In any field of culture or entertainment, whether it be sport or the arts, greatness is often defined by longevity. It’s thought to be hard to reach the pinnacle of any discipline, but to remain at the top is considered to be the true litmus test of one’s eminence.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for fleeting brilliance, a star that shines so bright only to be extinguished quicker than it took to emerge. Within the space of two whirlwind years, between 1997 and 1999, one goalkeeper moved to Spain from Argentina, won the coveted Zamora trophy with an unheralded side, helped eliminate England from the World Cup in France, and then disappeared to join a religious cult. This is the story of Carlos Ángel Roa.
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Carlos Ángel Roa was born in August 1969 in the Argentine city of Santa Fe, the capital of the province bearing the same name. Roa would earn his goalkeeping stripes a little further afield from his home town, relocating to Avellaneda, the port city separated from Buenos Aires by the Matanza River.
There, he spent five years playing for the famous Racing Club, making his debut in November 1988 aged just 19, clocking over 100 appearances. Oddly, during his time at El Cilindro, the club decided to take a pre-season trip to the Congo, a far cry from today’s modern jaunts to Asia or the United States. Roa contracted malaria whilst on this tour, but fully recovered, perhaps a pre-cursor to the crazy path his career and life would take.
In 1994 Roa moved across Buenos Aires province to join Club Atlético Lanús. He replaced fans’ favourite Marcelo Ojeda, who ironically left for Spain, forging the same path Roa himself would later follow. In three years at La Fortaleza, Roa endeared himself to the club’s faithful, playing over a hundred games and achieving unprecedented success for the club. With Roa in between the sticks, Lanús racked up three consecutive third-place finishes, and won the Copa COMNEBOL in 1996, no mean feat for a club with the tradition and resources of Lanús.
It was this form that led Spain’s Mallorca to purchase Roa in the summer of 1997. In what was a mirror image of his time in Lanús, Roa managed to assist an unheralded side reach previously unimaginable heights. Mallorca had just gained promotion from the second division the previous season and were in need of strengthening on and off the field. Roa’s coach at Lanús, Héctor Cúper, also crossed the Atlantic and subsequently became well known to fans of European football.
With the likes of Marcelino, Iván Campo and Juan Valerón in their side, Los Bermellones achieved unprecedented success by creating personal best finishes in both league and cup. Despite having spent five years in the second tier, Mallorca came up and immediately finished fifth.
In the Copa del Rey, the club were beaten finalists, having previously only reached as far as the quarter-finals. Barcelona were the team to crush their cup dreams, although as the Catalan club had already secured the league title Mallorca qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup as Spain’s representative by default.
Following his move to Spain, Roa became a fixture with the Argentine national side, culminating in an appearance at the World Cup in 1998. After three wins from three group games in France, Argentina had yet to concede a goal with the likes of Chamot, Ayala and Sensini marshalling the defence.
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La Albiceleste faced England in the round of 16 and Roa’s goal was finally breached as he conceded two goals in six minutes. Alan Shearer slammed a penalty past Roa, and then Michael Owen scored his famous solo goal. However, Argentina’s goalkeeper would have the last laugh, as the game ended 2-2 and went to penalties.
Shearer scored England’s first, lashing the ball into the roof of Roa’s net and beating him from the spot for the second time that night. Paul Ince stepped up next for the Three Lions, although his telegraphed run was easily spotted by Roa, who leapt to his left and kept out the tame effort. Paul Merson and Michael Owen scored their spot kicks and Roberto Ayala netted Argentina’s fifth.
David Batty then stepped up, knowing he had to convert to save his team, although his penalty went straight down the middle, at a perfect height for a goalkeeper. Roa saved to put Argentina through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup amid wild celebrations. They would eventually be sent home following defeat by the Netherlands but Roa had done nothing to harm his burgeoning reputation as one of the world’s best goalkeepers.
If Roa thought the 1997-98 season was good, then the following campaign was to get even better. Mallorca once again upped their game in the league, finishing third behind traditional powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid. Although Mallorca faced cup heartache once more, losing to Lazio in the Cup Winners’ Cup final at Villa Park, the achievement both at home and abroad could not be overstated.
