The sensational plot of Roberto ‘Cóndor’ Rojas to eliminate Brazil from World Cup qualification

The sensational plot of Roberto ‘Cóndor’ Rojas to eliminate Brazil from World Cup qualification

AMONG LATIN AMERICAN COUNTRIES there is a shared opinion that one thing is understanding the Spanish language and a completely different thing is understanding Chilean Spanish. Full of slangs and rapidly spoken by their people, they even saw a book called How to survive in the Chilean jungle appear in their bookstores aimed at helping foreigners understand and communicate with locals.

The word condoro, which officially means ‘severe and embarrassing clumsiness’, but is colloquially used to refer to foolish and avoidable mistakes, is one that appeared in the book and is broadly use by Chileans. The origin of the word is attributed to Roberto Rojas, nicknamed Cóndor, one of the best goalkeepers Chile has seen in its history, and that on the evening of 3 September 1989, made the biggest condoro of his life.

Roberto Rojas was born on 8 August 1957 and started his professional career in 1976 at Deportes de Aviación, a small team based in Chile’s capital city, Santiago. His solid performances aided his transfer in 1982 to the country’s most popular team, Colo-Colo, and prompted his first appearance for the national side, in a 1-0 loss against rivals Argentina.

His impressive agility and acrobatic saves at both teams and with La Roja earned him the nickname of Cóndor, a common bird in the Andes Mountains in Chile and part of the national coat of arms. He was already being compared to Sergio Livingstone, at the time the best goalkeeper in Chile’s history and nicknamed the ‘Frog’ for his incredibly high jumps.

His time at Colo-Colo, between 1982 and 1987, saw him bring home two league championships, in 1983 and 1986, and two cup titles, in his debut year and in 1985. His skills were also key in the remarkable performance of Chile at the 1987 Copa América, hosted by Argentina, where they lost the final against Uruguay 1-0.

Most unforgettable, however, was the game Chile played against Brazil in the group stage, hammering them 4-0 and eliminating the Seleção from the tournament. These performances put the eyes of continental giant São Paulo on Rojas, and a couple of days after the tournament, he was signing a contract for the Tricolor, where he stayed until the end of his career.

Since hosting and reaching the third place in the 1962 World Cup, Chile struggled to make an impact in subsequent tournaments. Only qualifying for the England 1966, Germany 1974 and Spain 1982 World Cups, the South Americans were not able to go further the group stage in any of them. Not much better was their performances at the Copa América.

Between 1962 and the final they reached in 1987, they were only able to reach one more final, in 1979, that they lost to Paraguay in a three-game knockout that was decided by goal difference, one game won by each team and one draw.

After years of being a regular but not highly competitive team, the Copa América performance in 1987 was bringing hope to the passionate fans, hungry for better results for their national team. A new generation of players were reaching their zeniths at their clubs, including Rojas, Fernando Astengo, a defender playing for Grêmio, Patricio Yañez, a pacey forward triumphing at Spain’s Real Betis, and Jorge Aravena, a gifted midfielder who succeeded in Chile, Colombia, Spain and Mexico. They were the leaders of an ambitious group of players that wanted to make history for their country, and the World Cup to be hosted by Italy in 1990 was supposed to be the perfect stage for their most important performance.

South American teams were granted three automatic spaces in the World Cup plus a fourth one that would be decided in a game against a team from Oceania. But because Argentina automatically qualified as the holders, the direct spaces were reduced to two. The nine teams were divided into three groups, where the winner of each group would qualify; the best two winners were given a direct space at the World Cup and the worst group winner would play against the Oceania team.

Chile was placed in group three along with Brazil and Venezuela, and in the first game against Venezuela in Caracas, La Roja managed to bring home victory with a comfortable 3-1 win. The second game would see a rematch of the Copa América humiliation for Brazil, but in Santiago the game ended 1-1. Chile then defeated Venezuela again – this time 5-0 – and after Brazil’s two victories against the Vinotinto, everything would be decided in the last game at Brazil’s Maracaná between the local heroes and Chile.

Brazil had never missed a World Cup finals, and thirsty for revenge after their embarrassing Copa defeat, 160,000 souls flocked to the historic stadium located in Rio de Janeiro. A draw was enough for the hosts because of their better goal difference, hence the stage was set for a national party.

