JODY AVIRGAN: From ESPN, you’re listening to 30 for 30 podcasts. My name is Jody Avirgan.
This episode, a story of scandal, from South American soccer. When you talk about soccer in Latin America, you very likely think about Brazil. Perpetual World Cup Qualifier, 5-time World Cup Champion…
But this is a story about another team, a team trying to take down Brazil. And it’s about a series of escalating acts that looked to upend the power structure throughout World Cup soccer.
We call it The Fall of The Condor. It’s a story we reported with help from the Spanish-language show Radio Ambulante.
[ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Santiago, a typically South American scene, Brazil has just come onto the pitch. You can hardly see them, well you can now because the television crew has forged its way through. They’ve been surrounded by photographers. That’s the way it always is wherever Brazil plays, especially when it’s World Cup Qualifier.]
JODY AVIRGAN: It’s mid-august 1989, Santiago, Chile. Brazil and Chile are facing off for a spot in the World Cup to be held in Italy, the next summer. This would be the first of two matches, one in Chile, and the second in Brazil.
[ANNOUNCER: And if Chile can win here they could go on to make World Cup history by becoming the first country to stop Brazil reaching the finals. Brazil still remain unbeaten in World Cup qualifying games, that’s an extraordinary record.]
LUCIANO BORGES: The stadium, the National Stadium was crowded, full.
JODY AVIRGAN: Luciano Borges is a Brazilian journalist who was in the stadium in Santiago that day.
LUCIANO BORGES: The environment of tension, that this is going to be a war, things like that.
JODY AVIRGAN: Under the grandstands, in the tunnel leading out to the field, both teams were lined up side by side.
At the front of the Chilean team was their captain, Roberto Rojas.
LUCIANO BORGES: Rojas was, probably at that time, the greatest soccer idol and the most famous player in Chile.
JODY AVIRGAN: Everyone knew about Roberto Rojas.
LUCIANO BORGES: He was the captain of the team. He was known as El Cóndor.
JODY AVIRGAN: El Cóndor, “The Condor.” With his strong nose and straight black hair, he even kind of looked like the enormous bird that he got his nickname from.
[ANNOUNCER: …Roberto Rojas is the Chilean goalkeeper and the captain…]
DANIEL MATAMALA: He was an idol. He was the best Chilean football player, really a popular hero.
JODY AVIRGAN: Daniel Matamala is an anchor with CNN Chile and has written a number of books about Chilean sports and culture.
DANIEL MATAMALA: He has an incredible presence. His capacity to not jump, to freely fly made him look like a giant. It looks like it’s impossible to beat him.
JODY AVIRGAN: At this moment, the Chilean soccer team, led by Rojas, doing the impossible was everything.
DANIEL MATAMALA: It was a very special moment in Chilean history.
AUGUSTO PINOCHET: “Reconozco y acepto el veredicto mayoritario expresado en el día de ayer…”.]
JODY AVIRGAN: The country was at a time of transition — the Pinochet dictatorship was ending, general elections were set for that winter. Chile was figuring out what kind of nation it would be.
DANIEL MATAMALA: And of course in Latin America soccer is very associated to nationalism.
JODY AVIRGAN: And Chilean fans threw themselves behind their soccer team and the World Cup campaign.
DANIEL MATAMALA: An entire society that think it was a matter of national honor to win a soccer game.
JODY AVIRGAN: And they had reason to be hopeful.
DANIEL MATAMALA: Chilean fans were confident because two years earlier Chile crushed Brazil, four to zero in the Copa América, and it was almost the same players.
[ANNOUNCER: So there’s just a feeling amongst the Chilean fans that their side might have a little bit more know-how than this exciting young Brazil side…]
DANIEL MATAMALA: But also it was the feeling that everything was rigged to favor Brazil.
JODY AVIRGAN: Many Chileans felt that FIFA, whose President happened to be Brazilian, was in the tank for perennial favorites. So there was this mix of hope, determination, and conspiracy.
DANIEL MATAMALA: There was a sense that some dark powers were acting to favor Brazil.
JODY AVIRGAN: Not that Brazil needed much help.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I mean Brazil is Brazil and Brazil is always in the World Cup.
JODY AVIRGAN: Daniel Alarcón is the host of the podcast Radio Ambulante, he covers Latin American culture and sports and has reported on those matches between Brazil and Chile.
The Chilean team, trying to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, was sure that this was the year they could pull off the shocking upset.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: It is it is kind of crazy to think that you could beat Brazil and eliminate them from the World Cup.
JODY AVIRGAN: And Chileans felt that goalkeeper Rojas was the type of person to help pull it off.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Quite frankly goalkeepers are insane. A good goalkeeper has a certain amount of disregard for his or her own safety. I mean they live on the edge. You know?
[ANNOUNCER: Local time just before 5 o’clock… the capacity of the stadium 85,000… and the temperature in the region of thirty degrees centigrade…]
JODY AVIRGAN: For matches like the one in Santiago, there was a FIFA rule in place to try and lower the tension. The teams would gather in the tunnel, side by side, and then would be required to walk out onto the field at the same time.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And there’s a logic to this. The logic is that this way the fans if they’re going to attack, they can’t attack the opposing team without hitting their own player. So the idea is that the teams come out together so that they’ll be safe.
