El Maracanazo 1989 refers to an incident when Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas attempted to cheat Brazil out of a place at Italia ’90. But for the efforts of a photographer it may never have been discovered, and Rojas may have got away with it. Instead the truth was revealed, the Chilean keeper was banned for life, and an elaborate scam far more sinister than anyone dare imagine, was discovered.
The Maracanazo of the Chilean team. Maracanazo is a Portuguese word roughly translated as “The Agony of Maracana”. The word first came to prominence after the Brazilian national disaster in losing the final match of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay.
In 1989 it referred to a disgraceful piece of cheating.
Back in the late eighties the CONMEBOL qualifiers were still separate groups, rather than the single group it is today. Brazil, Chile and Venezuela were drawn together. As expected Venezuela were the whipping boys, with Brazil and Chile fighting out the one qualification spot.
Brazil won 4-0 in Venezuela, thanks to a double from Bebeto. Chile then also won in Caracas with a double from Jorge Aravena.
The first meeting between Chile and Brazil was in Santiago and ended 1-1. It was a feisty encounter with three red cards, including one for Romario after just a few minutes. In fact, he was booked before the game started, the true meaning on an early kick-off. There was also crowd trouble, which had consequences for Chile.
Brazil took the lead in comical fashion. A Chilean defender attempted to clear the ball from his own six-yard area, only succeeding in smashing the ball against his own defensive partner, Hugo Gonzalez. The ball then bounced straight back into the net.
Chile’s equaliser was even more bizarre. With just a few minutes remaining they attempted to bundle the ball over the line. In the melee the referee ruled the ball hadn’t crossed the line. Brazil keeper, Taffarel, had the ball in his hands. Forgetting the rule change about not being allowed to bounce it, he duly bounced the ball at his feet. The referee awarded an indirect free-kick. The Chileans were quickest to act. Yanez put the ball down, touched it to Ivo Basay who fired it in for an incredible and chaotic end to the game.
Brazil then thumped Venezuela in Sao Paulo, 6-0 with Careca bagging four. Chile then almost matched them with a 5-0 win, with Juan Carlos Letelier also helping himself to a hat-trick.
That game was played in Mendoza, Argentina. FIFA had banned Chile from playing at home due to crowd trouble in Santiago during the Brazil match.
This left a deciding match at the Maracana. Brazil’s goal difference was such that a draw was enough for them to go through. Chile had to win.
Brazil had been at every World Cup thus far, so it was inconceivable they wouldn’t be at the next one in Italy. Chile had qualified for the 1982 tournament but missed out on the Mexico one four years later.
On 3rd September 1989, a crowd of over 140,000 filled the stadium but the two teams couldn’t produce any goals in the first half. Then four minutes into the second period Careca put the home side in front.
With just over twenty minutes to go they still lead. Chile were running out of time to score the two goals they needed to qualify.
Then it all kicked off.
A flare was thrown from the crowd into the Chilean penalty area, and suddenly goalkeeper Roberto Rojas was lying prostrate on the ground.
As the flare was still smoking, the Chile players rushed to their teammate, furiously beckoning the medical staff onto the pitch. The offending item had been thrown from the Brazilian section of the crowd. Rojas had blood pouring from his head. This was serious.
Rojas was carried from the pitch. His teammates left with him and refused to return claiming they feared for their safety. Eventually, the referee decided to abandon the game.
The Brazilian players and supporters were stunned. It soon dawned on them there would be repercussions. It was likely Brazil would face sanctions and the game awarded to Chile, thus denying Brazil a place at the World Cup finals.
Brazil captain, Ricardo Gomes recalled;
“I was shocked. I thought immediately of losing the chance to go to the World Cup. It was something really bad.”
It may seem incredible to us today with all the cameras picking up anything which happens in a stadium, none of the cameras at the ground picked up the exact moment the flare came onto the pitch to hit Rojas.
Some of the pitchside photographers later claimed they were surprised he’d been hit as the flare seemed to land about a metre away from him. Yet there he was rolling over and bleeding from an eye.
32-year old Rojas was at the time plying his trade in Brazil at São Paulo. He moved there a couple of years before after winning two league titles with Colo Colo.
