When Chile takes the field against Argentina in this Saturday’s final of the Copa América football competition, they can do more than just win. They can redeem a “golden generation” that went before them, and make good on decades of missed opportunity.
It was a 1989 World Cup qualifying match in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium and things were not looking good for Chile. Down 1-0 to Brazil, the team known as La Roja had to win in order to qualify for the World Cup set to take place the following year.
“The game was slipping away,” Chile’s goalkeeper Roberto “Condor” Rojas told The New York Times four years later. “I was waiting for the right opportunity.”
With 20 minutes left to play, Rojas spotted his chance, and what followed would change Chilean soccer for a generation.
When a firework thrown from the stands landed near the Chilean goal, Rojas fell to the ground in pain, apparently struck by the flare. His teammates rushed to his side and carried their keeper off the field, blood dripping profusely from his head. The match was abandoned as the Chileans refused to play on.
Commentators expected the game to be forfeited in Chile’s favor, as it was a flare from the Brazilian section of the stadium that had forced the match to end. But a week later, FIFA announced that Brazil would go to the World Cup. Things were not as they appeared.
The FIFA committee investigating the match found that it wasn’t the flare, but a razor sewn into Rojas’ glove by the team’s equipment manager that had caused the bleeding. With help from some of his teammates, Rojas had staged the injury, slashing himself with the razor in an elaborate plan to nullify the match and secure a spot for his team in the World Cup.
Not only was Chile out of the tournament, they were barred from the 1994 World Cup as well. Rojas was banned from international play for life. (FIFA later lifted the ban in 2001.)
The turn of events in 1989 denied Chile a chance at what many believed would be a golden age for its national soccer program. For one, it was the year that right-wing army chief General Augosto Pinochet was forced to step down. Soccer had become moribund during Pinochet’s regime, and the national stadium was even used as a makeshift prison camp. His departure offered the promise of a fresh start.
Chile’s team also included some of the most talented players ever to come out of the country, a “golden generation” that had lost its chance to try for the World Cup, soccer’s greatest prize.
Now, a new group of Chilean stars has given fans, like legendary former player Ivan Zamorano, reason to be hopeful. “I’ve never seen so many players of this quality,” Zamorano told La Hora del Taco de Radio Universo. “I think they deserve to win something as the greatest generation that Chilean football has ever had.”