JODY AVIRGAN: At this match, however, that didn’t happen because the Chilean captain, Roberto Rojas, made a move right as the teams were waiting in the tunnel to take the field.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: He rushed his team out. He led his team out first, without waiting for the Brazilian team.
[ANNOUNCER: Roberto Rojas is the Chilean goalkeeper and their captain…]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So they leave the tunnel go out onto the pitch. The Brazilians aren’t ready. And that has an immediate impact which is when the Brazilians walk out they’re on their own, they’re vulnerable.
[ANNOUNCER: Brazil has just come onto the pitch. You can hardly see them, well you can now…]
JODY AVIRGAN: Rojas walked away from the Brazilians, rallied his own team and riled up the fans.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Violation of all protocol.
It’s of a piece with the culture of win at all costs. We’re here to win, I don’t know what you came here for, you know. And I’m not you not your friend.
[ANNOUNCER: …that’s the way it always is…especially when it’s a World Cup Qualifier.]
JODY AVIRGAN: The tone was set, the incident in the tunnel started it, and things only escalated from there. There was a fight between two players before the game even kicked off.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: This is brutal. This is violent. This is dirty. This is stop start.
You know, we’re not talking about Jogo Bonito, where everyone looks like they are dancing, you know. We’re talking about really hard-nosed, rough soccer.
JODY AVIRGAN: During this period in Latin American soccer, there was this idea that a match was won by playing hard-nosed, rough football on the field, but also won outside of it as well. Even more so when you’re talking about the national teams.
Chilean journalist, Danilo Díaz, covered this era and knows all the stories.
[DANILO DIAZ telling story in Spanish.]
JODY AVIRGAN: For instance, the Copa América, in 1979 when Chile played Colombia…
DANIEL ALARCÓN: The Colombian national team has come to Chile and someone sends to their hotel a bunch of prostitutes —
JODY AVIRGAN: To the Colombian team?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: To the Colombian team’s hotel, exactly.
And they take pictures, right, of the Colombian team partying and the Colombian team sort of with these women. And then when the Colombian team comes out to the stadium, onto the pitch, there’s these giant banners with these photographs of them… you know partying with women who are not their wives.
JODY AVIRGAN: There’s no evidence of those photos, but there’s the story. And Chile won, Colombia lost. And there are more stories like this, throughout Latin American soccer. In a game in Paraguay in the late ’80s, it was the Chileans who were on the receiving end.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: On the way to the stadium everyone on the bus starts feeling really drowsy, like really drowsy. And it turns out someone had put sleeping pills in their food. So the team you know is a bunch of zombies.
JODY AVIRGAN: Chile lost that one. In 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup. The country was under a military dictatorship at the time. And rumors were swirling about whether their match against Peru was on the level.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I’ve heard testimonies that you know Argentine soldiers came into the dressing room armed to the teeth supposedly to protect the Peruvian players but also to intimidate them. And you know for whatever happened certainly on the pitch, the Peruvian team looked pretty lost.
JODY AVIRGAN: Perhaps most famously, there’s the ties between Colombian soccer and drug gangs.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: In ’89, for example, the Colombian leagues suspended the season because a referee was murdered and this was all sort of in the time of the narcos. Drug dealers owned teams, and buying players and were buying refs.
JODY AVIRGAN: And then there’s the one about the dog…
DANIEL ALARCÓN: This is one of my favorites. The story goes that a team from Santiago was playing away, very high in the mountains.
JODY AVIRGAN: The game was tied, and if the Santiago players could just hold on, they would secure the draw and get a point in the title race.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: There is about five minutes left and the coach, the manager, has a little duffel bag by the side of the bench. And in this duffel bag is a little, peppy, quick little dog. And so when he sees that the time is right he opens a duffel bag and lets the dog free. And the next five-six minutes of the game are spent you know with everyone chasing the dog, no one can catch the dog. And that way he runs out the clock and they get the point.
JODY AVIRGAN: When you hear a story like that, I mean you used the word corruption earlier. Does this count as corruption? Does this count as cheating?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: God, I mean that’s a huge question in football. So there’s a saying “futbol es para los vivos.” It’s been mistranslated as “football is for the living.” It’s actually in Peruvian Spanish vivo is that person who is alert, who’s quick, who’s quick-thinking you know. And that’s you know that’s true, soccer is for the person who can think on their feet like both literally and metaphorically.
Now the dog (laughs) like a dog free onto the pitch really sort of crosses the line but I grew up with a healthy respect for “el vivo” you know, for gamesmanship. And I think in Latin America in general we have this acceptance. That’s part of the game.
JODY AVIRGAN: Chilean soccer, at every level, was no exception. Historian Danilo Díaz saw his country’s football culture reach a point where they were going to be “mas bandidos que los bandidos.”
DANILO DIAZ: So, of course, things were going on in Chilean football so we became “más bandidos que los bandidos.”
JODY AVIRGAN: More bandits than the bandits.
And El Cóndor, Roberto Rojas, was no exception. He was caught up in a fake passport scandal, he’d gotten in fights with coaches, he’d been caught doping… basically every scandal involved Rojas in one way or another.
