Rio, 1989: Chilean skullduggery, hidden razor blades and Brazilian flares

Rio, 1989: Chilean skullduggery, hidden razor blades and Brazilian flares

The word “skullduggery” is defined as “underhanded or unscrupulous behaviour; trickery”. It has been intertwined with football since time immemorial, exhibited in various degrees. It has been employed by the greats, not least Diego Maradona, and in recent times by compatriot Emiliano Martinez. Players have been banned from tournaments following drug tests and Serie A has been peppered by various instances of a dubious nature. Even the Brazilians are not exempt from employing it, as demonstrated by Rivaldo during the 2002 World Cup. 

It should never be a surprise the lengths teams will go to in order to win. And yet it still does. Indeed, the story of Brazil’s 1989 World Cup qualifying campaign involved a classic example of the win-at-all-costs mentality. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

To this day, Brazil hold the amazing record of having qualified for every World Cup finals tournament. They have hosted the tournament twice, but on all other occasions they got through the CONMEBOL qualification process to reach the finals. To imagine them getting eliminated at that stage is almost too much to consider. After all, how do you stop a team like Brazil when you are a smaller South American nation?

In the 1980s, Brazil enjoyed a generation of incredible talent, highlighted by the famous 1982 team containing the likes of Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Eder. Playing attacking football, they charmed the world before becoming unstuck against the Italians on an infamous night in Barcelona.

The loss brought about a period of introspection for the Selecao as they wrestled with balancing their natural attacking game with a more pragmatic European approach to avoid another 1982. Going into the 1986 World Cup, their style changed slightly, with more defensive steel added. They still had a team containing superb strikers such as Careca and Muller, but Zico was 33, Socrates was 32 and Falcao was the same. The 1982 generation was fading from the picture. 

Mexico 86 again saw Brazil eliminated by European opposition – this time in the shape of a France team that was also starting to see the end of a golden generation. 

Qualification for the 1990 World Cup saw Brazil up against Chile and Venezuela in a three-team round-robin. It was one of three CONMEBOL qualification groups from which the two top teams with the best records would automatically qualify for Italia 90 while the third top team would playoff against a side from the OFC section.

Venezuela had a relatively weak squad and so the group would come down to Chile and Brazil; how they would perform against each other and what goal difference they could rack up against the Venezuelans. 

Both teams travelled to Caracas a week apart to start their campaigns, and both came away with comprehensive victories, Brazil 4-0 and Chile 3-1. Brazil’s victory included two goals from Bebeto and one from Romario – a deadly partnership that was beginning to click. That set the stage for the first meeting between the two, which took place in Santiago in August 1989. A win for either team would place them in pole position to win the group.

Tension was high ahead of kick-off. With the game delayed by 15 minutes, the referee insisting on moving back photographers, Romario and defender Alejandro Hisis exchanged words. The striker took offence to something said, Branco having to pull him away before things further.

Within two minutes, the game erupted: Chile could have been down to ten men following a vicious knee-high tackle on Branco by midfielder Raul Ormeno. As Branco was led to the side of the pitch for treatment, a roar from the crowd drew attention to Romario. It appeared that he and Hisis were still feuding, and the camera revealed Romario being followed by three Chileans while Hisis lay on the ground.

The referee showed the PSV striker a straight red and Brazil faced 86 minutes a man short. If anyone wasn’t sure of what exactly had occurred, Romario cleared up the situation after the game: “I didn’t hit him that hard.”

Chile didn’t enjoy a one-man advantage for long. Fourteen minutes into the game Ormeno, who was clearly pumped up, lost the ball to Valdo and brought him down. Immediately realising the consequences, he tried desperately to persuade referee Diaz Palacio to keep his cards in his pocket. It was to no avail. A second yellow card was produced and the Chilean crowd howled as Ormeno had to be escorted off by four teammates. The first half was only a third of the way in.

Scoreless at half-time, Brazil took the lead in the second half through an unfortunate own goal from Hugo Gonzalez. As the game stretched on, it appeared as if Brazil were going to leave Chile with a crucial away victory. But, with just nine minutes remaining, La Roja struck back through a bizarre goal from Ivo Basay.

Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel had the ball in his area when the referee suddenly decided that he had held it for too long and awarded an indirect free-kick to Chile just four yards from the goal. The quickest Chilean player to react was Jorge Aravena, who touched the ball to Basay to convert.

Brazil were stunned. Chilean fans celebrated on the edge of the pitch, while the Brazilian technical staff went ballistic. There was confusion in every direction but, at the end of 90 minutes, the honours were even, little dividing the two countries in the standings. Brazil were marginally in front on goal difference. 

The following week saw O Selecao host Venezuela in Sao Paulo and dish out another lesson, running out 6-0 victors thanks to four goals from Careca, proving that Brazil still had three fearsome strikers to choose from. Seven days later, it was Chile’s turn to host Venezuela and, like the week before, Venezuela were again on the receiving end of a thrashing, this time going down 5-0.

