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Nationaliteam No.1: The Brazilian Goalkeeper

April 22, 2011

They’ve become something of a celebrated niche over the past few years, thanks to the potent mix of opposites: the glamour of Brazil and its football culture and the position on the football pitch stereotypically viewed as the least glamorous. The rise in Brazilian goalkeepers plying their trade in Europe has of course brought about such a celebration. Last season, Internazionale won a historic treble and one of their strong points was the reliability shown by their man between the posts: Julio Cesar. This season, his stock has waned a little but there is no denying his quality and he is one of several Brazilian goalkeepers at the top of the European game: FC Porto’s Helton remains criminally underrated while there is a celebrated character plying his trade in North London but we’ll save that for later.

Julio Cesar is not by any definition the first big name Brazilian goalkeeper in Europe. Across the Italian capital, only a few years ago, Dida was AC Milan’s custodian for numerous years and while he had his fair share of sublime errors, there is no doubt that he was a fantastic goalkeeper who served the Rossoneri well as well as picking up 91 caps for the Brazilian national team. To find the first to break Europe’s view of the quality of Brazilian goalkeeping at club level, some words from Julio Cesar: (when questioned as to where these good Brazilian goalkeepers had emerged from) “They were always there, it’s just that you in Europe didn’t notice and maybe in part it was down to Taffarel. He certainly was my hero”.

Claudio Taffarel featured in three World Cups for Brazil and is cited as one of the best and most influential Brazilian goalkeepers to play at the highest level. In an era where globalisation was beginning to gain further momentum in its effort to eliminate media borders, Taffarel plied his trade successfully in Europe mostly first with Parma after his first World Cup appearance in 1990 and later after his final appearance for the Seleção in the 1998 World Cup Final, for Turkish giants Galatasaray. A World Cup winner in 1994, Taffarel was never one to be overly exuberant or controversial(unlike some that’ll be mentioned later) and his calm demeanour was of huge benefit to all the clubs he served. In his one season with now third tier Italian side Reggiana the season prior to his World Cup win, Taffarel helped the Granata to their highest ever league finish (13th in Serie A, under the guidance of a man named Carlo Ancelotti). He picked up his fair share of trophies in Europe, winning amongst domestic cups and Turkish league titles a UEFA Cup with Galatasaray as well as the UEFA Cup Winners Cup with Parma. Trophies earn media spotlight and Taffarel’s continued efforts to play down his achievements only added to the way he was revered in the European game. As always with situations like this, young Brazilian children aspire and seek to emulate their heroes and with Taffarel amongst them, it could be argued that more were willing to take up a position historically seen in Brazil as second class in comparison to the celebrated attacking talents of the country. To put this perception in context, it’s worth going back in times for early signs of what was to come in terms of the social stigma placed upon a goalkeeper. Times where the Seleção were clad not in what is now their trademark yellow but white.

Jaguaré was Brazil’s best goalkeeper in the formative stages for the national team back in the 1920s and 1930s and his hugely exuberant ways dazzled as part of a tour of Europe the national team partook. After just a year on returning from the tour, he was found dead in a gutter. A horrible thing of course but a marker in the story of the nations relationship with the least glamorous position on the football field. What would come ten years after Jaguaré’s death; no Brazilian will ever truly forget. It is engrained onto the nation’s collective memory. 1950 was the year Brazil hosted the World Cup and were expected by the people to be ultimately victorious and going into the last game; the Brazilian people had effectively planned the celebrations before with radio and newspapers already declaring Brazil’s status as World Champions. Their fate was unexpected.

The goalkeeper of that fateful day and era was Moacir Barbosa. Prior to the World Cup of 1950, Barbosa was seen as one of the best goalkeepers on the continent if not the world. He would also make history another way as he was the first black goalkeeper in Seleção history to sustain his first team place (it would be some 45 years until the next would come along in the shape of Dida). His defining moment was that of the 1950 World Cup Final. Barbosa was made the scapegoat and was made to never forget the mistake. Later in life, he was refused entry to the Brazil training camp as coach-of-the-time and Seleção legend Mario Zagallo saw Barbosa as “bad luck”. In 2000 aged 79, Barbosa died of a heart attack, impoverished. He had lived a life sentence as an outcast in Brazil, saying weeks before his death “Under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years, but my imprisonment has been for 50 years”.

The debacle of the 1950 World Cup Final has always seemed to taint the thoughts of Brazilians and goalkeepers to this day but there have been more than their fair share of success stories for the men given the role between the posts. Gilmar started his international career some three years after the “Final Fatidica” and would keep goal for the best part of 16 years, collecting 94 caps (now the 2nd highest for a Brazil goalkeeper, beneath Taffarel) and perhaps most importantly collecting 2 World Cup winners’ medals, in 1958 and in 1962. He also won countless trophies for his clubs. 3 State titles for Corinthians were followed by him being a part of perhaps the greatest team Santos have ever had: winning 5 state titles, 5 national titles, 2 Libertadores and 2 Intercontinental Cups. Émerson Leão was another relative success story (nomadic coaching career aside) as he became the first goalkeeper to captain the Seleção, doing so in the 1978 World Cup and collecting 80 caps in the process.

Brazilian goalkeeping is difficult to define as a certain style but according to the perceived stereotype, it would be unorthodox and attractively spectacular. There are quite a few prime examples of this. Rogerio Ceni has just scored the 100th goal of his career for his one and only club, Sao Paulo. It was made all the better as his free-kick turned out to be a game-winning goal against rivals Corinthians. Internationally, he’s only collected 17 caps as he’s played 2nd and 3rd fiddle to the likes of Dida and Marcos but he retains a certain appeal akin to a cult hero. In Europe, the one obvious example is he who was mentioned earlier on. Tottenham Hotspur’s Heurelho Gomes has flitted in and out of the international scene but he has become quite a character at the top of the game in Europe, first with PSV and now as part of this season’s UEFA Champions League revelation coached by Harry Redknapp. Whatever Gomes does is generally spectacular, be it wonderful almost improbable reflex saves to astounding mistakes leading to a goal conceded. Of course, living the life of a goalkeeper means in simplified terms “One day you are the best in the world the next you are the worst”. This fits Gomes like a hand into a glove(sorry). One day, his clubs fans saw him as the greatest goalkeeper around (versus Arsenal last season) and the next one of the worst (versus Real Madrid this season). There is one thing about him though that can never be questioned: he’s very entertaining. Isn’t that what football is about?

Brazilian goalkeepers don’t carry a stigma as such away from their native shores anymore and that has certainly been aided by the very public emergence of Claudio Taffarel in the 1990s and subsequent goalkeepers such as Dida and Julio Cesar who’ve continued to provide an example to inspire Brazilian children. There are countless Brazilian goalkeepers in multitudes of league throughout Europe now and of course it’s always because of the globalisation of football knowledge. There will undoubtedly soon be a new addition to the best goalkeeper in the world debate and it wouldn’t be any surprise if it was another Brazilian playing in Europe.

Anyone interested even mildly interested in the subject of Brazilian football should read Alex Bellos ’fantastic “Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life”.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 25, 2011 09:27

    Stereotypes are interesting in football. Brazilians are supposed to be crap at defending and beautiful going forward but that forgets the generations of great defenders and succession of great goalkeepers since the early 1990s.

    Great piece – very informative.


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