DANILO DIAZ: Roberto Rojas, if you looked at him at the time, was a guy who was involved in big scandals.
JODY AVIRGAN: He was always a player who always pushed the limits.
DANILO DÍAZ: So, you start to look through his trajectory and realize that he was always a guy who, uh, who pushed the limits.
ANNOUNCER: If Chile can win here they could go on to make World Cup history by becoming the first country stop Brazil…]
JODY AVIRGAN: Push the limits is exactly what Rojas had done by taking his team out of the tunnel before the match with Brazil in Santiago. But Rojas wasn’t going rogue. He knew his team would follow his lead, he was Chile’s captain.
After the opening whistle, the chaos continued.
[ANNOUNCER: And we’ve very nearly got a riot here. A red card has been shown, Romario is it…]
JODY AVIRGAN: Almost right away, one of Brazil’s top players lashed out, drew a red card and was kicked out of the game.
[ANNOUNCER: What stupidity!]
JODY AVIRGAN: He, and Brazil were rattled.
[ANNOUNCER: Even by South American standards, this is simply an amazing beginning.]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: The Chilean plan was very simple, was to rattle him and to you know make him do something stupid. And we call it in Peru, we say “pisar al palito,” step on the stick.
JODY AVIRGAN: Pisar el palito?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: “So. Le hisaron pisar el palito.” They tricked him into stepping on the stick.
[ANNOUNCER: …Romario, who seemed to be boiling for a fight, before the game started…]
JODY AVIRGAN: Maybe the captain Rojas knew what he was doing by provoking everyone and raising the tension. But that Brazilian red card was quickly followed by a Chilean player getting kicked out for a brutal tackle.
[ANNOUNCER: And there’s a card in the referee’s hand. It’s a red one, he’s got to go as well.]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And that’s the thing when you’re playing on the edge trying to instigate, when you’re in the heat of the game it’s hard to hold back.
[ANNOUNCER: And Chile have really shot themselves in the foot…]
JODY AVIRGAN: As per usual, Roberto Rojas was playing brilliantly, almost single-handedly keeping Chile in the game. But then things turned from ugly to ridiculous.
[ANNOUNCER: …is in the clear… oh my word…it’s the craziest of own goals. Unbelievable.]
JODY AVIRGAN: A Chilean defender, flailing at a ball and trying to clear it, accidentally kicked it off his own teammate’s back, right into his own goal.
[ANNOUNCER: And Brazil have been handed one of the strangest goals on a very strange night for World Cup football.]
JODY AVIRGAN: And then, towards the end of the first half, with desperation rising for Chile, down by one. Chile was awarded a free kick. But the entire Brazilian team was arguing with the ref about the decision, and one of their players was holding the ball in his hands as he was arguing. Before he could notice, though, a Chilean player ran up to him, took the ball, put it on the ground and passed it to a teammate.
[ANNOUNCER: It really should have been 1-1 (crowd audibly erupts) and now it is…]
JODY AVIRGAN: One quick strike and Chile had punched the ball into what was basically an empty net while everyone was standing around and arguing.
[ANNOUNCER: …and bedlam in Santiago.]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Now that is audacious. That is perhaps sneaky. Some would say dirty.
JODY AVIRGAN: But it was what Chile felt they needed to do. “Mas bandidos que los bandidos.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: This is a war, you know, and in war the ends justify the means.
[ANNOUNCER: And at last…the final whistle of one of the most amazing matches that has ever been my privilege to see.]
JODY AVIRGAN: And that was it, a after all the tension, the near riots, a 1-1 tie.
[ANNOUNCER: A mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous in Santiago…]
JODY AVIRGAN: Sublime and ridiculous for the announcers, perhaps, but an absolute fiasco for the Chileans. This was the first of two games in which they had to eliminate Brazil. They’d had their home crowd, they’d pushed the limits of FIFA protocol in the tunnel. And still, they’d walked away with only a draw.
The crowd felt the frustration as well. After the match, fans started to get rowdy, throwing things onto the field. Brazilian reporter Luciano Borges remembers the chaos of that moment, and how hard it was to get off the pitch.
LUCIANO BORGES: So the Brazilian players and even me we had to go protected by the shields of the policemen. I saw some stones flying through, you know close to my head.
And they’re very violent. So they’re throwing batteries, you know, from radio. They’re throwing batteries, stones…
JODY AVIRGAN: After he escaped the field, Borges went to the locker room to interview some of the players, including the Chilean goalkeeper.
LUCIANO BORGES: And I walked to the dressing room from Chile, and Rojas saw me. And he came to me and said, “Hey, how are you?”… I´m fine.
JODY AVIRGAN: Borges, the reporter, kind of admonished the goalie, you know, you didn’t need to pull that stunt at the beginning of the match. It wasn’t necessary to raise the tension like that, he told him.
LUCIANO BORGES: And he said, man, we have to use everything we can to win Brazil.
JODY AVIRGAN: We have to use everything we can to win against Brazil.
For FIFA, though, the Chileans behavior was a problem. Soon after, they stepped in. Rojas had gone too far in the tunnel. The Chilean fans were out of control.