On a personal note, Roa had become meaner, only conceding a goal every 108 minutes, compared to the previous season where his goal was breached every 100 minutes. Mallorca conceded 12 fewer goals than champions Barcelona and, incredibly, half the amount of runners-up Real Madrid. This led him to win the coveted Zamora trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper in Spain with the best goals conceded to games ratio.
Roa was also named as ESM’s European Goalkeeper of the Year, an honour won by Angelo Peruzzi the two years prior, and Oliver Kahn the two subsequent years, highlighting that Roa was indeed at the top of his game and in esteemed company.
Mallorca’s impressive league campaign meant they’d be in the draw for the qualifying rounds of the Champions League for the 1999-2000 season, one tie away from the group stage proper. When Roa should have been preparing for that, he dropped a bombshell and quit football at the peak of his powers.
His retirement wasn’t down to his age catching up with him, or a severe injury. No, Roa firmly believed that the new millennium would spell the end of humanity, and he fled to an isolated retreat in Argentina’s Córdoba province to spend his last year on this earth becoming at one with God. Roa vanished, and without a telephone couldn’t be contacted by his club or agent. He remarked at the time: “In the world, there is war, hunger, plague, much poverty, floods. I can assure you that those people who don’t have a spiritual connection with God and the type of life that he wants will be in trouble.”
Roa’s idea was to “prepare for the end of the world, in a place where He will provide everything we need”.
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Roa would pull on a pair of gloves once again, as the predicted apocalypse never came and the millennium passed without incident. His brief hiatus from the game ended his international career, although he returned to club football with Mallorca in 2000. Roa said his faith was unaltered despite the fact that the world had not ended, stating that the break had in fact done him good and reinvigorated his appetite for football.
Roa hadn’t given up on religion and as a consequence refused to play on Saturdays, observing the day of rest as taught by his church. That ruled him out of the majority of Mallorca’s games, especially as Champions League qualification had caused the rescheduling of many of the club’s fixtures. In the meantime, compatriot Leo Franco had installed himself as the club’s number one, leaving Roa on the outside looking in.
In 2002, upon the expiry of his contract, Roa moved to Albacete looking to get his career back on track. Still only 33 – a fairly young age for a goalkeeper – Roa helped Albacete win promotion from Spain’s second tier as the club finished third behind Murcia and Zaragoza, snatching the final promotion spot in the process.
In his second season with the club he was back in La Liga, helping them to a respectable 14th, six points clear of danger. Once again, Roa was back performing admirably for a side with a relative lack of historical success.
During his second season with El Queso Mecánico, Roa received some devastating news: he had testicular cancer. Describing it as “by far the worst experience of my life”, Roa couldn’t believe that a clean-living athlete, who refrained from drinking and smoking, could be struck down by cancer. Another prolonged break from the game meant that his career as a top-flight goalkeeper in Europe was over, and Roa once again headed back to his homeland. The curtain came down on his colourful playing career at Argentine side Club Olimpo with whom he spent one season before moving into coaching.
For two years Carlos Roa was one of the best goalkeepers in the world, starring for his country as well as a Mallorca side punching well above its weight. Was he lucky to play in good sides, or was his presence one of the key factors in allowing less-fashionable sides, such as Mallorca and Lanús, to perform so well?
That is a question that cannot be answered, and such what ifs create part of the rich tapestry of the game we love. It’s also fitting for a man who has always done things differently, doing nothing to dispel the myth that goalkeepers are a little crazy.
Despite hailing from a country where beef and red wine are as almost as important as water for the diet, Roa was a teetotaller and a vegan, thus acquiring the nickname of Lechuga, meaning lettuce in Spanish. A bible-carrying Seventh-day Adventist, Roa quit at the top of his game because of his religious beliefs, viewpoints that he still holds to this day.
He survived malaria and testicular cancer, allegedly turned down a move to Manchester United at his peak, and helped knock England out of the World Cup. Carlos Roa’s life and career have been anything but ordinary.
By Daniel Williamson. Follow @winkveron