August 12, 2022

Football fans, like most sports fans, are always up for a good argument, especially one that can’t really be resolved. The more subjective the debate, the better: which player has been the greatest in different eras, which historical team would win one-on-one, which league is the strongest, which country has the most aesthetic style of play . Questions like these don’t succumb to data or statistics, but need to be teased, workshopped, read aloud like poetry. Of all the football questions of this variety, the one I get most invested in (perhaps because it helps explain why Peru, the country where I was born, has struggled so much) is this: From which region is it the most difficult to qualify for the World Cup? I understand that there are strong feelings about this – which I am happy to discuss at length over a drink – but, unless you call my father and all my family members liars, the only good answer is South America.

If you have any doubts about this, look no further than Chile. The current national team has some of the greatest players in the country, a golden generation, with stars like Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and others, who played for the biggest clubs in Europe and won important trophies there. . It was Chile that knocked out then-champions Spain from the 2014 World Cup; Chile who won the Copa Americas back-to-back, twice beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina on penalties. And yet, this undeniably talented team failed to qualify for two successive World Cups. They missed out in 2018, finishing sixth in qualifying, and again in 2022, managing only seventh. The top four teams from South America qualify directly for the tournament, to be held in Qatar this winter, while the fifth-placed team heads to intercontinental playoffs. At the moment, the playoff spot belongs to Peru, with the decisive game, against Australia, taking place on Monday the 13th.

Chile’s qualifying campaign ended in March, with a home loss to Uruguay, after which there were the predictable hand twists, as well as wild post-mortems of the team’s humiliating decline. The coach’s contract was allowed to expire; the head of the Chilean federation called the campaign a collective “failure”; the team’s stalwart defender Gary Medel was seen crying on the pitch. There was talk of investing in youth, giving an opportunity to new players, all that faded about a month ago, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a possible second chance emerged: in an unlikely way, some would say unseemly, for Chile to qualify for the World Cup after all. Really great teams, it goes without saying, never give up.

At the center of this new twist on South American qualifying is a right-back from the Ecuadorian team named Byron Castillo and a simple question, which, unlike the ones football fans are most fond of debating, actually Is have an answer. Is Castillo Ecuadorian or Colombian? Ecuador said Castillo is Ecuadorian. The Chileans claim he was born in Tumaco, Colombia, and claim to have a birth certificate that proves it. Whether Fifa were in the Chilean side, then the games in which Castillo played would become forfeits, scored as 3–0 defeats. As a result, Ecuador would lose a total of fourteen points, dropping out of the race for Qatar, and Chile, with two more wins (and five more points), would drop to fourth, qualifying instead of Ecuador. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

If this all sounds unsportsmanlike, it’s not entirely surprising either. In 2016, Chile argued that another player, on this occasion from Bolivia, was ineligible, and Fifa agreed. Unfortunately for the Chileans, in this case the points deducted from Bolivia also benefited Chile’s fiercest rivals, Peru, a delightful outcome for me and thirty-three million of my closest friends. Qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in thirty-six years is a beautiful thing. Qualifying at the expense of your bitter rivals because they got contentious and inadvertently did you a favor is a very specific, delicious, and yes, petty joy. We still laugh about it.

Castillo made his debut at the age of ten at Norte América, a club known for developing young talent, and eventually made his way to the First Division, where he now plays for the most popular and successful club. from Ecuador, Barcelona from Guayaquil. That his parents were originally from Colombia is not disputed; nor the fact that they fled the violence there to start a new life in Ecuador. Officially, Castillo was born in a small town of twenty-five thousand people called General Villamil Playas, about an hour and a half from Guayaquil. An original birth certificate was not found there, but, according to Ecuadorian sports journalist Diego Arcos, this does not necessarily prove anything. “Things are very precarious in Playas,” he explained, and record keeping is shoddy for everyone, not just future national football stars. Anyway, Arcos told me, birth certificates from Playas are sent to Guayaquil, and Arcos was able to find Castillo’s records in the national registry there.

Still, questions about Castillo’s origins have haunted the player since the start of his career. In 2015, Emelec, an Ecuadorian first division club team to which he was due to be loaned, rescinded the offer, citing irregularities in his paperwork. That year, Castillo captained the Ecuadorian team at the Under-17 World Cup, but when he was called up to play for the Under-20 team a few years later, the question of his papers was raised again and he was dropped from the roster hours before the tournament began. Through it all, he continued to play for other clubs and was seen by many as a talent to watch. Players who, like Castillo, come from some of the poorer parts of the country often rely on investors to pay for their training and early career, in exchange for transfer rights. Sometimes these contracts can be confusing. The latest questions over Castillo’s nationality arose out of a dispute over those rights, in light of a possible transfer to a team in Mexico. An Ecuadorian businessman, Carlos Yazbek, partial owner of Castillo’s transfer rights, claimed that another rights holder owed him money and presented, as evidence of fraud, a Colombian birth certificate for a Bayron Javier Castillo, born in Tumaco, Colombia. In an interview with a Chilean newspaper, Yazbek offered to sell it to Chileans. “I’m the only one who has documents in this case,” he said. “I can show the truth here.” The Ecuadorian football federation argued that this had already been investigated and that Bayron, with the alternate spelling, was the older brother of the now deceased Byron David Castillo. However, when the Colombian birth certificate was published in April, the news went viral and, shortly after, the Chilean federation filed a complaint.

Media coverage of the case was intense and pressure mounted on Castillo. During a match with his club a few weeks ago, he broke down. After committing a foul in the box, giving opponents Barcelona a penalty, he began to cry inconsolably and asked to be substituted. His teammates and fans rushed to send their support on social media, while the team promised him psychological care and launched the hashtag #TodosSomosByron (WeAreAllByron). In Chile, however, Castillo’s tears were seen quite differently, interpreted almost as an admission of guilt. Eduardo Carlezzo, the lawyer representing the Chilean FA case, urged Castillo to come clean. “Don’t be afraid to tell the truth,” he said. “A lie is short-lived, but can be expensive.”

Now the case is ahead Fifa, with a resolution expected on Friday. Danilo Díaz, a Chilean football journalist I spoke to, was politely skeptical of the Ecuadorian version of events. “It’s not that the story is amazing,” he told me, “but it’s hard to follow.” In Ecuador, on the other hand, Castillo has become a rallying cry, a symbol, despite having played relatively few games for the national team. Peru and Colombia are also watching the resolution, which could possibly affect them: one possible outcome is Ecuador being punished but the points not being awarded to Chile, and instead Peru moving to fourth place ( and an automatic berth), and Colombia, now sixth, advances to the playoffs instead. At this late date, however, perhaps the most likely conclusion is that Fifa will choose to leave the table as is – and that would mean the whole messy episode will have accomplished nothing except to add a new level of rancor to future games between Chile and Ecuador. That bitterness, of course, is part of why South America is the toughest region to qualify for the World Cup from.