FEATURE: The Condor that tried to fool himself to the World Cup

SouthAmerica

The year is 1989. In front of a 130.000 crowd at Maracaná in Rio de Janerio Brazil and Chile play a decisive world cup qualifier for the right to attend the finals in Italy the following year. The Chileans have to win, while the home team goes through with a draw. The canarinhos take the lead through Careca in the first half, and looks set to accomplish their goal when the incident dubbed “the other Maracanazo” happens. The Chilean star goalkeeper Roberto Rojas falls to the ground, far away from play. Next to him a fireworks rocket burns brightly. The other Chilean players rush towards their goalie, and then carries him to the dressing room. Rojas leaves a trail of blood on the way. Chile refuses to return to play, and the referee has no choice but to abandon the match. The unthinkable might happen that Brazil will be denied, for the first time, to participate in a World Cup Finals…

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Chile eyes an upset

The story starts a few months before. Back then the CONMEBOL format wasn’t like the marathon group it has today, but consisted of several small groups of three to four teams. Only the group winners qualified. In this case, Brazil and Chile’s group only had one more team, the then whipping boys of Venezuela. Under such circumstances it was clear that goal difference would play a key part, especially after Chile and Brazil shared the points in Santiago. Before the decisive final group match at Maracaná, it was a race to beat the Vinotintos by as many goals as possible.

The Brazilians came out on top in that contest. Chile had to beat Venezuela by eight goals, but only managed a 3-1 win. Some of the reason was that the had to play their “home” match on neutral ground in Mendoza, Argentina. And without any fans present. FIFA imposed this punishment after several violent incidents during their home match against Brazil.

Hence the Chileans had to beat Brazil in the last match. A daunting task, no doubt. But the geographically slim country across the Andes was optimistic about their chances, something that was typical for the mood in the country at the time. After several years under the yoke of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the old general lost a consensus election to cement his hold on power (Interestingly, Pinochet used the slogan “Democracia, no!” for his campaign. Those who wanted him to resign, amplified the irony by marching in the streets chanting “Democracia, no!”)  . Now, Chile faced their first democratic elections since those fateful days of the early seventies, and all three president candidates sent emissaries to Rio to back up the national team. The media buildup was intense.

The Chileans also had another reason to bring their hopes up. After nearly three decades of disappointing results, their team again had lots of quality players. Especially their strong display at the 1987 Copa America (which then had much more prestige), where they came runners-up, and sensationally beat Brazil 4-0, raised quite a few eyebrows around the globe. Not to mention firing up their super-patriotic countrymen.

Maybe La Roja’s biggest reason for their success was their charismatic goalkeeper Roberto Rojas. With the nickname “El Condor”, Chile’s national symbol, he made his name with the Chile’s most successful club Colo Colo. His performances were so good that the Brazilian giants São Paulo signed him, where he instantly became a favorite with the fans. Both his solid performances on the pitch, and his sympathetic and strong character off it, earned him much respect far and wide. He was simply regarded as one of the world’s best goalkeepers at the time. Several European top clubs had him on their shortlist in a time when only the very best got professional contracts across the Atlantic. Not long before the crucial match against Brazil, he impressed the Wembley crowd with a string of brilliant saves, earning Chile a 0-0 draw against England in a friendly.

Blood and anger

But a bright career would end in that monumental encounter in Rio, a match dubbed “the other Maracanazo” (the first being when Uruguay shocked Brazil in the 1950 finals at Maracaná to “steal” the World Cup trophy). As mentioned, the Chilean team refused to re-enter the pitch, as they regarded the security to be insufficient. The Argentinean referee Juan Carlos Loustau credited Brazil the victory, as is custom when the other team abandons a match. But everybody knew that Brazil couldn’t celebrate yet, and that the incident would be fiercely protested by the visitors.

Rojas and the rest of the national team were received as heroes when they landed back in Chile. The whole country demanded that Chile should be awarded the World Cup spot, or at least a rematch on neutral ground without Brazilian supporters in the stands. The Chilean press had pictures of Rojas covered in blood on their front pages, with headlines such as “The war started here!” Hundreds of Chilean fans stoned the Brazilian embassy in Santiago, and the incident seemed to grow into a full diplomatic crisis.