FIFA sanctioned the Chileans and mandated that their next game, against Venezuela, would have to be played in neutral territory in Argentina.
In Chile, this only added to the conspiracy theories.
DANIEL MATAMALA: The headline of La Cuarta was the most popular newspaper at that moment was “viejos sin verguenza,” that mean “old man crooks” and that was what Chilean fans think about FIFA, that they were old crooks and they were acting in favor of Brazil.
JODY AVIRGAN: Everyone knew FIFA had the right to step in and do this; they could overturn a result, mandate a rematch, change the location of a game, even call off a game if it was getting out of control. But still, the Chileans felt especially targeted.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: There was a sense of that FIFA has already decided that Brazil has to go to the World Cup and not us.
JODY AVIRGAN: The next match against Brazil was two weeks later, September 3rd. And it was in Brazil. The Chileans had a massive chip on their shoulder. Jorge Hevia was covering the game for Chilean television, and traveled with the team to Rio de Janeiro.
The Chilean team bus was escorted from the airport to the hotel by six police officers on motorcycles. It arrived at night, with the lights out, so no one could see who was inside.
Hevia says, “it was like preparing to go into a war zone.”
JORGE HEVIA: How did Chile’s bus arrive at the hotel? Uh, there were, I don’t know, 4, 5, 6 police officers on motorcycles with the team. They arrived at night, with the lights out so no one would know the team was arriving. It was…It was like going to a…It was like preparing for a team that was going into a war zone.
JODY AVIRGAN: Reporter Danilo Díaz was there as well.
The players on the Chilean team had adopted a mantra for what they were preparing to do, “vamos a cabecar piedras,” they would say. We’re going to slam our heads against the rocks.
DANILO DÍAZ: And “a cabecear las piedras” [slam our heads against the rocks] is what they said, the players. “That day we’re going to go out there and cabecear las piedras at Maracaná.”
JODY AVIRGAN: The next day, they were going to cabecar piedras at the Maracanã.
The Maracanã, Rio de Janiero’s legendary stadium, perhaps the greatest soccer experience in the world.
When it was built for the 1950 World Cup, it was the largest stadium in the world. Brazilians claimed it could fit 200,000 people.
The Chileans may have been ready for war, but reporter Luciano Borges says the Brazilians weren’t nervous. They were ready to party.
LUCIANO BORGES: It was nothing like, ooh it’s a war, ooh the danger of Chile. No.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: All they had to do was qualify, and to qualify all they needed was a draw.
LUCIANO BORGES: Everybody went to the stadium that day, for a party. There was not any worry.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: An entire stadium, everyone wearing the same color. All variations on the Brazilian flag, you know, like this sea of people. An hour before the game the stadium is singing. The rhythms of the people singing, you know like tambourines, little hand drums. The bass drum….boom boom, boom boom, boom boom, boom boom.
JODY AVIRGAN: Brazilian flags and banners waving across the stands, and like at many games, the crowd is shooting off flares and fireworks.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And it just adds to the atmosphere the smoke and you know and the bright red lights and it just adds to the ambience of a game of that magnitude.
JODY AVIRGAN: The Chileans, for their part, were prepared to attempt the impossible: cabecar piedras.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I imagine for these guys it was you know it’s it’s an intense moment to see that many people and the joy with which they’re already celebrating a victory that they just assume is going to come, in this almost disdainful way.
ANNOUNCER: Comienca jogo a la Maracanã!]
JODY AVIRGAN: In the first game, Chile tried to rattle the Brazilians into making mistakes. But this time, things were different. Chile had to be aggressive. They couldn’t just tie, they needed to win. Chilean strikers were doing everything they could to press forward. And as usual, Roberto Rojas was playing out of his mind.
LUCIANO BORGES: The first half, Rojas played like hell. He avoided the Brazilian goals in four different opportunities, with magical defense.
JODY AVIRGAN: And then, in the 54th minute…
[ANNOUNCER: …is this the first? (loud cheering, indistinguishable announcer)….and Careca has scored for Brazil.]
JODY AVIRGAN: The Brazilian striker pushes a ball past Cóndor Rojas.
[ANNOUNCER: Not a good shot, Rojas got a hand to it and could have gotten to it…]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I heard someone actually say that Rojas should have saved it. He’d saved other ones that were much more difficult and this one for some reason he didn’t get to. Which seems harsh considering all that he’d done for the team up until that point.
JODY AVIRGAN: 1-0 Brazil. Chile was despondent, desperate. They would now have to score two goals to pull off the impossible.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I think everyone on the Chilean team at that point knows that the dream of making history and knocking Brazil out of the World Cup is not going to be a reality.
JODY AVIRGAN: Unless, that is, something extraordinary happened.
[ANNOUNCER: There’s an incident there. Something has been thrown at the goalkeeper, Rojas.]
JODY AVIRGAN: While Chilean players worked the ball on the far side of the field, Rojas stood alone in the mouth of his goal. Suddenly a firework, a flare, “something” flew from the stands right at the Chilean keeper.
[ANNOUNCER: There’s something smoking there…]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Out of the corner of your eye you see a flare go flying from the stand immediately behind Roberto Rojas his goal and it goes ooooooh…..
