Tennis: Pietrangeli and the dictators

The prospect of sending a Davis Cup team to Pinochet's Chile 22 years ago divided Italy - but their captain's battle to play was rewarded with victory
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The Independent Online
ITALY WILL contest their seventh Davis Cup final tomorrow, the first one at home, when Sweden visit the Fila Forum here. Italy's only win was in Chile in 1976, a victory threatened by the Pinochet regime.

Nicola Pietrangeli, Italy's most prolific Davis Cup competitor, was the team's captain 22 years ago. Pietrangeli's biggest struggle was against sections of the Italian government and his own tennis federation. Sports writers, political commentators and newspaper proprietors were also divided by whether Italy should send a team to Santiago.

Gianni Clerici, of La Repubblica, was then writing for Il Giorno. "I had to resign from my paper, because my paper was running the opinion that we should not go," Clerici recalled. "The tennis federation had been occupied by very lefty young guys who threw things from the windows. New words were adapted to Domenico Modugno's song "Volare", and I remember the leftist kids chanting, `Non si giocano vole, con il boia Pinochet' [one has not to play volley against hangman Pinochet]."

Rino Tommasi, of La Gazzetta dello Sport, remembers hearing chanting in front of the parliament building. "`We are not to play, even a set against Pinochet', and another one went, `We are not sending our tennisti, to play against fascisti'. The chanting was organised by the Communists."

"Socialists, too," Clerici reminded him.

"Whatever," Tommasi said. "Whoever, from the centre on the left to me are Communist. Gianni doesn't agree, but that's my opinion. My political position is extremely on the right."

Tommasi "went to war" with Gazzetta. "I was for going [to Chile], my paper was against it. One day I read the front page headline, `Why Not'. The article was not signed, but I knew the journalist who wrote it and I knew the editor agreed with the article. It explained the main reason we shouldn't go to play in a country run by Pinochet, blah, blah, blah, blah.

"I knew it was a unique opportunity to win the Davis Cup. Chile had the weakest team who ever reached the final. But that was not the only reason I was for going. It was because we had an economic relationship with Chile, Romania had an economic relationship with Chile, Russia had an economic relationship with Chile. Why shouldn't we go?"

Ubaldo Scanagatta, of La Nazione, was encouraged by his editor to present a balanced view. "I was asked to write the pros and cons," Scanagatta said. "Our readers were more central and right than left, so we were in favour of playing the match. I thought if we didn't go it would be even better for Pinochet, because he would have made a big promotion in his country about being champions of the world. But if it hadn't been for Pietrangeli, I don't think Italy would have gone."

The captain fought for his team's right to play where industrialists did business. "Pietrangeli was very brave to speak in public," Clerici said. "He said it was right to go to Chile, and that there were plenty of dictatorships on earth. He received menaces, anonymous letters and phone calls.

"The Russians had withdrawn from the semi-finals because they didn't want to play with Chile, so Chile went to the final easily. It was a tough problem. It was sorted out in the end. The centre party, the Christian Democrat Government, was formed, and we were able to go. Even I was reinstated [by Il Giorno] and was allowed to write what I wanted in my own column."

Italy won, 4-1, with Adriano Panatta winning his two singles matches and partnering Paolo Bertolucci to win the doubles.

"Pinochet didn't come to the tennis," Clerici said. "They had four generals who were running the country. One of them, General Leigh, who was in charge of the air force, went to the game. I remember that a helicopter, or a small plane, went very close to the stadium, and so the crowd got an occasion to whistle at General Leigh because the aircraft disturbed the players.

"The majority of people in Chile seemed to be for Pinochet, which for us was very surprising, because our press had spoken about a total dictatorship. Of course, we knew what he had done. He had killed people. But the situation was very tough.

"They still had a curfew at night, but we spoke with a few of the people, and the impression was that the situation went so bad with [overthrown prime minister Salvador] Allende that the majority at that time - it changed, of course - was for Pinochet."

Tomassi remembers the sportsmanship of the Chilean spectators. "It was one of the finest receptions we ever had from the crowd," he said. "South Americans don't have the best reputation - probably, after the Italians, they have the worst - but we were very well treated. And as soon as we won the doubles, because we won two singles on the first day, the crowd asked our players to do a lap of honour. The atmosphere was completely fair."