ON ZÉ ROBERTO’S 43rd BIRTHDAY, Gabriel Jesus took to social media in order to thank “a man who helped [him] no end in [his] arrival as a professional”. His “biggest reference” and an “excellent person”. Given Zé Roberto’s age and the fact that Jesus, who turned 20 himself recently, has only been plying his trade in the paid ranks for a few seasons at the most, one would assume that Zé Roberto provided mentoring and tutelage to Brazil’s number 9 in a player-coach capacity before his high-profile move to Manchester City.
However, until as recent as December last year, the two lined up with one another as on-field teammates for Palmeiras with Zé Roberto continuing to defy the laws of physics as a key component of the Brazilian champions’ quest to defend their title, but more importantly, conquer the Copa Libertadores in the supposed final term of what has been an illustrious and barrier-breaking career.
Whereas most Brazilian players often bring down the curtain on their playing time at the club they originally started out at, Zé Roberto, despite being a Paulistano native of São Paulo, would be given his first chance elsewhere, although his story is naturally rooted in the same poverty, strife and misery common in this part of the world.
Growing up in São Miguel Paulista, a tough neighbourhood in the city’s unforgiving Zona Leste (Eastern Suburbs), referred to as Zona Lost, José Roberto da Silva was cruelly handed the ‘Junior’ title by an absent father who would leave only his name before walking out on his wife Maria and their four other sons.
Things looked up when, at the age of just seven, Zé was selected to play for the famous Pequeninos do Jockey amateur club not too far from the São Paulo FC stadium in Morumbi, which, as its Galeria de Craques proudly shows, counts a number of current and former professionals including ex-Real Madrid and Arsenal star Júlio Baptista among those who passed through its gates.
Yet the journey would still be long and arduous. Whilst training was meant to be bi-weekly, every Wednesday and Saturday, Maria, working as a nursing assistant during the day and at a nursing home caring for the elderly at night, could only muster up the money for her son – lanky but with a hell of a left foot – to make one of the sessions as anything more would burst the family budget.
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As fans of Corinthians will be quick to tell you, thanks to São Paulo’s unorganised and insufficient public transport network for a bustling megalopolis boasting over 12 million inhabitants, coupled with paralysing traffic, getting to and from Zona Leste can be a nightmare at the best of times. “I had to take two buses and two metros and the journey took an hour and a half,” recalled Zé Roberto, who actually had it lucky in retrospect as such a trip across town in the modern age can easily be doubled.
To help out at home, he became an office boy and, such were the financial difficulties em casa, actually gave up on his dream despite having progressed from the Pequeninos to Palestra São Bernardo – a small club with, like Palmeiras, an Italian immigrant background for whom he won the Copinha São Paulo Junior Cup.
A mere six months after calling it a day, Maria arrived at home overflowing with excitement to inform Zé that he had been invited for trials by Portuguesa, who had been enchanted by tales of “beautiful dribbles and brilliant passes”. Arriving at the Canindé stadium, Zé’s stomach dropped when he saw that the line for his preferred position in midfield formed around the block. So too did that for attackers. But at left-back, there was less competition.
Understandably, given the volume of young hopefuls trying out, there were just a few minutes to show what he had and Zé was rejected. Again, he was heartbroken and financially out of pocket for having given up a day’s work for nothing. But Maria was persistent, berating the coaches, as a dejected Zé looked back on his way to the bus stop, and forcing them to at least take their contact details.
Maria’s plan worked. Eventually her son was called back for the youth team and broke into the first team in 1994. Though Portuguesa’s current travails as a Série D club on the brink of extinction would suggest otherwise, Roberto led the team to the cusp of Série A glory two years later.
Back then, the championship was decided via a playoff format and a two-legged final that saw São Paulo’s fourth-biggest club host Grêmio in the Morumbi – just a stone’s throw from where the 22-year-old, already called up for the Seleção, had bloomed at Pequeninos do Jockey.
Beating Grêmio 2-0 at ‘home’ so to speak, Portuguesa would be defeated by the same deficit in Porto Alegre therefore unfairly handing the title to Grêmio as they, in sixth, had finished higher than eighth place Portuguesa in the first phase of the season marking the second occasion in which the Gaúcho club had snatched the Brasilierão title through such means.
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For his exploits in the campaign, Zé Roberto would be handed the best left-back accolade at the Golden Ball Awards and in 1997 was acquired by Real Madrid. Echoing a trend likewise repeated at international level – with Juventus’ Alex Sandro to automatically surrender starting action were he, as rumoured, to head to the Bernabéu and sign up for a double dose of playing second fiddle to Marcelo – Zé Roberto found it hard to dislodge compatriot, Roberto Carlos. Having picked up La Liga and Champions League winning medals, he headed back to Brazil in 1998 in a bid to at least make the national squad heading to France that year through more first team football at Flamengo.