Rocket queen

The controversy took a new turn when a 23-year old female named Rosenery Mello was arrested for launching the infamous rocket, which incidentally had the brand name “Condor”. The blond secretary admitted to her being the culprit, but pleaded that it was an unintended accident. Nobody doubted that, and her firework where one of many hundreds of objects thrown towards the legendary grass of Maracaná that night. Everybody now waited in agony for FIFA’s decision, and most expected a rematch with severe punishments to Brazil attached. It was not unthinkable that Brazil’s fancied star team had to watch the finals in Italy on TV at home.

A week later FIFA announced that Brazil kept their win, and even added another goal to make the official result 2-0. The Chileans fumed, and called foul play. Many neutrals sympathized. The president of FIFA was none other than João Havelange, a Brazilian. The investigation comitée was headed by the president of the Brazilian football federation, Ricardo Teixeira, and happened to be Havelange’s son-in-law. Both later resigned from their positions to evade investigations on suspicions of large scale corruption.

The Chilean football federation accused the investigation, which had almost a hundred detectives involved, of being a scam. Many columnists around the world also made the point that a World Cup without Brazil would be a financial disaster. Despite not even reaching a final in the two previous finals, the canarinhos were regarded as the most attractive team of its era. When TV rights and globalization made the spectacle of a World Cup generate unprecedented amounts of cash, it was not a point to be brushed aside easily.

Short “cut” to Italy backfires

But the investigation committee found several irregularities. After waiting over a week for the Chilean team doctor’s report on Rojas’ injury, they weren’t satisfied with its content, which was unconvincing. Roberto Rojas himself was strangely evasive when questioned, and gave contradictory explanations on the events. But the crucial evidence was a picture taken by a photographer from the Argentinean newspaper “El Diario”. It was taken exactly when the rocket landed, which revealingly was almost two meters away from the “Condor”. Some grainy video grabbed from the stands showed the same. The rocket never came near Rojas, who already had problems to explain how he got such a deep cut in his face, but without any burn marks around it.

Crime and punishment

The pressure on the São Paulo keeper was immense, and in an interview with a reporter from the Chilean newspaper “La Tercera” he cracked. The confession shocked a whole world. Rojas admitted the whole incident was a well-planned scam. Inside his glove, he had hidden a razor blade, and when the dream of reaching the World Cup seemed to fade away in the second half, he decided that the rocket that landed at his feet was the opportune moment for “Plan B”.

He was not alone. Team captain Juan Astengo was in on it, and as the first player over to check on Rojas after he fell, he was the one who sliced the goalkeeper in the face. Further on, he named several other collaborators. The kit man had the responsibility to sew a pocket for the blade into the glove, and to later get rid of the evidence. The team doctor had deliberately given a false medical report, while the coach Orlando Aravena also knew about the deceit.

FIFA’s sentences were unprecedentedly harsh. Roberto Rojas received a lifetime ban from all professional football. The team doctor lost his license for life. His assistant got a five year ban, while the kit man did the same. The coach was also sentenced to never participate in any international matches, and had to wait 5 years to do so at national level. Even the Chilean football president was sentenced for life, but was quickly pardoned, as FIFA didn’t have evidence on him being implicated. Strangely, team captain Astengo only received a five year ban, which was later lowered to just one year.

If that weren’t enough, Chile was barred from the next World Cup in 1994, even though the other players were innocent, and knew nothing until the truth came in the newspapers. This punishment was perhaps the most severe, as Chile had a golden generation at this time. Star players like Marcelo Salas and Iván Zamorano were at the height of their careers, and Colo Colo had several talented players in the team that took Chile’s first Copa Libertadores trophy in 1991. Had they been put together with veterans like Rojas, Yañez and Astengo, it is very likely that they could have made an impact at the finals in USA.

Return of the prodigal son

Instead, a whole country turned their back on the “Condor”, who went into hiding with his family. The Chileans could hardly bear the shame. Rojas’ career in the sport appeared to be over. But incredibly São Paulo’s club president gave him the job as a goalkeeper coach. Even more unbelievable, the same president later put Rojas in charge of the first team. The Brazilian powerhouse had struggled after their legendary coach Tele Santana had left the club, and had fired one manager after the other. Roberto Rojas, who never contemplated a coaching career until then, became a success, beating Figueirense 3-2 just a single day after he was appointed. He never won anything for the club, but with good results and attractive football, he is still regarded by the fans as one of their best coaches of all time.