LUCIANO BORGES: The fans have made the sound you make when there is a good chance to score,
DANIEL ALARCÓN: The entire stadium when they see it there’s this “ooooohhhh… and woahhh!”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: He immediately is sort of clouded in smoke and falls down. It appears he’s been hit by this flare.
[ANNOUNCER: He has been hit by a bizarre, firecracker or whatever.]
JODY AVIRGAN: All of a sudden, Cóndor Rojas is rolling around on the pitch. He appears to be in pain, holding his hands to his face. He tries to get back up but his teammates force him to stay down. And a couple of feet away, a smoking, flaming flare sits on the field.
[ANNOUNCER: It looks as if there’s blood there or something down the side of his face.]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: He sort of rolls backwards and when he comes up, he’s bleeding. He’s bleeding from his face. He’s covering his face with his hands.
JODY AVIRGAN: The match is halted. Chilean players start arguing with Brazilian players. Refs start arguing with each other. Fans start booing and jeering and throwing trash onto the field.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And what’s happening at the stadium at this point is is this madness. I mean no one really knows what’s going on.
[ANNOUNCER: Certainly concern from the Chilean bench…]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And they carry him off the side of the field and straight into the locker room.
[ANNOUNCER: Rojas is being carried off…]
JODY AVIRGAN: And it’s not just Rojas who goes to the locker room. Very quickly, the Chilean coaches and captains talk to each other and decide this is too much
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And then the entire Chilean team leaves, abandoning the pitch and they all go back.
[ANNOUNCER: …obviously the Chileans will say, can you abandon the game and start again?…]
JODY AVIRGAN: The announcers began to speculate about what might come next. Perhaps the Chileans were hoping to force a re-start, or a re-match.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So there’s this moment where neither of the refs, nor the opposing players, nor the 130000 fans, nor the millions watching on television both in Brazil and Chile and worldwide have any idea what’s going on.
[ANNOUNCER: …and the referee… he has called it off, he has called the game off… which we can only presume that means that Chile refused to reappear… and it’s a very hostile reception from the crowd, jeering and whistling all around the stadium…]
DANIEL ALARCÓN: This is what’s so crazy about it, you can’t walk off the pitch in a game like this. You know this is not a neighborhood game where you take your ball and go home. This is a FIFA game to qualify for a World Cup.
The Chileans were going in for looking for any reason to protest and walk off and demand the game be played again and when Rojas goes down injured, quite severely injured I mean you know his face is covered in blood. They looked like they found their excuse.
[ANNOUNCER: …yes it’s almost certain what will happen is game will be replayed in a neutral country somewhere in South America, you know the country closest to Brazil I’d think. Which would be where? I really don’t know my geography’s not that good. As Chile had to do, as Chile had to do in their last game with Venezuela…]
MILTON MILLAS (Spanish): When I went into Chile’s locker room, it smelled like blood.
JODY AVIRGAN: Milton Millas and other reporters followed the Chilean team off the pitch into the locker room, which was filled with the smell of blood.
MILTON MILLAS (Spanish): They showed me Roberto Rojas, who had a number of cuts on his face.
JODY AVIRGAN: Rojas had a number of cuts on his face.
Jorge Hevia was there as well.
JORGE HEVIA (Spanish): When the incident happened, I was in a position of having to figure out how to explain what we had all just seen.
JODY AVIRGAN: He would go on to be a very famous broadcaster in Chile. But at the time, he was just a young reporter.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So he’s kind of milling outside, you know milling around outside the locker room and he stumbles into Pelé.
JORGE HEVIA (Spanish): And I’m there with the great Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: You know just the greatest player in the history of the sport.
JODY AVIRGAN: So the young reporter starts talking to the soccer legend, Pelé.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: He goes right up to him with a microphone in his hand and he says, “What do you think about what we just saw?”
JORGE HEVIA (Spanish): “Pele, what do you think about everything that’s happened?” And he says to me: “That’s Metapio.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Pele says, “that’s Metapio.”
JORGE HEVIA: “That’s Metapio.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Metapio is iodine. So he’s saying that the red stuff on Cóndor’s face is iodine, it’s not actually blood.
JORGE HEVIA: “That’s Metapio. That’s fake. It’s not real.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: That’s fake, that’s not real.
Basically, the first person to go on the record as doubting what you know 130,000 people had just seen with their own eyes was Pelé.
JORGE HEVIA: That’s Metapio. That’s fake. It’s not real.
JODY AVIRGAN: The second match between Chile and Brazil had been called off. There wasn’t really a choice given Chile’s refusal to finish playing.
The fans filed out of the Maracanã, and the media huddled around the Chilean team in the locker room.
JODY AVIRGAN: After getting stitched up, El Cóndor gave a few television interviews that were broadcast live back in his home country.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: He’s got a very subdued tone. He looks like he’s been through, through hell.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Chileans watching at home they saw El Cóndor giving this this interview, you know injured, his head wrapped. I mean he clearly was bleeding, so there’s no question about that.
DANIEL MATAMALA: Everybody believed that Rojas was really hit and that the players did the right thing leaving the field. I think there was no room for doubt.
JODY AVIRGAN: Whatever had happened with Rojas, the act of walking off the field had bound the entire team to their captain. And that action by the team bound them to the entire country.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: El Cóndor was a martyr, a martyr to the cause.
