The Chileans are not a particularly exuberant people, but passions are roused by several national enthusiasms – chiefly football and rodeo, which at their best are performed with electrifying skill and theatricality.
El fútbol reigns supreme as Chile’s favourite sport. Introduced by British immigrants in the early 1800s, football in Chile can trace its history back to the playing fields of the Mackay School, one of the first English schools in Valparaíso, and its heritage is reflected in the names of the first clubs: Santiago Wanderers, Everton, Badminton, Morning Star and Green Cross.
Everton and Wanderers are still going strong, but the sport is now dominated by the Santiago teams of Colo Colo, Universidad Católica and Universidad de Chile. Matches featuring any of these teams are guaranteed a good turn-out and a great atmosphere. There’s rarely any trouble, with whole families coming along to enjoy the fun. If you can’t make it to a match, you’ll still see plenty of football on the huge TVs that dominate most cafés and bars, including European games shown on cable channels (you may notice, too, that widespread exposure to English football has led many young Chileans to refer to an Englishman as a húligan rather than a gringo).
Football hardly has a season in Chile. In addition to the league games played between March and December, there are numerous other competitions of which the Copa de Libertadores is the most important. So you’ll generally be able to catch the action whatever time of year you visit.
There are two very different types of horse racing in Chile: conventional track racing, known as hípica, and the much rougher and wilder carreras a la chilena. Hípica is a sport for rich Santiaguinos, who don their tweeds and posh frocks to go and watch it at the capital’s Club Hípico and Hipódromo Chile, which have races throughout the year. The most important of these are the St Leger at the Hipódromo Chile on December 14, and the Ensayo at the Club Hípico on the first Sunday in November.
Carreras a la chilena are held anywhere in the country where two horses can be found to race against each other. Apart from the organized events that take place at village fiestas, these races are normally a result of one huaso betting another that his horse is faster. Held in any suitable field, well away from the prying eyes of the carabineros, the two-horse race can attract large crowds (who bet heavily on the outcome).
Rodeos evolved from the early colonial days when the cattle on the large estancias had to be rounded up and branded or slaughtered by huasos. The feats of horsemanship required to do so soon took on a competitive element, which eventually found an expression in the form of rodeos. Even though ranching has long declined in Chile, organized rodeos remain wildly popular, with many free competitions taking place in local stadiums (known as medialunas) throughout the season, which runs from September to April. Taking in a rodeo not only allows you to watch the most dazzling equestrian skills inside the arena, but also to see the huasos decked out in all their traditional gear: ponchos, silver spurs and all. Added to this, the atmosphere is invariably loads of fun, with lots of whooping families and excited kids, and plenty of food and drink afterwards.