When Pro-Wrestling’s Dirtiest Trick Came to Soccer
Some games are seen as classier than others. When there are scandals in professional chess — like the rumors that guy was cheating with the aid of a remote-controlled butt plug — the world is scandalized, while in something like professional wrestling, blind eyes are turned to all sorts of dodginess.
Blading, for instance, is an established thing in wrestling, generally done with the full complicity of one’s opponent. The way it works is, a wrestler secretes a razor blade, or a small section of one, somewhere around their body, then surreptitiously makes a small nick in the top of their forehead at an opportune time. They might be laying face-down with their arms in front of their face, for instance, or their opponent might be doing a big showboating move that draws all the eyes of the crowd. When cut, the forehead has a tendency to bleed a lot — especially when the heart is beating very fast — and a small wound can make a huge visual impact, blood mixing with sweat to coat the face dramatically.
Scalp wounds heal quickly, but constant blading takes a toll. There’s a whole generation of pro wrestlers with incredibly odd-looking foreheads, gnarled and wrinkled with adjacent scars nudging into one another. In Mick “Mankind” Foley’s book Have A Nice Day, he describes Abdullah the Butcher as having “grooves carved into his head so deep that he used to flip out people in casinos by inserting gambling chips into them.”
But on one occasion in 1989, blading made it to the much more “legit” sport of soccer. Not just any soccer either, international World Cup qualifying soccer.
On September 3, 1989, Brazil and Chile were playing to qualify for World Cup Italia ‘90. The pair of them and Venezuela made up the Group 3, and the winners of this round-robin stage, in which each team played each other twice, would qualify for the proper tournament. Chile and Brazil had both beaten Venezuela, and drew 1-1 with each other at their first meeting, a chaotic game with three red cards (including one before kickoff) and two incredibly clumsy goals. However, Brazil had scored 10 goals against Venezuela to Chile’s eight, so a tied game would send Brazil through on goal difference.
Twenty minutes into the second half, Brazil was up 1-0. Chile would need to score twice in the remaining 25 minutes to go through, something that seemed desperately unlikely. The atmosphere was intense, and the 140,000-strong crowd was incredibly animated. Clashes between fans at the teams’ first meeting in Santiago had led to a ban on Chile hosting any more home games, and the Brazilian home fans were out in full force to see their team qualify for the World Cup.
And again, Chile was pretty much doomed. Winning simply wasn’t going to happen. The team’s only hope was either for Brazil to be disqualified for some reason, or for the match to be abandoned, in order to come back and revisit it another day, ideally not in Brazil (there is a definite statistical advantage in soccer to being the home team). It was a desperate time, and Chile elected to take desperate measures, which is where blading came in.
As a firework thrown by a Brazilian fan hit the pitch, Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas collapsed, covering his face. A stretcher was immediately summoned, as his teammates surrounded him, and he was soon carried from the field, his face covered with blood. Other Chilean players started calling for the match to be abandoned, saying that they didn’t feel safe with the Brazilian fans being so aggressive. One Chilean player, Patricio “Pato” Yáñez, began making obscene gestures to the crowd. As the Argentinian referee tried to convince the players to continue with the match, the fan that threw the firework, 24-year-old Rosenery Mello do Nascimento, was arrested.
The match was abandoned in chaos. Brazil was aghast, set to miss the World Cup for the first time ever. “I was shocked,” recalled Brazilian captain Ricardo Gomes later. “I thought immediately of losing the chance to go to the World Cup. It was something really bad.”
Pending investigation, Brazil was potentially going to be disqualified. But over the following days, cracks began showing in what had happened. “Amazing as it may sound, no TV camera caught the moment the flare flew over and supposedly hit the goalkeeper,” photographer Paulo Teixera later told CNN. “We photographers were sitting along the side line and saw the flare come over. I was amazed to see Rojas rolling over and bleeding from an eye, as the device had hit the ground about a meter from him.”
Teixera himself had missed capturing the moment, but a colleague of his who was working for a Japanese magazine was confident he had snapped the exact second the flare hit the ground — near Rojas, but not actually hitting him. However, he was supposed to send the film off to Japan to be processed in the magazine’s own lab. Insistent that the roll of film contained evidence of enormous bullshit, Teixera notified the president of the Brazilian soccer association — who also had the surname Teixera, just to confuse things further — and managed to pay the owner of a local photography lab to open in the middle of the night to process the film. The pictures were sold to a global agency and plastered across TV and newspapers. The gig was up.
What eventually came out was that Chile manager Orlando Aravena and vice-captain Fernando Astengo had pushed the team to do anything and everything they could to get the match abandoned, providing Rojas with the razor blade. Along with team doctor Daniel Rodriguez and Rojas himself, all were banned for life from competitive soccer, and the game was retroactively given the result 2-0 to Brazil — Chile was out of the tournament and internationally disgraced, plus banned from competing in the next World Cup USA ‘94.
Rojas had been in trouble before, having used a fake passport to play for the under-20s team, and been held back from the 1984 Olympics following anabolic steroid use, but lifetime bans are rare in soccer, generally coming after sustained underhand campaigns like match-fixing rather than one-off moments of desperate idiocy. Rojas had been one of Chile’s best ever goalkeepers, but now his career was over.
The event became known as El Maracanazo, after the Maracanã Stadium in which it took place. It roughly translates from Portuguese as “the disgrace of the Maracanã.” Yáñez’s specific obscene gesture — kind of flicking his balls forward while thrusting — became known as “doing a Pato Yáñez.” Rosenery Mello do Nascimento, the fan who had thrown the flare, was paid $40,000 to pose for Brazilian Playboy.
Brazil lost to eventual runners-up Argentina in the knockout stage, but four years later won USA ‘94. Aravena and Astengo kept working in domestic Chilean soccer, while Rojas found himself working in Brazil of all places, as goalkeeping coach for Sao Paolo, who he later briefly managed. Rather than being a figure of hate there, he was respected and forgiven for openly discussing and apologizing for his actions and moving on as best he could. Gomes, the Brazilian captain at the time, later said, “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.” Rojas’s lifetime ban was lifted in 2001 — he was 44 and too old for a playing career, but some dignity was restored.
El Maracanazo was a regrettable incident for everyone concerned, a stain on international soccer. Even Brazil, who was awarded the victory, would rather it hadn’t happened and that they had legitimately won the game. But desperation is a powerful thing, that somehow meant cheating in front of 140,000 people and the world’s media felt like it made sense.
Either way, there’s using your head, and then there’s using your head in a really dumb way.