Home >specials >World Cup 2014 >World Cup 2014: Brazil finds an unlikely hero in goalkeeper Julio Cesar

São Paulo, Brazil: For years, it has gone without saying in Brazil that fathers do not let their children grow up to be goalkeepers.

This is the land, remember, of the jogo bonito, the beautiful game. It is for strikers and stylists and supermen. Attackers here are likened to legends like Pelé and Zico. But goalkeepers? They are likened to, well, poultry and produce.

That was what made Saturday so special. It was not just that the Brazilian national team beat Chile to advance to the quarterfinals of World Cup 2014. It was not even that coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and his players, who know that anything less than a title will be considered a failure, are now three victories away from “reaching heaven", as Scolari said.

It was that the hero of it all was a goalkeeper. Or, as the locals might say, a frangueiro.

Júlio César, the starting goalkeeper for Brazil, is a frangueiro (chicken man). He is also a peru (turkey) and, on occasion, a mão de alface (or, roughly, lettuce hands). These are the printable euphemisms that Brazilians have for goalkeepers.

Against Chile, though, César was a star. He saved two of Chile’s five penalty kicks in the shootout and saw a third one bounce off the post, allowing Brazil to barely slide past its South American rival. In the interview area after the game, César stood alongside the standard spotlight fixtures for Brazil, like the star striker Neymar, and basked in the glow of victory.

Four years ago, César cried after making a critical error in Brazil’s World Cup loss to the Netherlands. After his performance against Chile, he cried again—this time, he said, because he was so happy.

“I hope to give more interviews like this," he said. “This is my dream."

If history is any indication, he should not count on it. In Brazil, goalkeepers are special, and not in a good way. They are the Little League right fielders, the last boy picked. In pickup games on the countless asphalt courts around this country, children usually play a form of rock-paper-scissors to decide which unlucky soul has to begin the game at goalkeeper. In the slightly more organized games in which adults rent a field to play on, anyone who agrees to play goalkeeper always plays free of charge.

When watching professional games, most fans in Brazil have little use for goalkeepers, to the point that some of the saints and martyrs who actually take on the job have likened the feeling of playing goal to living on death row.

The analogy is not far off the mark: After all, for goalkeepers in Brazil, it sometimes feels as if each game is just another day closer to the moment that ends you.

“The fans, they are always waiting, waiting, waiting for the mistake," said Zetti, a former goalkeeper for Brazil’s national team. “A forward, he misses nine shots and no one says anything. A goalkeeper misses one shot, and they say he takes a frango."

Zetti shook his head.

“They say that because it is like trying to catch a chicken—the ball slips away," he said. “It is very disrespectful. I always hated it."

Zetti, who played 18 years as a professional and was a backup on the 1994 World Cup championship team, is doing his best to reverse the prevailing sentiment. About six years ago, his teenage son wanted instruction on how to become a goalkeeper. Zetti began teaching the boy and a few of his friends.

Soon, there was interest from other children in the area. Zetti began to wonder if perhaps there could be a business, even as the basic notion—teaching Brazilians how to be goalkeepers—seemed about as feasible as opening a school for sunbathing in Siberia.

“It was kind of a joke at first," Zetti said. “My idea was just to have fun. But then it actually started to grow."

Now, Zetti oversees a multitude of classes at a tiny spot in the Santa Amaro neighbourhood of this city that is named Fechando o Gol, or Closing the Goal. There are two small, fenced-in fields that are designed for goalkeeping drills and instruction, as well as a snack bar where parents can watch their children dive and slide and jump high to catch a cross.

“I remember when Zetti first opened this school, I thought, ‘This will never work,’" said Ronaldo Rocha, a longtime São Paulo resident. He laughed and put his hand on the shoulder of his son Lucas, who was standing next to him. “Now my boy is a goalkeeper," he said. “I don’t know what happened."

The history of Brazilian goalkeepers is mixed. Many longtime fans still think of Moacir Barbosa as the most famous keeper in Brazilian history, but not with any sort of affection. Barbosa was roundly blamed for giving up the deciding goal in the final against Uruguay during a disastrous 1950 World Cup defeat, a game that has haunted the country ever since.

Zetti recalled that Barbosa, who died in 2000, said that “after that game, he felt like he had been sent to a prison for the rest of his life."

More recently, the public perception of goalkeepers in Brazil improved slightly as some, like César, joined the procession of top Brazilian players to club teams in Europe.

The best-known goalkeeper these days may be Rogério Ceni, the starter for São Paulo FC, who has become one of the country’s most famous athletes. Rogério, as he is known, was a reserve for the Brazilian national team at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups but has made his name by—naturally—figuring out a way to score goals, in addition to saving them.

Rogério, 41, scored his first goal when he was 24, coming up the field for a free kick near the opposing penalty area and whizzing the ball into the goal. He continued to hone his skills on free kicks and penalty kicks and, in 2006, became the international record-holder for most goals by a goalkeeper. Five years later, he scored his 100th career goal, a total that has made him beloved by even the biggest goalkeeping cynics.

Rogério, of course, is passionate about seeing the image of goalkeepers in Brazil continue to change. He loves his position and, like all keepers, revels in the moments when he can stonewall an opponent who seems certain to score.

And still, when asked whether it feels better to save a goal or score one, Rogério could not lie. He is Brazilian.

“Defending a penalty kick on a decisive moment is invaluable, no doubt," he said. “But the sensation that you, even as a goalkeeper, can actually be the one to score? The athletes that can know that feeling are very, very rare." NYT

For more stories from Brazil, go to www.livemint.com/worldcup2014

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