DANIEL MATAMALA: People were outraged.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And the feeling was of here’s our hero, you know, who’s put his body on the line, has been injured. And the Brazilians are going to get away with it.
JODY AVIRGAN: And for Chileans watching from home, what should come next felt obvious.
DANIEL MATAMALA: The right thing will be that Brazil will be disqualified, and Chile would promote to the World Cup directly.
JODY AVIRGAN: Tensions immediately mounted between soccer fans, and in a way, between the two countries.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: That night there were protests in Santiago in front of the Brazilian Embassy and a very rowdy protest.
JODY AVIRGAN: The employees of the embassy, who had gathered to watch the game, were caught inside as the protests grew and grew. The news media descended. There were reports that Chileans attacked anyone walking by who happened to look Brazilian. Things were spiraling.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: You know in this fit of nationalism, that was an extension of the game itself.
JODY AVIRGAN: Pelé had been the first to cast suspicion about the blood streaming down Roberto Rojas’s face. But he wasn’t the only one. In the hours after the match, reporters who were at the Maracanã started to ask questions, because they knew what this Chilean team was willing to do to win.
PAULO TEIXEIRA: And all of a sudden the guy was, was with blood. We did not understand what happened.
JODY AVIRGAN: Pelé had said the blood looked fake. For others, they wondered why there would be any blood at all.
LUCIANO BORGES: It was red with blood. And I remember watching that and saying, it’s funny, because I thought that this kind of rocket would burn the guy, not cut the guy.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Some people started wondering could a flare really cut you?
DANILO DÍAZ: How could you he a cut? How can he get cut by a flare?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Wouldn’t it be more logical for there to be a burn?
DANILO DÍAZ: He should’ve been burned, not cut.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And if the flare had landed behind you why would the cut be on the front of his face?
JODY AVIRGAN: Reporter Milton Millas was one of the first to voice his doubts. He went over to Rojas and said, “Roberto, tell me the truth.”
MILTON MILLAS: I said, “Roberto, tell me the truth.” “No” —he said— “Milton. It’s absolutely how you saw it.”
JODY AVIRGAN: “Milton, it’s exactly how you saw it,” said Rojas.
The problem was, very few people could say what they saw. The journalists, the fans, the players, were all unsure, and were furiously trying to piece things together.
When the incident happened, all the television cameras were pointed in the wrong direction. The action was on the other end of the field.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: They didn’t get the shot. There was no video proof of what happened.
JODY AVIRGAN: But, there were news photographers at the game. It quickly became apparent that this was the only place there would be a record of the incident.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So of all the people in the stadium nobody could prove one way or another what happened except the photographers.
JODY AVIRGAN: The photographers immediately started huddling together to find out what each other had.
Paulo Teixeira was a photographer at that game, taking photos of the match alongside several other newspaper cameramen.
PAULO TEIXEIRA: So I just, I fly over and fall behind, behind Rojas.
JODY AVIRGAN: They were standing at field level, watching the action. Paulo saw the flare, what he calls the bengala, fly out of the stands. But he saw it with the naked eye. His camera was in his hands.
PAULO TEIXEIRA: When you see the bengala coming, you’re not looking at it through the camera.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So, he didn’t take the shot.
JODY AVIRGAN: Next to Paulo, though, was a photographer, Ricardo Alfieri. He was working for a Japanese soccer magazine.
PAULO TEIXEIRA: We start to…to…to talk among ourselves. I asked Ricardo: “Ricardo, what about you?”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: He turns to Ricardo and says, “hey did you get the shot?”
JODY AVIRGAN: Ricardo looks at Paulo and says…
PAULO TEIXEIRA: He told me, “I got five shots.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Tengo cinco tomas, tengo cinco tomas he says.
JODY AVIRGAN: Cinco tomas. Five shots. Ricardo happened to see the flare through his camera and had snapped his shutter five times. He knew he had the shots. Somewhere in those cinco tomas was the real story of what had just happened.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I think it’s no exaggeration to say that at that moment those five pictures were you know the five most valuable photographs in South America.
PAULO TEIXEIRA: So what happens next? Everyone around Ricardo, okay? Every TV reporter for him to explain was an amazing, fantastic atmosphere.
JODY AVIRGAN: After reporters swarmed Ricardo to ask about the photos, Paulo Teixeira took control, effectively becoming Ricardo’s business manager.
PAULO TEIXEIRA: I said to Ricardo, “Listen to me. Let me handle this, you are a photographer, I’m a photographer and a businessman, let me let me handle this.”
JODY AVIRGAN: Paulo knew he could sell the photos to a Brazilian outlet that night. There was a World Cup qualification in the balance, sitting inside that camera.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And so what happens over the next couple of hours is this kind of a mad cap, on-again off-again attempt to sell these pictures for the most money possible.
JODY AVIRGAN: Immediately, several newspapers came out of the woodwork, inquiring about exclusive rights to develop and publish the photos.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And I remember Paulo said to me something that that was very funny to me. It is like for a few hours he got to live like a king because everybody wanted those pictures, so he described riding in a limousine you know carrying this roll of film in his hand.
