard, rocky ground to absorb. The Copiapó River, which had been dry for 17 years, overflowed and gushed across everything in its path, causing more than $1.5 billion of damage. The mudflows killed at least 26 people; thousands more were displaced. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of emergency.

Codelco had to suspend operations due to blocked roads in Salvador. The entire town was shut down. The Copper Stadium Field lost all of its grass. There was no running water. There was no work. There were no soccer games. A video taken of the players in the weeks following the flood by Avendaño shows them taking post-practice showers by pouring jugs of water on each other. In order to continue their season and the tournament, Cobresal had to relocate to Santiago. The team lived together in a hotel, separated from their families and their community in crisis, for 34 days. Through it all, they continued to win matches and climb the rankings in the tournament.

"Coach Dalcio [Giovagnolli] always said that we must play for the men who fill their lungs with dirt to be able to pay to watch our games, for the people who suffer and still work hard to make life better every day," said Johan Fuentes, the Cobresal captain. "But after the flood, we were doing it for not only the miners but for everyone. Everyone who had lost everything. We felt the loss, and we wanted to bring a blessing. To prove that there is hope."

By April 26, just one month after the floods struck, the Miners were in position to win their first championship in club history—and they had the chance to do so on their home turf. It turned out that the players weren't the only ones trying to prove something. For weeks, volunteers from the Atacama region banded together to re-turf the Cobresal Field. They fixed toilets, repainted walls, replaced water pipes, and prepared the stadium so that it was ready to host the last game of the season.

"That day, we went on the field knowing it was our day," said Sepúlveda, the midfielder.

Captain Johan Fuentes. Photo by Grant Legan

In order to end the Clausura tournament with the most points and take home the trophy, Cobresal needed to win their last match, against 10th-ranked club Barnechea. They also needed Católica to lose against Deportes Iquique. Any other outcome and the first-place Colo-Colo would become champion yet again.

The games, separated by more than 600 miles, kicked off at the exact same time, with the Miners' season hanging in the balance. By the 40-minute mark, Católica was up 3-0, and Cobresal was down 2-0. In the locker room, according to Fuentes, Giovagnolli gave an emotional motivational speech: "He was saying, 'You are here. You are playing this game. You better fucking play it for everyone who fought to be here. Who fought for you to be here. You fought for yourselves to be here. Go fucking play this game. Play with your feet. Play with your heart. Play with your team. Play as miners."

Cobresal answered Barnechea with two goals, tying the game. Over the radio, Avendaño received news that Iquique had also tied Católica, 3-3. Sepúlveda, who had been injured earlier and had heard the radio, was sent back in. He told his teammates of Iquique's tie in Santiago. With four minutes left in the game, a penalty was called on Barnechea.

Cobresal's top scorer, Matias Donoso, stepped to the line. He scored. While the team celebrated the goal, it was announced that during the penalty kick, Iquique had scored another goal in Santiago, putting them in the lead, 4-3. Everything was finally lining up in the favor of Cobresal. They had the lead in Salvador and Iquique had the lead in Santiago. But as time expired and Cobresal clenched the win 3-2 against Barnechea, there was a penalty called on Iquique. Católica had the opportunity to score, tie the game, and take the championship title away from Cobresal.

For the longest 40 seconds ever experienced in Salvador, Cobresal waited for the radio waves to give them the verdict of Católica's penalty kick opportunity. Finally, the news arrived: Católica missed. All 7,000 fans in the stands—more than the population of Salvador, but not enough to even fill one-third of the stadium—erupted. They organized seven cheer chants to celebrate the three points of their beloved miners and the four of their allies that day, the team of Iquique.

"We felt the angels were for us that day," says Fuentes. "We knew that we were meant to be champions."

Like any major national championship, Chile's Clausura title usually comes with traditional trappings: a parade, television specials, endorsement deals, sponsorship money, fame. But none of this came to Cobresal. At Copper Stadium on April 26, there were just a few still cameras and a small podium. In the days following the victory, a handful of stories trickled out about the Chilean desert underdogs who won their first national championship—but there was no recognition of the practices that ended in water-jug showers, no recounting of the 34 days spent in a hotel far from home, no tie to the disaster of the floods. No sponsorship deals were offered to the team. And there certainly have been no follow-up stories on the life of David after Goliath.

Following the tournament, China's sagging economy drove copper prices down. The team earned no extra money. When richer clubs wanted Chile's newest champion players, Cobresal could not afford to counter-offer. Ten players were sold to other teams. New players on cheaper contracts were brought in. Fuentes and Sepúlveda are the only remaining players from the 2014-15 season. Coach Dalcio Giovagnolli was also offered a new gig elsewhere, but instead ended up leaving Salvador and going off the grid, saying that he had done all he could do: he believed that he had reached the pinnacle, and didn't want to face a comedown. A team that came together as underdog champs in May became a group of strangers by June.

As Clausura champion, Cobresal entered the 2015-16 season with the first-place ranking, but they since have fallen to 10th place. A new coach was brought on to replace Giovagnolli; he was quickly released. Giovagnolli has since returned to the helm. This week, the Miners made their first Copa Libertadores appearance since 1986, when Franklin Lobos was on the field.

Existential dread lingers over everything. In 2005, Codelco made plans to shut down El Salvador by 2011 due to declining ore grades and increased costs. Since then, the company has decided to extend the mine's life by an additional 15 to 20 years. This only puts off the inevitable end. Perhaps of everything.

"We don't talk about the mine closing to the players, because we don't want them to worry about it, but the reality is, we are going to run out of copper and we are going to run out of time," Riveros says. "There is always the chance that we could have a sponsorship or be bought by a private owner, but it would not be the same. We cannot be the Cobresal Miners without the spirit of the miners, without a mine. Nothing will be the same when the mine goes. Salvador will become a ghost town."

In mining, you dig and dig and dig; you move tons of rock; and you uncover ounces of precious metal. A lot of work for a little yield, but in the end, it can be worth it. That's what keeps the smile on Avendaño's face.