BY MARK GODFREY
Peru launched a cross into the Argentine box, looking for an equaliser that would push them closer towards qualification for the 1964 Olympic Games football tournament in Tokyo. The headed flick on arrived at the back post where Victor Kilo Lobaton stole in undetected. His boot – raised barely to knee height – was met almost simultaneously in mid-air by that of the opposing defender whose swing of the leg connected with the ball milliseconds before that of the on-rushing Peruvian. The attempted clearance rebounded off Lobaton and into the net; Argentina’s goalkeeper Agustin Cejas seemingly more intent on remonstrating with the referee than diving full length to protect his clean sheet.
In English football, it was the type of 50/50 challenge that occurred on countless occasion during a game and went unpunished – by and large they still do. Even in continental and South American football, where the high foot is tolerated to a far lesser degree, the Lobaton challenge was innocuous. It was predatory; opportunistic. However, Uruguayan referee Eduardo Angel Pazos failed to see it that way and disallowed the goal.
Lima’s Estadio Nacional was packed to capacity that day, May 24th 1964 – around 53,000 spectators which equated to approximately 1 in every 20 of the country’s inhabitants at the time. With the game close to its conclusion, the fans’ consternation at the chalking off of what seemed a legitimate goal spilled out from the terraces and onto the pitch. Initially, two men entered the field of play. The first – a local bouncer known as Bomba – charged at referee Pazos but was apprehended just metres short by police who roughly led him away. The second man – Edilberto Cuenca – was assaulted by a group of police officers and set upon by their dogs in plain view of everyone. These two incidents, rather than the decision not to award Peru a goal, are the likely spark that caused the violence that followed.
The crowd were incensed at the unnecessary force doled out to two of its own by the Peruvian police; more tried to scale the perimeter fencing as various objects began raining down from the stands. As the atmosphere became ever more hostile, the police retaliated with tear gas canisters making the air thick with a vile concoction of emotional and chemical toxicity. Thousands of frightened supporters took flight and made haste for the exits.
This urgency resulted in a stampede down the flights of stairs that funnelled people out of the northern end of the Estadio Nacional and into Lima’s crowded streets. Had the corrugated steel exit gates been open – which they should have been given that the game had just six minutes remaining when the rioting broke out – then casualty numbers would have been significantly less than the eventual toll. But the gates were closed, and as those at the foot of the stairs found their way out blocked, they made their way back up towards the fleeing supporters and the rampaging police and their tear gas. The two converging waves of people met. The impasse proved deadly.
As numbers swelled inside the tunnels and on the stairs, the crush began extinguishing lives at an unprecedented rate at a sporting event. Once the exit gates eventually burst open and the bodies of the living and the dead spilled out onto the pavement outside, the extent of the disaster became apparent.
Survivors tell stories of being trapped in the chaos for up to a couple of hours, their feet barely touching the ground throughout their horrifying ordeal. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the dead were victims of asphyxia or internal haemorrhaging. The official number of deaths was 328 – the highest ever recorded at a football match – with over 500 more injured. All of those who perished, officially at least, did so in the tunnels or on the stairs. Anyone who remained on the terracing lived.
The scenes of devastation and destruction seen inside the stadium - pitch battles between riotous spectators and police - were replicated outside. The angry mob were confronted by armed reinforcements sent to bolster those trying to regain order inside. Reportedly, the police then switched tactics to disperse the crowd; from tear gas to live ammunition. Scores of departing fans were joined by others bent on causing trouble in the melee, leaving more damage in their wake – houses, shops, businesses and cars were torched. Twenty-one prisoners from one of Lima’s jails also managed to escape in the confusion. Witnesses claim to have seen several civilians either wounded or killed by police gunfire, and although none were listed in the official records of the fatalities, it is very likely that such deaths did occur.
The Peruvian authorities’ efforts to investigate the horrific tragedy and unfathomable loss of life seem to have been fairly listless. The 1960s in Peru – just like in many other parts of the world – were a time of political upheaval, civil unrest and blurred social lines. Accusations and conspiracy theories emanated from both sides that the whole thing was either an orchestrated plot to attack on the part of the crowd, or a planned incitement of a riot on the part of the police and the government so they could implement their own brutal crackdown. Neither suggestion could be corroborated.
One thing is certain – only two people ever faced reprimand for what happened; Jorge Azambuja, the police commander who ordered the firing of tear gas into the crowd and Judge Benjamin Castaneda who led the enquiry. Castaneda’s report was filed six months behind schedule and he failed to attend all of the 328 victims’ autopsies as was his duty. He was fined and his report thrown out. Azambuja was sentenced to 30 months in jail.
The Estadio Nacional has undergone extensive and repeated refurbishments since the disaster of May 24th, 1964. Today it is a modern, 21st century all-seated arena fit for purpose and safe for Peruvians to go and watch their national side take on their South American rivals. Sadly, there is still no plaque or monument to the hundreds of people who died in its bowels just over 50 years ago.