With an all-star team composed of super-talents like Bebeto and Careca in attack, the running machine of Dunga covering the midfield, and the legendary Taffarel between the sticks, there was little doubt in the stadium, and in the whole country, that their team would be securing the tickets to Italy.

On the other side, hopes in Chile were high for a miracle. In the need for a win, Roberto ‘Cóndor’ Rojas would have a key role in having to contain Brazil’s fearsome attack. But four minutes into the second half, a superb counter-attack through the middle of the pitch saw Careca fire in an easy-to-save left-footed effort that elicited a weak response from Rojas, securing the opener for Brazil in the process. If things were hard before the game, now the path to Italy was close to impossible for Chile. Rojas understood this.

Rosenery Mello do Nascimento was one of thousands of fans at the Maracanã enjoying how her national team was securing a space at the next World Cup. A big fan of local team Fluminense, she was close to the goal defended by Rojas and had a privileged view of the goal scored by Careca 18 minutes before. Excited, like everyone around her, she threw a flare into the air that, to her (bad) luck, landed around Rojas, who suddenly fell to the floor in pain, his hands on his face.

Worse than that, just a couple of seconds later, his face was full of blood. Little did Rosenery know, she had just become Brazil’s most hated person, and also its biggest celebrity, earning her the nickname of La Fogueteira, referring to someone who builds and commercialises pyrotechnic products.

The Chilean team, scared of the attack against their goalkeeper, decided to leave the field, claiming a lack of security to continue the game. Another slang in Chile was born, as Patricio Yañez made an obscene gesture to Brazilian fans by grabbing his genitals, something now known in Chile as ‘doing a Pato Yañez’.

Argentine referee Juan Carlos Loustau tried for several minutes to convince the Chileans to go back and finish the game, but his efforts proved unsuccessful. Brazilians could not believe what was happening, and the incident, if deemed so by CONMEBOL, would surely mean disqualification for their team.

Ricardo Texeira, photographer and now football agent, was pitchside when Rojas fell to the floor, blood all around his face. He had seen the flare landing close to Rojas but was sure it had not hit him. He didn’t capture the incident, but luckily for him – and the whole country – his friend standing next to him, Ricardo Alfieri, had taken several shots of the sequence. 

Working for a Japanese magazine, Alfieri had orders to send the unprocessed films to Tokyo, but with a friendly but clear threat, Teixeira said to him, “I will not let you leave my country with those films unprocessed.” It was enough for Texeira to take possession of the evidence. After a couple of hours, he had already talked to several radio stations and delivered the unprocessed films to CBF president, Ricardo Texeira.

The next morning, the pictures were broadcast all around the country, while President Texeira flew to Switzerland to present the evidence to FIFA. Further medical examinations showed that Rojas’s injury didn’t have any signs of burning and with a weakening case and pressure coming from all directions, Rojas confessed he had cut his eyebrow to simulate the attack. 

As consequence, he was banned in perpetuity from playing football. Furthermore, Sergio Stoppel, president of the Chilean Football Federation, Orlando Aravena, coach of the national team and Fernando Astengo, vice-captain of the team – among others – received sanctions because of the incident. In addition, the game was ruled 2-0 in favour of Brazil and Chile was banned from participating in the qualifiers for the World Cup hosted by the United States in 1994.

As years passed, there was never a coincident view of what really happened, who was involved, who knew before or where it was plotted. Not even the individuals who were sanctioned had a unified version of the incident. But Rojas, one way or another, and as the only clear participant in the plot, had finished his career far earlier than he should have.

Rosenery was detained immediately during the game as the one responsible for the shameless and unproved attack. As the images were made public, after 24 hours she was released with no formal charges. Only 24-years-old at the time, La Fogueteira had become a national star, and a couple of months later was paid thousands of dollars to appear on the cover page of the Playboy magazine. She passed away in June 2011, just 45-years-old.

Rosenery often questioned whether the sanctions that Rojas received were too harsh, and was happy when his ban was lifted in 2001. Sadly, it was too late for the Chilean – his condoro had cost him his career 12 years earlier.

By Nicolás García-Huidobro

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