The banning of Chile’s Roberto Rojas

Roberto Rojas. Picture: Contributed
Roberto Rojas. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

THE SUBJECT of World Cup bans is on the lips of everyone at present.

So it seems topical to take the opportunity to consider the extraordinary tale of Roberto Rojas, more so because this afternoon Chile take on Brazil in a high-octane clash with echoes of the night 25 years ago when the teams met at the Maracana stadium, with their World Cup destiny also at stake.

Today in Belo Horizonte, Brazilians expect the talent of the likes of Neymar will be enough to take them into the last eight. In 1989, their hopes of maintaining their proud record of qualifying for every World Cup were reliant on a photographer, from Argentina of all places.

Ricardo Alfieri’s snapshots proved that a signal flare thrown from a member of the crowd behind a goal at the Maracana had landed yards away from the goalkeeper who lay prostrate on the ground, with his head bleeding profusely. But for a day or so, before these photographs were developed, Brazil had reason to fret, after the referee quickly abandoned the match.

Perhaps Luis Suarez can consider himself fortunate. After all, he can expect to play football again before the year is out. In the case of Rojas, he never played again, after Fifa imposed a sine die ban on the goalkeeper. Known as the Condor, Chile’s national symbol, for the way he swooped and dived around his goalmouth, Rojas, then only 29 and in the prime of his career, fell to earth one final time in that vital World Cup qualifier against Brazil on 3 September 1989.

On the face of it, it is difficult to extend too much sympathy – even in Suarez’s case, it is just about possible to argue there was an element of instinct, of red mist, at play when he gouged the shoulder of Giorgio Chiellini, although that is perhaps generous to a player thrice found guilty of similar offences. As for Rojas, the outrage he committed was premeditated. As the goalkeeper sat getting ready in the away dressing-room at the Maracana, the old place shaking as over 180,000 filed into the vast bowl, he carefully tied his stocking ties, did up the laces of the boots and then very carefully secreted a razor blade inside one of his gloves. This was done with the intention of cutting himself should it become clear that extreme measures would be required to sustain Chile’s dream of qualifying for Italia 90.

Required to secure a result in the Maracana, they had it all to do, certainly. But, still, in the days when South American qualifying for the World Cup was split into groups, as in Europe, Chile were a point away from reaching the finals, courtesy of better goal difference. Brazil had not managed to score quite so many times against Venezuela, who occupied the cannon fodder slot in the three-team group.

Chile’s first clash with Brazil in Santiago finished 1-1. According to Fernando Duarte, author of the book Shocking Brazil: Six Games that Shook the World Cup, this meeting was where much of the bad feeling felt a few months later in Rio was generated. “The Chileans broke all the rules they could, they put offensive messages on the scoreboard and they had Pinochet’s henchmen surround the pitch to intimidate the Brazilians,” Duarte told me yesterday, as Chilean and Brazilian reporters mingled in the press centre at Belo Horizonte, prior to the latest clash between the countries at the last 16 stage. “Brazil went 1-0 up and Romario was sent off after he lashed out – after he was bitten!”

Two years earlier Chile had also beaten the Brazilians 4-0 in the Copa America. “Brazil genuinely feared Chile at the time, they were clear rivals,” said Duarte. “They had almost taken the place of Argentina in that respect. They were a very good side, and for the first time since 1982 they were on course to qualify for the World Cup.”

So it was an intense, hugely pressurised occasion. But what was Rojas thinking as he ran on to the pitch, razor blade in glove? The goalkeeper would later ascribe his actions to a sense of blind nationalism, of wanting to do anything he could to benefit his country. “So intense was Rojas’s misplaced sense of Chilean pride that he willingly scarred his own flesh,” mused an article in the New York Times, from 1994. With Chile trailing 1-0, and the clock ticking down towards the 70-minute mark, Rojas saw his chance after a flare was thrown from the crowd. Missiles such as bottles and fruit had already peppered the pitch. However, this was an escalation in crowd misbehaviour, one that everyone watching knew meant Brazil could be forced to replay the match, or, worse, might see them disqualified from the competition they were so near to reaching for the 14th successive occasion since 1930. Although the projectile had not hit him, Rojas fell to the ground, pulled the razor blade from his glove and cut himself.

“I remember I was at my aunt’s house,” said Anderson Giorge Regio, from Brazil, now a sports reporter with Terra Networks. “I was nine years old. Everyone was together to watch that game because if we lost that game we were out of the World Cup for the first ever time.” On seeing the flare, and then a prone, bleeding goalkeeper, even someone as young as Regio knew what the consequences would likely be. In the end, however, Brazil were awarded a 2-0 win. It was Chile who were excluded from not only Italia 90, but also the following World Cup in the United States.

Rojas, who played his club football in Brazil at the time at Sao Paulo, was banned for life by Fifa – although perhaps offering some glimpse of hope to Suarez as he begins his four-month ban for biting an opponent, the suspension was lifted in 2001, allowing the goalkeeper to play in a testimonial in Santiago. However, he never did play another competitive game.

The identity of the person who it was discovered threw the flare added another intriguing thread to the story. Rosenery Mello do Nascimento was a 23-year-old secretary who, in the time it took a set of photographs to be developed, graduated from figure of hate to celebrity. She even posed for the Brazil edition of Playboy but died three years ago at the age of only 45 after suffering a brain aneurysm.

And what of Rojas? Having been provided with a phone number for the now 56-year-old goalkeeper, there was no answer at his home in Sao Paulo, where he still lives to this day, yesterday. He has been shown clemency by locals after his eventual admission of guilt, and is even married to a Brazilian. Perhaps he is on the way to Belo Horizonte, to take in today’s match? Sadly, no. The story has taken an unhappy turn. Rojas has been diagnosed with hepatitis C and is currently waiting for a liver donor to be found. He cannot move too far from home.

Nevertheless, I am assured he will be watching this afternoon’s game on television. Chilean journalist Christian Barrera paused when I asked him who he thinks Rojas will be supporting this afternoon – the country he once shamed, or the country where he has been allowed, despite everything, to make a home. “Who will he be supporting?…Chile,” replied Barrera. “He might live in Brazil but he loves his own country, always. He always says that you cannot change what happened. You cannot go back in time.”

In what proved a poignant postscript, Chile’s first return to the Maracana since that notorious day in 1989 saw La Roja last week resulted in the win over Spain that secured their qualification for the knock-out stage. Goalkeeper and captain Claudio Bravo was a stand-out and he later tweeted a message to the Condor.

“This is for you, friend,” he wrote, alongside a photograph dating back to when Rojas was a player at Colo Colo, a club in Chile, and Bravo was a member of a youth side.

Bravo later explained: “I dedicate to Roberto this positive episode of Chilean football in Maracana, so we can now forget the negative.”