JODY AVIRGAN: Paulo helped Ricardo set his price, five thousand dollars.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Which to me doesn’t seem like a lot of money now. But Paulo assured me that that was an extravagant amount of money.
JODY AVIRGAN: Eventually it came down to two papers, both Brazilian. One of them, Globo, locked in the price and handed him the $5,000 right on the spot. He gave 60% to Ricardo Alfieri, the photographer, and kept the other 40% for himself.
By this point it was late on a Sunday night , the woman who ran Globo’s photo lab had already gone home.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So they had to wake her up, send a cab to go get her, bring her to the studio, have her like you know warm up the machines, develop the pictures.
JODY AVIRGAN: But these were the most important photos Globo’s sports page had ever run. And they would appear in the next morning’s paper.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: So what you see in the photo is a plume of smoke and a bright yellow flare about a yard and a half behind Rojas.
JODY AVIRGAN: The photos were published in a huge, full color spread on the front of Globo’s sports section. The first photo was the one that provided the proof that everyone was looking for.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: It’s obvious from this image that the flair lands behind, behind Rojas.
JODY AVIRGAN: Yes, there was a flare sent onto the field from the stands. Yes, it had landed near El Cóndor. But it did not hit him. He was standing up when the flare landed in the goalie box.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: And in the series of photographs that come next, Rojas sort of tosses himself into the smoke, which sort of makes it makes it much harder to see exactly what’s happening. But there’s no, there’s no question that that first image demonstrates quite clearly that he didn’t get hit.
JODY AVIRGAN: The cinco tomas propelled the story to a new level. Every newspaper, every television show, every conversation in every café was about what Rojas had done.
Brazilian police even tracked down the woman who had shot the flare. She was mobbed by reporters, gave her side…
JODY AVIRGAN: She’d go on to be a minor celebrity, actually, pose for the cover of Brazilian playboy.
But after being interrogated by the cops for half a day, eventually they determined it was an accident, she was released.
But the hard photographic evidence didn’t necessarily change the way Chilean fans felt. Daniel Matamala:
DANIEL MATAMALA: Chilean were emotionally so attached to a narrative in which we were the victims. So everybody tried to find alternative explanation. Maybe it was a piece of the flare that hit the ground and go to Rojas’s head. People were saying all kinds of things in order to protect this narrative and we are innocent victims of a conspiracy against us.
JODY AVIRGAN: Attempts by the media to clear up the story didn’t help much. In fact, many of them continued to fuel the nationalism and the conspiracy theories. Rojas’s teammates denied knowing about what had happened, but they stood by their captain and the decision to leave the field under hostile conditions at the Maracanã.
Many Chileans refused to believe that their captain had actually cheated. Others praised El Cóndor for cheating and trying to find a way to win.
DANIEL MATAMALA: You know when you believe a narrative and it’s so emotional because it’s your country, it’s your country so it’s very hard to say well, maybe we were wrong. Maybe we are not the victims. Maybe we are the crooks.
JODY AVIRGAN: In this moment, it was pure emotion. Nothing was logical. Everything felt crooked.
ROJAS – PRESS CONFERENCE IN ZURICH
ROBERTO ROJAS: Lo único que me acuerdo hasta el momento que yo ví la luz al lado mío, a mano izquerda… después …. Desperté en el camarín auxiliado por mis compañeros, en el cual yo estaba en la camilla.
ROJAS TRANSLATION: The only thing I remember is the light to the side of me… and then, next thing I remember, I was in the locker room, lying on a table… surrounded by my teammates.
JODY AVIRGAN: For his part, in the days after returning to Chile with a bandage still on his head, Rojas gave a few more interviews. But those didn’t really help. Reporters started to ask him point blank about the accusations that this was all a hoax.
ROJAS – PRESS CONFERENCE IN ZURICH
ROBERTO ROJAS: Yo pienso que no. Los hechos, hay más de 2 millones de personas que vieron el partido, ¿no es cierto? …Y es más, hay un perjudicado, y ahora a parte de ser perjudicado quiere ser culpado…]]
ROJAS TRANSLATION: No, I don’t think it’s a hoax. More than 2 million people saw the match, right? There’s your proof, what they saw. So what people are saying… I don’t think there’s anything to that. And now people are talking about me, as if I’m guilty of something…
JODY AVIRGAN: Every interview, his story would shift and slip around.
DANIEL MATAMALA: Even Rojas very quickly said that well, maybe I wasn’t hit directly by the flare. I don’t know exactly what happened. So it was, it was very confusing.
JODY AVIRGAN: Somehow, the photos created more questions than answers. Including, still: where exactly did that blood come from?
[ANNOUNCER: There’s blood there or something down the side of his face.]
JODY AVIRGAN: A week after the match FIFA stepped in. They sanctioned Chile, the team, not for what Rojas had done, but for leaving the pitch and refusing to come back and finish the game. Chile was out, which automatically sent Brazil to the World Cup.
At the same time, they launched an investigation into Rojas’s behavior. A few weeks later, they called Rojas to FIFA headquarters in Zurich. Just as El Cóndor was going into the hearing, reporters asked him what he was thinking. He replied:
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Hoy paro un penal… today I’m going to save a penalty.