Still, the club declined to renew his contract three years later after the club went out of the Libertadores after losing to River Plate, and Rojas returned to Chile. There he was hired as an expert commentator, and bizarrely had to give opinions on his former team mate Astengo, who was back on the national team by then.

The Chilean public slowly forgave their former star. His nickname, originally given as a sign of pride and appreciation because of his ability to “fly” from one goalpost to the other with little effort, had now turned into a joke. The expression “hacer un condorito” (to screw up big time) was born, also associated with the popular comic book figure “Condorito”, who in every strip said or did something scandalous. But he had always been regarded as an honourable man because of his voluntary work,  both for teaching poor kids football, and for his local catholic church.

FIFA terminated his lifetime ban in 2001 after international pressure, but a comeback was out of the question, as Rojas now had passed his 43rd birthday. But he played one final match. At Zamorano’s testimonial match at a packed national stadium in Santiago, where star players from both Europe and South America participated, the “Condor” was subbed in for the last twenty minutes. The crowd spontaneously exploded in a homage to their fallen idol, and Rojas broke out in tears. After the match, he expressed his gratitude. – “It means the world to me to be forgiven by my own people”.

Questioned on why he chose to do what he did that night back in ’89, he answered that he didn’t see it as unmoral at the time. Like most of the less successful nations in the region, he felt like Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay always had an extra help from referees and the federations’ decision makers. – “If I had been an Argentinean or an Uruguayan, they would never have given me a life ban!”, he exclaimed. But he also acknowledged that it was the worst decision of his life, and that his eagerness to lead Chile in a World Cup had blurred his rationality. – “It was my own pride and integrity I cut with that blade that night. Worst of all is that I also crushed the dream of a whole country, and robbed them of a chance to see a strong Chile in the US later!”.

The whole story is still a hot topic in Chile. Many believe it was all a conspiracy from FIFA, and that Brazilian directors had forced Rojas into it so that Brazil was secured a ticket to Italy ’90. Like most conspiracy theories, it is most unlikely. But many neutrals agree that the sanctions from FIFA were an overkill.

Sad aftermath for the protagonists

Roberto Rojas is now a sick man, most likely terminally. After being diagnosed with hepatitis C, his health has steadily declined, forcing him to retire from any kind of work. Short of breath, he can’t even serve as a side commentator anymore. Waiting in line for an organ transplant to extend his life, he hopes to see Chile qualify for the next World Cup in 2014, which ironically is held in Brazil.

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A least he has outlived his “femme fatale”. Rosenery Mello (pictured right), popularly called “Fougeteira do Maracaná” (the rocket woman), died in 2011 after a brain tumor, just 45 years old. After being released by the police in ’89, she became a celebrity, participating in several TV shows and covering many glossy magazines. She received €40.000 after becoming the cover girl on Brazil’s Playboy edition, practically becoming a millionaire by Brazilian standards at the time. But she revealed before she died that the money was quickly spent on partying, and that she was relatively poor in her last years.

The incident is arguably the worst scandal in the history of the World Cup. A poor decision robbed the condor of a great career, and if anybody knows about him outside South America, it’s because of this story, and not because of his qualities as a brilliant goalkeeper. He was perhaps the first modern keeper, and excelled in all areas of the discipline. Besides a strong and fairplaying character, he had lightning-fast reflexes. Combined with an incredible agility, a sixth sense to read where strikers shot,  and dominant when leaving his goal line on crosses, he had everything you’d ever want in a goalkeeper. He also acted as a sweeper, being decent with his feet, long before the back pass rule was invoked. That’s why people who have seen him in his prime don’t doubt for a second that he would have ranked alongside legends like Dino Zoff, Peter Schmeichel, Rinat Dasayev and Jean-Marie Pfaff. Instead he ranks high on the wall of shame in the annals of football history. Unlike the real bird of prey, which can stay airborne for hours with a single flap of its wings, this condor did like Icarus and let his ambition get the better of his judgement, and burned off his own wings. Roberto “El Condor” Rojas never flew again…

VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT

Pal Odergard

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