The strategy paid dividends as not only did Zé Roberto feature at France 98, but what playing time he did have in the competition was obviously enough to impress Bayer Leverkusen and earn him a move back to Europe. Immediately becoming a fan favourite, he played a pivotal role in three second-place Bundesliga finishes before following Michael Ballack to Bayern Munich in the quest for silverware.
And silverware he would receive, scooping three domestic doubles over a four-year period stretching from 2002 to 2006 before falling out of favour with new coach Felix Magath, leaving in a huff and criticising the Bavarian side in the media before making a second return to Brazil at Santos.
Staying at Santos for just a year, the spell was to be vital in Zé Roberto’s career, marking his first deployment in attacking midfield as the coastal club in his home state of São Paulo reached the semi-finals of the Libertadores after his first senior Brazilian trophy, the Paulistão, was secured.
On a Bosman, all was mutually forgiven as the now volante holding midfielder found himself in Munich again and, in cahoots with Mark van Bommel, helped Bayern to a fourth domestic double. In 2009, squabbles would again resurface as Zé Roberto took umbrage to an offering of a mere one-year contract forcing a transfer to Hamburg that would end abruptly in identical fashion.
Days after his 37th birthday, testing the waters at Al-Gharafa for the 2011-2012 campaign – and preceding Xavi’s own move to Qatar by almost half a decade – would usually communicate a winding down of one’s career. Nothing could be further from the truth. Linking up with the club that had cost him his only chance to win the Brazilian national title, Grêmio, a player nearing 40 would rack up three seasons with over 30 appearances, accumulating 41 games and 10 goals in the second.
While in December 2012 Zé Roberto stated a desire to retire at the club, offence taken in lieu of the offering of any contract proposal at all in late 2014 pushed him to sleeping giants Palmeiras where, in the 2015 season, he would run out for an incredible 49 showings at 41 years of age and indeed provide much influence to Gabriel Jesus as the pair were pivotal in a Copa do Brasil victory.
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The following year, again featuring on 45 occasions, Brasileirão redemption would be achieved as the team claimed its first domestic championship in over two decades since a side led by Rivaldo and positional rival Roberto Carlos won back-to-back titles in, coincidentally, the season that Zé Roberto got into the Portuguesa senior team.
That all brings us to the present day. Viewing the Série A as less of a priority, as is the want of Brazilian teams when contesting South America’s premier continental competition, both Palmeiras and Zé Roberto have their chips invested in lifting one of the few trophies that has eluded him at club level – the Copa Libertadores – which would then lead to a similarly evasive Club World Cup likely to result in a final showdown against old team Real Madrid a full 20 years since he joined them.
This time, he promises, with the intent to spend more quality time with his children¸ the eldest of which will be joined by the rest of the family as he starts university in the United States, he wants to ride off into the sunset once and for all.
Although he was an integral part of the 1997 and 1999 Copa America-winning teams, as well as the aforementioned 1998 and 2006 World Cup squads, Zé Roberto’s countrymen have always sympathised with him over being snubbed for inclusion in the 2002 Japan and South Korea-conquering team. That year, he had helped Bayer nearly win the Bundesliga and reach the Champions League and DFB-Pokal finals in what was one of his best ever seasons.
When Roberto Carlos’ name is again raised as a reason for keeping Zé Roberto out of consideration, his backers are quick to raise the point that he could have easily slotted in as a volante, then leading to a counter argument detailing how, which will come as a shock to Manchester United fans, Premier League flop Kléberson had the game of his life alongside Gilberto Silva in the Yokohama final as Zé Roberto’s Leverkusen teammate Ballack was suspended in the semi and had to watch from the stands in the exact same manner the Brazilian had to miss out on a chance to avenge Madrid in the Champions League final at Hampden Park.
This disciplinary issue is often speculated as the cause of missing the cut. Confirmed by Zé Roberto to Fox Sports, it remains just that, though – speculation – as Luiz Felipe Scolari refused to give an explanation when the two were reunited at Grêmio. Nevertheless, one of Brazil’s most versatile and durable players has enjoyed a lengthy, unheard of dominance in elite level football apparently helped by – as is often the case for Brazilian players rising out of poverty – a strong Evangelical faith, a lack of vices, including resisting the temptation to womanise, and even abstaining from sex for two years during his time at Grêmio as his wife stayed in São Paulo.
For Brazilian fans, Zé Roberto will be remembered fondly and, akin to Bernard Hopkins who boxed on past 50 and went from The Executioner to The Alien in light of his comparable supernatural ability to stave off Father Time and continue to perform at the highest level, there will be few like him to follow.
By Tom Sanderson @TomSandersonSP