JODY AVIRGAN: But Rojas was not able to save this one. FIFA had reviewed the evidence and they issued their ruling. Rojas was banned from soccer for life.
They didn’t find conclusive proof that his teammates were part of the plot, but even so FIFA banned Chile from the next World Cup as well.
Reporters in Zurich swarmed Rojas. He was still evasive. Eventually, one reporter, trying anything to get a straight answer, asked Rojas whether he had psychological problems.
[ROJAS – PRESS CONFERENCE IN ZURICH
NEWS HOST: Por último se le preguntó concretamente a Rojas si enfrentaba problemas psicológicos.]
JODY AVIRGAN: Did he think they way he was acting was, normal?
ROJAS – TRANSLATION:
I’m not sure, I feel normal. I’ve been dealing with this situation and it has felt like it’s gotten away from me… And here I am. I can’t tell you if I’m normal or abnormal. I’m trying to be as normal as possible.
JODY AVIRGAN: It wasn’t until he had returned to Chile that Rojas finally gave the full story in an interview on Chilean television. It’s with a news program, he’s in a dark studio, wearing a black suit and tie. The cut on his forehead has healed.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: That interview is just, is kind of breathtaking. What you see is someone who’s been defeated, what you see is somebody who realizes that that that now that he’s got no way out.
And to watch him you know he’s very proud man just kind of come clean almost against his will is just, is just astonishing.
So we got it in our heads that we were going to get the result we wanted, at all costs. At all costs…We talked about it once and that’s all. It wasn’t even analyzed in detail. No. It was just there, bouncing around in our heads, as we say.
JODY AVIRGAN: Nevertheless, Cóndor claimed that he’d acted alone in faking his injury. Rojas walked the interviewer and the Chileans watching from home through the entire incident, moment by moment.
I turn my head left and I see a light falling but there was a lot of smoke and, and that was when, in a manner of seconds, I said: “Well, here it is.”
JODY AVIRGAN: The “here” was his opportunity. His chance to disrupt the match.
It all happened in a thousandth of a second. If I had thought about it for a minute, maybe… I would have done nothing. But in an instant I was wrapped up in something that everyone believed had actually happened.
JODY AVIRGAN: When he was pushed on exactly what he had done when the flare hit the ground, Rojas finally admitted that as he fell towards the smoke, he had cut himself. How? With a razorblade, that he’d hidden inside his sock.
Well… I went onto the field with it, but but I wasn’t worried about what I had to do with it. In the first half I forgot about it. If you remember I was playing one of the best matches of my life.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: He was playing such a great game, it almost feels like the tell-tale heart or something. You know like this like ticking thing that’s there that’s, it’s always present even when he’s making these outrageous saves and and and keeping his team single-handedly in the game. There’s always this other thing that’s there and it’s the razor blade.
JODY AVIRGAN: Once his team had gone down by a goal, Cóndor was desperate. The razor blade became his only way out.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Everything kept steering himself back to the presence of that little razor blade, which would change the course of the game and of course the course of his life and the course of you know Chilean soccer’s trajectory.
JODY AVIRGAN: That trajectory was one of heartbreak for Chilean soccer. They’d been banned from TWO World Cups.
DANIEL MATAMALA: The national team was banned also for the next World Cup and it was the end of a dream for a complete generation of very talented players that never had a shot to play the World Cup.
But I think it has a positive side too. I think it was the end of an era of madness, of thinking that to win in soccer we have to cheat or to take advantage. This mentality was very toxic and very negative to Chilean society. And I think that in this way, we kind of learned a lesson.
JODY AVIRGAN: Roberto Rojas is still alive, though he’s battled serious health issues over the years. He lives in Brazil now, of all places, where he coaches soccer.
He’s spoken from time to time about the incident, but his story still changes, conspiracy theories still exist.
DANIEL MATAMALA: I think that it’s impossible to think that he was alone. I think that obviously he was a leader, he was a leader of the team. But who else was involved? That’s very, very hard to say.
And the only way to really prove is that the players that were part of the conspiracy admitted it. And I don’t think they have many incentives to do it. It’s difficult to know and maybe we will never know.
JODY AVIRGAN: What Rojas did seems impossible. Impossibly audacious, impossible to think it would lead Chile to beat Brazil. Impossible that it would have such ripple effects. Rojas himself saw the impossible in that moment.
And that was when I decided. Something had to be steering me internally… at that moment, in a matter of seconds, lead me to wanting to take advantage of a moment that felt… impossible.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I do think about this a lot because everything about being a professional athlete at that level is a series of negotiations with what’s possible and everyone saying like that’ll never happen and then it does. You start out playing soccer in your neighborhood, in your you know little town and you’re like I want to play professionally and everyone’s no that’ll never happen. And it does. I want to be on the national team. It’ll never happen and it does. I want to be the captain of my national team, and everyone’s like that’ll never happen and it does. I want to lead my team to the World Cup by defeating Brazil and knocking them out, you know.
It’s like everything that they’ve done that a guy like Rojas has done, has been a series of impossible acts. And so if you’re raised in that mindset why wouldn’t you attempt to this act that is on the surface, you know I say dumb, but he might say impossible.
And there it is.