Only one game remained: Brazil against Chile in the Maracana on 3 September 1989. Both teams had two wins and a draw but Brazil’s goal difference was three better than Chile’s. If La Roja were going to eliminate their mighty neighbours and head to Italia 90, they needed to win in Rio. It would be a tough ask, but at least they were in a position where it was a possibility.

Get an early goal and maybe the Brazilians would start to tense up in front of an expectant crowd. And let’s not forget that Brazil had suffered unexpected heartache at the Maracana before, losing the 1950 final to Uruguay. It was game on for that World Cup berth. But the Selecao had also never lost a World Cup qualification game in its history.

In front of a huge crowd of over 140,000, the two sides took to the pitch. Brazil would be without Romario – still suspended following the previous meeting’s sending-off – but with Careca and Bebeto upfront, they looked strong. Unfortunately for Chile, they would be without star striker Ivan Zamorano, who was unable to make it back from his Swiss side, Neuchatel Xamax, in time. The game was going to require an experienced referee, which it got in the shape of Argentine Juan Carlos Loustau. 

The last time Chile had beaten Brazil was a famous 4-0 win during the 1987 Copa America, and many of the team were in this side. Unsurprisingly, given the stakes, the early minutes were once again physical. Chilean left-back Hector Puebla left his studs on the knee of Mauro Galvao after just four minutes, although the referee didn’t blow for a foul. Then, just two minutes later, Bebeto tricked Puebla, who brought the Brazilian down and then appeared to stamp on his thigh. This time the referee saw fit to show Puebla a yellow card to calm the Chilean down. 

The game continued with Brazil enjoying most of the possession but Chile remaining disciplined in defence. Although it was Chile who needed the win, they seemed focused on trying to reach half-time without conceding, rather than attempting to score. Brazil were creating chances, especially through Careca, but goalkeeper Roberto Rojas was equal to everything. Whenever Chile did venture into the Brazilian half, they were usually swiftly dispossessed.

With Chile sitting deep, most of Brazil’s efforts were from distance – they were having difficulty penetrating the tight defence. Just before half-time, Branco hit a hard, swerving shot that Rojas did well to adjust to and save. And with that, the teams went into the break still scoreless.

Brazil started the second half where they had left off previously – on the attack. And finally, four minutes in, they broke the deadlock. A defensive header from Branco fell to Dunga who played a quick ball forward to Bebeto. Spinning towards goal, he cleared one challenge before hitting a through ball to Careca. The Napoli star sidestepped Puebla before hitting a shot that, although partially saved by Rojas, went in. Brazil were 1-0 up and heading for Italia 90. Chile were facing elimination.

For the following five minutes, Chile dominated as they tried desperately to get back into the tie. Brazil weathered the storm before taking control once again. It was impossible to see where Chile would get two goals from, which would mean committing men forward, leaving gaps for Bebeto and Careca to exploit. Then came the dramatic moment of the game.

On 68 minutes, Chile had possession of the ball in their own half through Astengo when a huge roar suddenly burst out from the crowd. TV cameras swivelled across to goalkeeper Rojas who lay in his penalty area while something flamed and smoked beside him. As the cameras lingered, it appeared as though a flare had been thrown by someone, Chilean players rushing to Rojas’ aid. As they understood what had happened, tempers began to rise. Patricio Yanez made several obscene gestures at the Brazilian fans.

The Chileans motioned for a stretcher but, with none immediately forthcoming, took the initiative and carried their stricken goalkeeper off the field. The cameras showed blood running down the back of Rojas’ head as he was carried down the stairs into the tunnel, along with his teammates.

The stunned Brazilian players discussed what to do next with the referee, spending a further 20 minutes on the pitch awaiting the return of the Chileans. Eventually, the referee was forced to abandon the game, meaning that the likely solution would be a replay at a neutral venue. It appeared that Brazil had been just 22 minutes from Italy before their unruly fans ruined the day.

As mentioned, the TV cameras had swivelled to Rojas after the crowd noise drew attention to the incident. There was no footage of Rojas being hit by the flare, just his injured body writhing in agony on the floor. But one pitchside photographer, Paulo Teixeira, had seen the flare come onto the field – and something struck him as not quite right.

He could see Rojas bleeding from near his eye but was sure that the flare had landed many feet away from him. In a CNN interview, he recalled his immediate reaction: “I missed the shot and so did most of the photographers. But there was one guy by me, Ricardo Alfieri, a good friend, and I asked him, ‘Ricardo, did you capture the flare?’ He said, ‘Of course, about 4-5 shots.'”

Alfieri worked for a Japanese publication and so had to send his unprocessed film to them the next morning. Teixeira realised that he needed to move fast if his gut instinct was correct. Finding a local radio reporter, he convinced him to put Alfieri on air, who told listeners that he had shots that showed the flare had not struck Rojas.

