This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 2 June 2010. The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/brazils-best-player-a-goalkeeper/
“Brazil’s Best Player: A Goalkeeper?”
How did this happen?
No, not Brazil’s ranking among the favorites to win the World Cup. That’s absolutely fine. No, I mean the other thing. How is it that arguably Brazil’s best player, the player possibly most crucial to their championship hopes, is its goalkeeper?
A revered Brazilian goalkeeper was once as rare as a tapdancing fish. Aside from Gilmar, who won the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1958 and 1962, the position has often been seen — somewhat unfairly — as Brazil’s weakest link. In a nation where so many players shine with their feet, those who distinguish themselves with their hands have been forever second-class.
Yet Júlio César — his name appropriate for someone who may soon conquer the globe — has changed all that. A 30-year old who plays for Internazionale of Milan, he was in 2009 voted the best goalkeeper in Italy’s first division, traditionally the world’s most defensive league. But that, though impressive, is not his greatest accolade. The greatest proof of César’s ability is that Jose Mourinho, the high priest of defensive parsimony, trusted him.
Mourinho built his team upon the shot-stopping of César. In 2009-10, Internazionale won a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League; in the latter tournament, Inter restricted Chelsea and Barcelona, who between them scored 201 goals in that year’s domestic leagues, to just three goals in four matches. This, by no coincidence, was a run that saw César at his most magnificent.
Perhaps, somewhere above South Africa, a ghost is giggling nervously to himself. Many years before the reign of César, in the 1940s and 1950s, Moacir Barbosa was once regarded as the world’s finest goalkeeper. However, his terrible error in the final match of the 1950 World Cup, in front of a record home crowd of 200,000, gave a 2-1 victory to Uruguay. The defeat gave rise to nationwide scenes akin to mourning, and Barbosa spent the rest of life as an outcast within his own country. Just weeks before his death, he remarked that “under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years, but my imprisonment has been for 50 years.”
In Roman times, a triumphant general would parade round his ecstatic city for a day, supposedly accompanied by a slave whose job it was to whisper in his ear that he was only mortal. Maybe, following César’s momentous club season, Barbosa’s ghost would like to whisper something similar, knowing how swiftly football’s fates can turn.
For the moment, though, these are remarkable times. Four years ago, few would have wagered that, on the eve of the 2010 World Cup, Robinho would have fallen so woefully short of his erstwhile billing as “the new Pelé.” Fewer still would have wagered that Kaka would be emerging from perhaps the most ineffectual season of his stellar career. And fewest of all would have argued passionately that, in the Brazil team, the position of goalkeeper would be no longer one of irony, but one of iron.