ESPN’s 30 for 30 Soccer Stories – Filming ‘The Opposition’
With the World Cup set to kick off in June, ESPN has created a barrage of programming surrounding the massive global event—from short films, to commentator announcements, to this hilarious play-by-play of an awkward first date. Earlier this week it launched its newest offshoot of its 30 for 30 documentary series, dubbed “Soccer Stories,” a collection of films touching on international topics surrounding the sport. (More from an earlier article here.) We spoke to Jeffrey Plunkett, the director of “The Opposition” (airs Tues, April 22, 7pm), which looks at the role politics played in a 1973 World Cup qualifier match between the Soviet Union and Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Here is Plunkett on the project’s genesis, soccer coverage in the U.S. and the challenges of depicting a topic that remains contentious in Chile to this day.
You played soccer at Princeton. When did you know you wanted to cover the sport in addition to playing it?
Good question. I think I’ve always tried to find excuses to do soccer stories. I don’t do just sports stuff. In fact I’ve been in the current affairs space. But especially when the World Cup rolls around, I’m always looking for a soccer story because it seems like there’s a bit more of an appetite during those World Cup years. People outside of the soccer world take more of an interest in the sport. I’d love to do even more than those, but that’s how it’s been the last few cycles.
How did this project come about with ESPN?
The background with this goes back to Princeton. I initially started a documentary about [former U.S. Men’s National Team coach] Bob Bradley, who, as you may know, is a former Princeton coach and then took the Egypt job during a pretty hectic time over [there]. So I went over and shot with Bob and the Egyptian team during the World Cup qualifier in the summer of 2011, and put together a little reel to try and turn that into a feature. I just couldn’t find the right outlet for it and the right funding, but in the course of talking to people, including ESPN, I sort of got wind that they were doing these soccer stories in advance of the World Cup. So that’s when I went in search of another story that they may be interested in, and then find the Chilean one.
What brought you to the particular topic in The Opposition?
There’s a book by a British and academic by the name of David Goldblatt, called The Ball is Round. It’s specifically looking at interesting moments and critical moments in soccer’s history. And he spends a couple pages on this episode—not a ton, but just sort of mentions the National Stadium and that it was turned into a prison, and the absurdity of the last qualifier when the Soviets boycott. That’s where I first heard of the story.
When did you realize it could be a doc?
So with any historical doc the big first question is, is there enough archival material to tell the story? My hunch is that there probably wasn’t, but I went on YouTube and decided to start pecking around and realized there’s actually a ton of footage from the stadium as a prison—and also from the final qualifier, when the Chilean team plays against no one and has this absurd moment—certainly one of a kind in the history of soccer. Once I realized there was some archival material out there, then we started to push things along and get the treatment written and get ESPN on board.
There is some footage of prisoners in the stadium. Who was taking the footage? Where did that come from?
It’s a telling anecdote about that time and that period in history, in that Pinochet’s military government that came to power after the coup was not by any means ashamed about what they were doing. With the U.S.’s full support, they were rounding up people that they were thought were threats to the stability of Chile. And at that time, it was a bit of the Red Scare—so, anyone who had ties to the Communist party, or the Socialist party, or artists that ran in those circles…. It was this sort of paranoia that actually happens all over the world; it wasn’t just in Chile. That’s how both the stadium became a prison and also why they allowed—at different times—press in to see what was happening. A lot of it was a charade. They made a big deal out of having the Red Cross come in and show how humane these prisoners were being treated. But slowly the story has come out about what really happened.
Was it always your choice to have the players as talking heads, in the actual stadium?
Yeah. They were in the bowels of the stadium. A couple of them are up in the stands, but the other ones are sort of underneath. I think the challenge for us, with [co-director] Ezra [Edelman] and myself, was when we realized that it was just going to be a half hour documentary. You know there’s so much history to tell, both the domestic politics of Chile are really important and what’s going on internationally and the Cold War, the U.S. role, and business interests. There are so many different forces at work that lead up to [it]. The challenge is, how do you condense that? How do you give people enough background and context so they understand what’s going on, and not get sort of stuck in the details?
