Throughout the global history of football there have been a number of tragic stadium disasters that have resulted in the death of many supporters who attended a game of the team they loved and never returned. The terrible events of Hillsborough in 1989, Heysel in 1985 and Ibrox in 1971 are well-known but in 1964 the worst ever football disaster took place in the Estadio Nacional stadium in Lima, Peru. At least 328 people died in the disaster with over 500, some reports claim up to 4000, being injured.
As part of the qualifiers for the 1964 Olympic football tournament in Tokyo seven South American teams (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay) took part in a round-robin competition held in May of that year in Lima. As the Olympics only allowed young, amateur footballers to compete at that time it was difficult to assess the strengths of the participating teams but as usual Argentina and Brazil were expected to do well whilst Peru had taken part in the previous Olympic football tournament in Rome and there were high hopes that home advantage would help them qualify once more.
By 24th May the tournament was well under way and when the hosts Peru met Argentina a fine match was expected. Argentina had won their four previous games to lead the table whilst second placed Peru had won two and drawn one and looked to have a good chance at finishing in the top three and claiming at least a playoff spot. Around 50,000 spectators had packed into the Estadio Nacional for mid-afternoon kickoff. Many of them had also attended the “Las Seis Horas Peruana” motor-race at the nearby Campo de Marte park earlier that day.
The Peruvian team was made up mainly of amateurs from clubs in the Lima region and contained nine debutants with the other two players having made their debuts in Peru’s previous game, the 2-0 win over Uruguay. After a goal-less first half Argentina took the lead in the 60th minute thanks to Nestor Manfredi. With six minutes to go it appeared that Peru had equalised through Victor “Kilo” Lobaton after he had raised his foot to block defender Andrés Bertolotti’s clearance. But to the amazement of the partisan crowd the Uruguayan referee, Angel Eduardo Pazos, disallowed the goal as he claimed that Lobaton had fouled his opponent.
Frustration soon turned to fury and one fan Victor Vasquez, a violent local gangster known as “El Negro Bomba” (“The Black Bomb”), climbed over the wire-meshed fence and ran onto the pitch to confront Pazos to widespread applause from the other spectators. He was soon joined by another fan, German Arroyo Cuenca, and then by many more. In retaliation the National Police Force of Peru severely assaulted the invaders with truncheons and set their dogs upon them. Somehow Vasquez managed to escape but Cuenca was carried off the field by a number of policemen who held him by the hands and feet.
The players of both teams quickly made their way into the tunnel with the atmosphere within the stadium quickly became even more inflamed as the spectators witnessed the violence being played out upon the pitch. Incensed fans tore down the fences and flooded onto the grass firing bricks and bottles at the police whilst elsewhere in the stadium small fires broke out. Jorge de Azambuja, the police commissioner, gave the order for tear gas canisters to be fired into the crowd. He said later “’I ordered throwing tear gas into the stands. I can not say how many. I never imagined the dire consequences.”
Panic now set in amongst the spectators and hundreds attempted to flee from the stadium to escape the clouds of tear gas which burnt their eyes, nose and lungs. Most of these had been in the North Stand of the stadium which had received the most canisters of tear gas.
Unfortunately the police had ordered the doors to be locked to prevent people leaving the stadium, in the hope that eventually they would calm down and return to their seats. As more and more people piled into the tunnels beneath the stands it proved impossible for those only there to escape and soon bodies started to pile up at the locked exits as people succumbed to internal bleeding and asphyxiation. Ironically it was those who chose to remain in the open stadium that were saved.
The Peruvian players had left the stadium without knowing the full extent of what had happened and returned to their training facility. As they listened to news reports on the radio throughout the rest of the day the death-toll continued to rise and rise until it eventually reached 328.
Other fans who had managed to escape from other parts of the ground run amok through Lima in a furious rampage. Shops were looted, cars were overturned and many local businesses and homes were vandalised. Two policemen were murdered by fans who held the police responsible for the disaster while several police cars were attacked, injuring their occupants. It was only at 8:30 in the evening that the trouble finally subsided.
In the aftermath the stadium was closed for 60 days whilst changes to its design were carried out. As a result the capacity was reduced from 53,000 to 45,000. The president of Peru declared a state of emergency that lasted a month and also ordered that there should be seven days of mourning for the victims.
The investigation into the disaster was led by the judge Benjamin Castañeda. His report, alleged that the actual death toll was much higher than the official figure of 328 and that many more had been killed by gunfire by the police in an attempt to control the crowd than by asphyxiation. He speculated further that the bodies of these extra victims had been buried in a mass grave located in Callao but no proof of this has ever been found. Castañeda also claimed the events were the result of a “sinister conspiracy” and accused the interior minister, Juan Languasco, of engineering the tragedy in order to “subjugate the people” in retaliation for the growing public unrest within the county. Castañeda was later fined for submitting his report six months too late and also for failing to attend any of the 328 autopsies as he was supposed to have done. The findings of report were also thrown out. No proof of the conspiracy has ever been uncovered and Languasco never faced any charges
Victor Vasquez, “El Negro Bomba”, was arrested two days later and spent many years in the notorious El Fronton prison, located upon an island just off the coast of the neighbouring city of Callao. Eight years later Commander Azambuja, who retired from the police force shortly after the disaster, received a 30 month jail sentence for his part in the tragic events. Angel Eduardo Pazos, who disallowed the goal which sparked the initial pitch invasion, continued to be a FIFA referee until 1975 and then referred for three more years in the Uruguayan league until his retirement in 1978.
From the Peruvian debutants who took part in the game five of them never played for the Peruvian national team again after that day. Among the others was Hector Chumpitaz, one of Peru’s greatest ever players who would go on to win over 100 caps for Peru and captain them during the 1970 and 1978 World Cups as well as during the victorious 1975 Copa America tournament. Guillermo La Rosa would also go on to have a long international career playing in both the 1978 and the 1982 World Cup. Of the Argentineans only Roberto Perfumo went on to future stardom playing in both the 1966 and 1974 World Cup finals with Argentina.
Despite the match being abandoned in the 85th minute the result stood. The remaining five matches in the South American qualifiers were cancelled so Argentina was the group winner with five wins out of five and qualified directly for Tokyo. To decide the second qualifier a play-off was arranged on 7th June in Rio de Janeiro between 3rd place Peru and 2nd place Brazil. A demoralised Peruvian team, still in mourning, had no real desire to participate in the match and were easily beaten 4-0. They have never competed in the Olympic football tournament since.