Soccer fans, like most sports fans, are always up for a good argument, especially the kind that can’t really be resolved. The more subjective the debate, the better: which player was the greatest across different eras, which historical team would win in a head-to-head, which league is the strongest, which country has the most aesthetically pleasing style of play. Questions like these don’t succumb to data or statistics but must be teased out, workshopped, read aloud like poetry. Of all the soccer questions of this variety, the one that I’m 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 most difficult to qualify for the World Cup? I understand that there are strong feelings on the matter—which I’m happy to discuss at length over a drink—but, unless you’re calling my father and everyone in my family a liar, the only correct answer is South America.
If you have any doubts about this, look no further than Chile. The current national team boasts some of the country’s greatest ever players, a golden generation, with stars like Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal, and others, who’ve played for the biggest clubs in Europe and won important trophies there. It was Chile that knocked Spain, the reigning champions at the time, out of the 2014 World Cup; Chile that won back-to-back Copa Américas, twice defeating Lionel Messi’s Argentina on penalty kicks. And yet this undeniably talented squad has now failed to qualify for two successive World Cups. They missed out in 2018, coming in sixth in qualifying, and again in 2022, managing only seventh place. The top four teams from South America qualify directly for the tournament, which will be held in Qatar this winter, while the fifth-place team heads to an intercontinental playoff. At the moment, the playoff spot belongs to Peru, with the deciding match, against Australia, to be held on Monday, the 13th.
Chile’s qualifying campaign ended in March, with a home defeat to Uruguay, after which there was the predictable hand-wringing, along with savage 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 weeping on the pitch. There was talk of investing in youth, of giving new players an opportunity, all of which faded about a month ago, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a possible second chance emerged: an unlikely—some might say unseemly—way for Chile to qualify for the World Cup after all. The truly great teams, it goes without saying, never give up.
At the center of this new twist in South American qualifying are a right fullback on the Ecuadorian team named Byron Castillo and a simple question, which, unlike the ones that soccer fans most enjoy debating, actually does have an answer. Is Castillo Ecuadorian or Colombian? Ecuador has declared that Castillo is Ecuadorian. Chileans argue that he was born in Tumaco, Colombia, and claim to have a birth certificate that proves it. If FIFA were to side with Chile, 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 contention for Qatar, and Chile, with two extra wins (and five extra points), would jump into fourth, qualifying in Ecuador’s place. The stakes could not be higher.
If all this seems unsporting, it’s also not entirely surprising. In 2016, Chile argued that another player, on that occasion from Bolivia, was ineligible, and FIFA agreed. Unfortunately for the Chileans, in that case Bolivia’s deducted points 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 litigious and inadvertently did you in favor is a very specific, delicious—and, yes, petty—kind of joy. We still laugh about it.
Castillo got his start at age ten at North America, a club known for developing young talent, and eventually made his way to the first division, where he now plays for Ecuador’s most popular and successful club, Barcelona of Guayaquil. That his parents of him are from Colombia is not in dispute; nor is 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 called General Villamil Playas, about an hour and a half from Guayaquil. An original birth certificate hasn’t been found there, but, according to the Ecuadorian sports journalist Diego Arcos, this doesn’t necessarily prove anything. “Things are very precarious in Playas,” he explained, and record-keeping is shoddy for everyone, not just for future national soccer stars. In any case, 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 dogged the player since early in his career. In 2015, Emelec, a first-division Ecuadorian club team to which he was to be loaned, rescinded the offer, citing irregularities with his paperwork. That year, Castillo captained the Ecuadorian squad at the under-seventeen World Cup, but when he was called up to play with the under-twenty team a couple of years later, the issue of his paperwork was raised again, and he was removed from the roster just hours before the start of the tournament. Through it all, he continued to play for other clubs, and was considered by many a talent to watch. Players who, like Castillo, come from some of the country’s poorest regions often rely on investors to pay for their training and early careers, in exchange for transfer rights. Sometimes these contracts can get muddled. The latest questions about Castillo’s nationality emerged from a dispute over such rights, in light of a possible transfer to a team in Mexico. An Ecuadorian businessman, Carlos Yazbek, a partial owner of Castillo’s transfer rights, claimed that he was owed money by another rights holder and brought up, as evidence of fraud, a Colombian birth certificate for a Bayron Javier Castillo, who was born in Tumaco, Colombia. In an interview with a Chilean newspaper, Yazbek offered to sell it to the Chileans. “I’m the only one who has documents in this case,” he said. “I can show the truth here.” The Ecuadorian soccer federation has argued that this was already investigated, and that Bayron, with the alternate spelling, was Byron David Castillo’s older brother, now dead. Still, when the Colombian birth certificate was published in April, the news went viral, and, soon after, the Chilean federation filed its complaint.
The media coverage of the case has been intense, and pressure has been building on Castillo. During a game with his club a few weeks ago, he broke down. After committing a foul in the box, giving Barcelona’s opponents a penalty kick, 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 federation’s case, urged Castillo to come clean. “There can be no fear in telling the truth,” he said. “A lie is short-lived, but can come at a heavy cost.”
Now the matter is before FIFA, with a resolution expected on Friday. Danilo Díaz, a Chilean soccer journalist I spoke to, was politely skeptical of the Ecuadorian version of events. “It’s not that the story is unbelievable,” he told me, “but it is hard to follow.” In Ecuador, by contrast, Castillo has become a rallying cry, a symbol, despite having played relatively few games with the national team. Peru and Colombia are also keeping an eye on the resolution, which could conceivably affect them: one possible outcome is that Ecuador is punished but the points are not awarded to Chile, and instead Peru moves to fourth place (and an automatic berth), and Colombia, now in sixth, shifts into the playoff spot. At this late date, however, the most likely conclusion is perhaps that FIFA will choose to leave the table as is—and this would mean that the entire 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 hardest region from which to qualify for the World Cup.