One of the things that we decided to do was to tell the story from the Chilean perspective, and from people who were actually in the stadium. So everyone that actually appears in the movie is either a player who was on the field that day, or a prisoner who spent time at the stadium, or a journalist who covered that whole period and was at the stadium at different times. Also, the Chilean Soccer Federation officials. Obviously the story could be told from the Russian perspective, or FIFA’s perspective, but with the limited time it made sense to keep it from the Chilean perspective.
Were there any production challenges to shooting there? Or any opposition?
No, there wasn’t. Everyone at the stadium was great. It’s still a very contentious issue within the country. The two players who we spoke with have always been sort of the outspoken ones. In the beginning of the film they talk about being kind of the black sheep. But other players who were there had no interest in talking politics, because it’s still very much that divide—there are still plenty of people who defend the military government, who think Allende was taking the country on the wrong track, that the instability was his fault, and the inflation and all that.
When we were first looking for a field producer to help us on the ground in Santiago, I was put in touch with this woman named Maria Jose… and so I called her and naively was trying to give her a quick rundown of the whole story. I wasn’t sure how much was known. And she cut me off and said, “Yeah, my uncle spent three months in the prison as a prisoner.” Almost everyone you run into—maybe everyone that we ran into—had some personal connection to that period. There are still wounds that exist and plenty of people who don’t want to talk about what happened—and argue about what exactly did happen and who’s to blame.
Did you approach everyone on the team? Was it difficult to get players to talk about it?
Probably the best known player on that team was this defender Elías Figueroa, who we ended up interviewing and not using in the film, because he just didn’t really want to talk about the politics of it all. Over the course of all these years, certain guys have spoken out, so we knew who was going to be vocal about this and who would actually give us the details of what had happened. It wasn’t hard to know that Caszély and Véliz were our starting points. We reached out to a couple of others but it didn’t sound like they were going to give us what we needed.
Do you think speaking from within the stadium influenced the players’ comments at all? Did it make it more emotional for them?
Yeah, a lot of them hadn’t been into the bowels of the stadium where the prisoners were held. So especially for the prisoners, it was a really emotional thing to be back in that space and talking about what happened there. Around the 40th anniversary was sort of a big deal in the country and in Santiago, so emotions were high anyways. To bring them back to the scene of the crime probably amplified that even more.
How did you collaborate with your co-director, Ezra Edelman?
I’ve known him for a long time, since college. We’ve been looking for a story we could do together. It’s not uncommon to find those folks that come to soccer a little later, who didn’t play growing up, but then realized how powerful it is—especially elsewhere in the world. And Ezra’s one of those guys. So the fact that I’ve been a long-time soccer fan and he’s a newbie made for a good project to collaborate on.
You went undercover as a soccer agent once. Can you talk about that?
That was before the 2010 World Cup. I was working on a documentary show for Current TV. We were doing a story about the really ugly recruiting practices that happened in West Africa as young players get recruited to the European leagues. One of the things we’d heard about wer these undercover games that would happen in the rough neighborhoods outside of Paris. A lot of African kids get to Europe through lots of different ways. Some agent brings them to a tryout and then when they don’t get picked up on the team the agent just leaves them. So there are all these homeless kids who have come up to Europe to play soccer and then just get stuck because they’re without documents, and money, and a lot of them end up in the … really tough ghettos outside of Paris.
They have these games, though, that they’ll set up when an agent or a team is in town. Basically you go and scout the players. And if you find somebody that you like you can pay the right people, and suddenly that kid has papers. We went with a correspondent to one of these games and I posed as a U.S. agent looking for players to come back to the U.S. so that we could see how that whole system works. It was called “Soccer’s Lost Boys.”
Soccer coverage has ramped up in recent years. In your opinion, do you think it’ll stick around after the World Cup?
Oh definitely. I think one of the great success stories in American sports has been the way the MLS has helped soccer grow. I was at a Portland game last year and Seattle was in town, and I never thought I’d say it but it felt like a European atmosphere. Where there’s that sort of support and emotion, I think the press follows that sort of interest. And obviously if the U.S. could get out of its group and actually make a run, it could only help. I think things are on an amazing trajectory for soccer in the U.S.