He was possibly the finest goalkeeper to play for Chile. He was their number one from after the 1982 World Cup and was approaching 50 caps. He was no stranger to controversy, though. Aged 21, he’d been one of several players who’d used fake passports to be eligible for the South American U20 Championship in 1979.
Five years later he tested positive for an anabolic steroid following a friendly with England. This cost him his place in the 1984 Olympic team.
With no evidence to contradict the theory the flare had injured the keeper, Brazil was in serious trouble of being denied qualification for Italy as they were bound to face sanctions from FIFA.
But it was all a hoax. It was pre-planned as Rojas had hidden a razor blade in his glove and at the opportune moment, he cut his own head while lying on the ground.
It seemed such a crazy and utterly despicable thing to do to try and win the game. But as there was no evidence to the contrary, it looked like he would get away with it.
Of all the photographers in the ground, one had managed to capture the incident in several shots. Argentine Ricardo Alfieri. But he was contracted to send the pictures to Japan the next day, unprocessed.
Now, these were days way before digital photography. There was none of this looking at the screen of the image you’ve just taken. Photos were developed in a lab, so there was no knowing what they looked like until they’d been processed.
Eventually, word got back to the Brazilian authorities that Alfieri had the evidence which could disprove Rojas’ actions. Brazilian football president, Ricardo Teixeira soon demanded these photos be developed or else the photographer wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country.
So began the process of preparing a laboratory to develop the films. As they were waiting for it to warm up, negotiations were underway as to the value of these pictures. As far as the photographer was concerned, Brazil were missing out on a World Cup place for the first time in their history, without his pics. They were worth a great deal.
Eventually, a fee of $5,000 was agreed. Once developed there were four clear shots of the whole incident, from the flare in the air to landing a metre away from Rojas. Teixeira was one very relieved man.
Armed with the evidence he then flew to Switzerland to meet FIFA officials. They were satisfied with it all and awarded a walkover 2-0 win to Brazil, taking them to Italia ’90.
They further ruled Chile had broken regulations by leaving the pitch and refusing to return. They subsequently banned them from the 1994 World Cup.
As for Rojas, he was banned from playing football for life, along with the coach, Orlando Aravena and team doctor, Daniel Rodriguez.
But Rojas was allowed to coach so he stayed in São Paulo. FIFA eventually lifted his ban in 2001 and he went onto coach São Paulo for a brief spell in 2003.
Remarkably he is not a hated man in Brazil. He admitted his guilt almost immediately after the evidence was found and for most Brazilians that is good enough for them.
“I cut myself with a razor and the farce was discovered”, he later admitted to local media.
“It was a cut to my dignity. I had problems at home with my wife and with my teammates. But I were Argentine, Uruguayan or Brazilian, I would not be suspended”, he declared.
Later he would give an interview to Mas Vale Tarde;
“I did it for passion, for Chile to have a chance because Chile was being harmed at that time. We had had problems in the last qualifiers, but when one makes that kind of mistake he wants the chance to redeem himself, but I did not have that.”
Even Brazil captain Gomes has forgiven him. The pair met years later and he believed Rojas to be a decent man who showed remorse for what he had done.
“I met Rojas many years later and he admitted his mistakes. He is not naughty but that day he had a lapse – a really bad decision.” Gomes said,
“Chile had a plan which they had prepared and it was unbelievable, truly unbelievable. The strangest thing is they had a good team,” he added.
In a further twist to the whole saga, the police eventually found who threw the flare. Rosenery Mello do Nascimento, a 24-year fan was found to have hurled the object. It was alleged the whole plan had been cooked up by the Chilean coach and team doctor. How Mello was recruited is uncertain, but it was planned she would fire the flare near Rojas, who would in turn fake the whole affair.
Briefly, she became a celebrity. She was nicknamed “Maracana Rocket” and later cashed in on her fame by appearing in Playboy.
Tragically she died of a brain aneurysm in 2011, aged just 45.
It seems incredible professionals would dream up such a scam. As Gomes said, Chile had a decent side and may have caused Brazil problems had the game continued. Italia ’90 showed this to be one of the weakest Brazilian sides for years.
For Chile, they had to sit out qualifying for USA ’94, a tournament where Brazil ended their 24 year wait for trophy number four.