Immediately after, the Brazilian football president, Ricardo Teixeira, came to the station and asked about the film. Together, they found a local lab and, dragging a poor technician out on a Sunday night, had her warm the lab up for the next four hours. Finally, they were able to process Alfieri’s film.

Teixeira takes up the story again. “When the pictures came out, there were four clear shots – starting with the device flying and then landing one meter away from Rojas. [CBF president] Teixeira was so relieved.”

The photos were published the next day by local news agency Globo while CBF President Teixeira flew to FIFA’s headquarters in Switzerland. There was clear evidence now that the flare had not directly injured Rojas. But if that was the case, what had caused the bleeding seen on his head? 

Two days on from the game, the medical report from the incident stated that there had been no burn marks on Rojas, just a cut on the left side of his forehead. Now back in Santiago, Rojas released a statement saying that he was shocked that people were doubting the nature of his injury.

Rojas’ club side, Sao Paulo, were also publicly expressing doubts about keeping him on the books Finally, five days later, FIFA came to their decision: due to the lack of burn marks and Chile refusing to play on, the game was awarded to Brazil by a 2-0 margin. The Selecao had qualified for yet another World Cup.  

But the mystery hadn’t been settled. Had a Brazilian thrown the firecracker? And how did the wound on the forehead arise? The first question was soon solved. It had been thrown by a Brazilian, a 24-year-old woman by the name of Rosenery Mello. After she was named in the press, she became a minor celebrity, leading to a cover pose in the November 1989 Brazilian edition of Playboy and the nickname “Maracana Rocket”.

The reason for her decision to appear on the cover? The CBF had fined her $12,000 for throwing the flare, while she was allegedly getting $40,000 for the cover.

So now we knew where the flare came from that missed Rojas, but we still didn’t know what had caused the wound. The answer finally came out when Rojas was questioned further in the ensuing days.

He had concealed a razor blade in his glove ahead of the match in order to simulate injury should the need arise. Just think about that for a minute – a professional player had decided before a vital World Cup qualifier to have a blade ready with which to cut himself should he feel it was necessary.

Incredibly, this wasn’t something Rojas had cooked up himself; both manager Orlando Aravena and team doctor Daniel Rodriguez were also involved. The whole scheme had, in fact, been concocted in the training camp to get the game abandoned at any sign of crowd trouble or player fighting. 

Unsurprisingly, Rojas was given a lifetime ban from the game, which was finally rescinded in 2001, allowing him to return to Sao Paulo as a goalkeeping coach and then manager. Chile were also barred from the 1994 World Cup qualification process, although more because of abandoning the game than the injury simulation.

Both Aravena and Rodriguez, along with the president of the Chilean football federation, Sergio Stoppel, and the captain, Fernando Astengo, were punished by FIFA. Astengo has protested his innocence to this day, swearing he had no knowledge of the plan. 

This is not the only example over the years of what might be termed an “overreaction” to objects thrown from the crowd during a game. Of course, any such action by fans is deplorable and it is only natural that they should suffer sanctions But that has not prevented such actions sometimes being milked by the victims. The two best-known examples are probably the infamous Borussia Monchengladbach Coke can and the Celtic bottle.

The Coke can incident occurred during the 1971/72 European Cup when Borussia Monchengladbach hosted Inter. With the Germans leading 2-1, Inter legend Roberto Boninsegna seemed to be hit on the head by an object, suddenly falling to the ground.

The object turned out to be a Coke can. Gladbach’s Gunter Netzer had his wits about him and disposed of the offending item, before Sandro Mazzola grabbed another from a fan and presented it to the referee. The upshot was that Gladbach won 7-1, but Inter managed to persuade UEFA to annul the game and replay it. Inter ended up proceeding to the final against Ajax.

The second incident occurred when Celtic hosted Rapid Wien in the 1984/85 Cup Winners’ Cup. In a game that was already boiling over as Celtic took a 3-0 lead saw a penalty awarded to the Bhoys. As the Austrian players argued with the referee, a bottle was thrown onto the pitch from the Celtic crowd.

Like the Brazilian flare, it missed everyone, but that didn’t stop Rapid’s Rudi Weinhofer from collapsing, holding his face before being taken off, his head heavily bandaged by the physio. Like Gladbach, Celtic were ordered to replay the game at a neutral venue – Old Trafford – and also were eliminated. 

But both incidents were just feigning injury; they were not quite at the scale of concealing and then cutting yourself with a razor. And the truth is that, had it not been due to the quick thinking of a Brazilian photojournalist, Chile may have succeeded. Nowadays, such a rouse would be impossible given all the camera angles and mobile phone footage. But back then, it was a different ballgame.

To paraphrase the Scooby Doo series, “Chile would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling photographers.” It is a funny old game, indeed.

By Dominic Hougham

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