Chile faces Brazil 25 years after player's plot to eliminate foe from World Cup

Martin Rogers
Yahoo SportsJune 27, 2014
Chile's Alexis Sanchez races against Spain's Sergio Ramos to get to the ball during the group B World Cup soccer match between Spain and Chile at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 18, 2014
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Chile's Alexis Sanchez races against Spain's Sergio Ramos to get to the ball during the group B World Cup soccer match between Spain and Chile at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – It happened a quarter of a century ago and while one nation has largely forgotten one of the World Cup's greatest and saddest scandals, the other never can.

Brazil takes on Chile at Estadio Mineirao in a round of 16 clash on Saturday, a matchup that has rekindled memories of one of the most extraordinary incidents in this competition's long history.

Back in 1989, during a qualifying game at Rio's Maracana Stadium that would effectively decide whether Brazil or Chile would reach the 1990 World Cup, a flare was hurled onto the field after 65 minutes with Brazil a goal ahead. Immediately, Chile goalkeeper Roberto Rojas fell to the ground clutching his face. Blood spilled from a wound in his forehead.

Outraged Chilean players left the field, fearing for their own safety. The game ended there and then and it looked as if governing body FIFA might award the result and World Cup qualification to Chile, on the basis of the antics of the Brazilian fan who had caused the ruckus by hurling the flare.

"I was terrorized," Brazilian captain Ricardo Gomez told CNN. "I thought immediately of losing the chance to go to the World Cup."

However, there was more than met the eye. The apparent victim, goalkeeper Rojas, was actually the architect of a remarkable and nefarious plot to eliminate perennial power Brazil from the upcoming tournament.

Rojas had not been struck by the flare, it landed six feet away from him. But, sensing an opportunity, he fell to the ground and gouged himself in the forehead with a razor blade stored in his glove, causing the wound and the subsequent cancellation of the game.

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"[Rojas] had obviously planned to fix it somehow," Brazilian journalist Fernando Duarte told Yahoo Sports. "The flare gave him the opportunity."

No television cameras had captured the incident and all photographic lenses were trained on the other end of the field, where the action was … except one. Ricardo Alfieri, a snapper working for a Japanese magazine, believed he had shots of the flare hitting the ground while never making contact with Rojas. Once the film was processed and images showing Rojas nowhere near the flare when it landed, the plot unraveled. A doctor's report was vague and Rojas had no burn marks around his wound. FIFA was incensed and the punishments were meted out.

Chile was disqualified from the 1990 tournament and banned from entering the 1994 version in the United States. Rojas was banned from soccer for life.

"People felt that it shamed the country," Chilean journalist Antonio Valencia of El Mercurio newspaper told Yahoo Sports. "They still remember it. This incident will not die with Roberto Rojas. It will never be forgotten."

Brazil carried on, going to Italy for the World Cup, where it lost to South American rival Argentina in the round of 16.

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"There was no real bad feeling in Brazil," Duarte added. "Most people have forgotten about it. For Brazil, it went to the World Cup anyway so it didn't matter. But if the team had not qualified it would have been a disaster."

As for Rojas, the hostile reaction to his actions in Chile led to him moving abroad, surprisingly, to Brazil. Brazil did not have any bitter memories and this country has an odd way of embracing anti-heroes – the woman who threw the flare went on to pose for Playboy.

Fans of the Brazilian football team hope to celebrate another World Cup title soon. (Getty)
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Fans of the Brazilian football team hope to celebrate another World Cup title soon. (Getty)

Rojas, who was playing for Sao Paulo FC at the time of the incident, ultimately settled in Sao Paulo. Even before his life ban was ultimately lifted, he was employed as an unofficial goalkeeping coach with the side, the club whose facilities the United States have used for training during this tournament.

"Chile is now divided over Rojas," Valencia added. "Some people feel he paid for the big mistake. He couldn't work in Chile for years or play for life. In Brazil, he reconstructed his life. He suffered a lot and some people understood that. But other people don't want to forget."

Rojas is not well. He suffers from Hepatitis C and is currently awaiting a liver transplant. He was considered to have the potential to become a world-class keeper before his indiscretion, and the man known as "The Condor" was named as the greatest goalie in Chilean history in a poll conducted by Valencia's publication last year.

Some Chileans felt that the team's 2-0 victory over Spain during the group stage, which took place at the scene of the Rojas scandal, was cathartic. "Like a washing of the face," Valencia said.

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Beating Brazil on Saturday might complete the healing. There is a lot to be healed.

Brazil knocked out Chile in the semifinal of the World Cup in 1962 (when Chile was the host), dumped it out of France in 1998 and again in South Africa four years ago in the round of 16.

Chilean journalist Julio Martinez wrote that "one can deduce that Brazil has become a permanent killjoy for Chilean football" – and that was in 1962. It's gotten worse since.

Maybe Chile has a chance against the host nation. It looked tough and talented in progressing from Group B despite a third-game defeat to the Netherlands, and Alexis Sanchez is a genuine star who Barcelona might later regret letting go, as seems likely after the tournament.

But Sanchez and his colleagues will not just battle Neymar and friends here in Belo Horizonte, they will be fighting against history.