The complicated relationship between Brazil and its goalkeepers

The complicated relationship between Brazil and its goalkeepers

FOR A COUNTRY THAT COULD EASILY NAME A DOZEN PLAYERS in any all-time top 100 players list, Brazil would struggle to include a goalkeeper. Think of Brazilian football and many images come to mind: that Carlos Alberto goal, the physics-defying free-kick from Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo rampaging through defences, and Ronaldinho’s majestic ball skills. The list is endless.

One of the most defining, though, is of a tearful teenage Pelé overwhelmed by guiding his country to their first World Cup win in 1958. The picture sees Pelé resting his head on a teammate’s shoulder, whose comforting arm is seemingly keeping the 17-year-old on his feet. The man in the black jersey is goalkeeper Gilmar, who personified the supporting role the goleiro has played in Brazilian footballing history. 

The football-mad nation has always had a love/hate relationship with its goalkeepers, thanks in part to their reputation for unreliability that has spread across the world. A country boasting five World Cup wins surely couldn’t have done so with a continuous stream of nowhere men between the posts? Maybe the source of these opinions can be traced back to the middle of the last century and a moment that haunts Brazilian football to this day.

While most of Europe had been decimated by World War Two and was in the midst of rebuilding, the small matter of who would host the World Cup in 1950 was up in the air. Attention turned to South America, and Brazil – who had been favourites to host the cancelled tournament of 1942 – stepped in. The monolithic Maracanã was built in Rio to host the final, the jewel in the crown for the Brazilian government. It was a final that the host nation had to win; an expectant public demanded nothing less. Neighbours Uruguay had won the inaugural tournament in 1930 and for the Seleção, their time was now. 

Brazil coasted through the tournament. Other than a 2-2 draw with Switzerland, the other results were more emphatic, as comfortable 7-1 and 6-1 victories over Sweden and Spain respectively set up what was effectively a final the country had waited for. Uruguay, however, had also picked up some impressive victories on their way, but the press was in no doubt who the winners would be. The group format of the final round meant Brazil needed only a draw to lift the newly-named Jules Rimet trophy. To further crank up the pressure, that morning O Mundo newspaper ran a picture of the Brazil team under the headline: “These Are The World Champions”.

A crowd of almost 200,000 crammed into the Maracanã to see the expected formality. All was going to plan when Friaça put Brazil ahead shortly after half-time, but Alcides Ghiggia had other ideas for La Celeste and levelled the scores in the 66th minute. Uruguay had gained control of the match and poured forward sensing a winner. As Ghiggia ambled down the right with 11 minutes remaining, goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa expected a cross and edged away from his post. 

Instead, Ghiggia scuffed a shot towards Barbosa’s near post, leaving the Vasco da Gama man unable to get back in time. As the plume of dust from the goal line settled, the ball was in the net. Barbosa knelt, head bowed, a hand rested on his knee. The stadium fell silent as the final minutes ebbed away until English referee George Reader blew for full-time; the game and the Brazilian dream were over. The country went into mourning, with playwright Nelson Rodrigues dramatically called it “our Hiroshima”.

For Barbosa, life would never be the same. Seen as a somewhat unorthodox but capable goalkeeper, he had won the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones, a precursor for the Copa Libertadores, with his club. As a black goalkeeper – something of a rarity in Brazilian football at that time – he had suffered racial abuse from fans. The finger of blame pointed at him, and he made only one further appearance for his country before being cast aside for good as a pariah who was spat at and abused in the street. He became a recluse, and only left his home after being tipped off that fans planned to burn it to the ground. He played out the majority of his career with Vasco and retired aged 41. 

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The football world has a long memory though and Barbosa was denied coaching and commentary jobs after he hung up his gloves. Eventually, he got a job on the ground staff at the Maracanã, ironically the scene of the infamous match. According to legend, he was presented with the goal posts by the head groundsman and performed a ritual burning of them to try and exorcise the demons. Sadly, the dark cloud would follow him until his dying day in 2000.

There was no such fate for the next man to make the position his own, the aforementioned Gilmar. Born in 1930 to parents Gilberto and Maria, who in scenes ahead of their time named him after a combination of their names, Gilmar was a man who exuded confidence and class, on and off the pitch. With film star looks and a charming personality, his celebrity grew as he became a mainstay in the World Cup-winning squads of 1958 and 1962.

Aged 28, Gilmar was in his prime, already with hundreds of club appearances to his name. In the six games in Sweden, he conceded four goals across two games, keeping clean sheets in the other four. His success grew further when reunited with Pelé in 1961. Tensions with Corinthians saw him join Santos where Vila Belmiro boasted arguably the best club side in world football.

Gilmar’s calming nature reassured his defence, which along with a cat-like agility made him peerless in South America, leaving Lev Yashin of Russia and Hungary’s Gyula Grosics his only rivals for the crown of the world’s best goalkeeper. At club level, he won five successive national championships and São Paulo state titles with Santos, who had become an unstoppable force in Brazil. On the continent, they also won back-to-back Copa Libertadores and International Cups with victories over Eusébio’s Benfica and Italian giants AC Milan in the latter.

His successful run with the Seleção, however, ended in England during the World Cup of 1966. A 3-1 defeat to Hungary panicked manager Vicente Feola who dropped Gilmar and seven teammates for the must-win game with Portugal. Another 3-1 defeat and the disappointing Brazilians headed home having failed to progress through the group stages. Gilmar fought his way back into the squad after Feola’s exit and retired with 94 caps and the honour of being widely regarded as Brazil’s greatest goalkeeper of the 20th century.

The Beatles had Ringo Starr and Brazil of 1970 had Félix. The greatest band and the greatest team, both with perceived weak links who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Félix was an acrobatic keeper, nicknamed Papel (Paper) due to his lithe frame which enabled him to fly through the air with ease. This didn’t help his lack of conviction when it came to crosses and positioning though, both considered his biggest weaknesses.

Football was Félix’s little secret. As a child his mother would chastise him for wasting all of his time on the game. He snuck off after school to join in with friends, finding himself in goal as no-one else would play there; right place, right time. Following short stints with his local sides, he began his career in his home city of São Paulo with Atlético Juventus. It wasn’t until 1968 at the age of 30 that his career really took off, though, with a move to Fluminense and a Rio state title win.

New Brazil coach João Saldanha had struggled to find a suitable replacement for Gilmar. The erratic Manga was dropped after one too many slip-ups, Félix was ageing and, following a scouting trip to Europe, was deemed not physical enough by Saldanha. Youngster Émerson Leão was his man, yet luck was on Papel’s side again when Saldanha was replaced in the build-up to Mexico by Mário Zagallo.

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On ability alone, Leão was best equipped for the position but Zagallo looked beyond that. Félix brought leadership and experience to a relatively young squad, and while it was true he was prone to mistakes, with the attacking cannon that Brazil was about to unleash Zagallo accepted this and rated his intangibles above everything else.

One of the all-time greatest saves happened in a Brazil game that summer, but it was England’s Gordon Banks who made it, straining every sinew to flick Pelé’s header up and over the crossbar to keep his team in the game. The Banks save overshadowed one equally as important from Félix in the first half. A cross from the right was met by a Francis Lee bullet header, but Félix braced himself, stopped the ball and gathered it at the second attempt under intense pressure from Lee. Brazil’s ‘keeper cut a hapless figure for a lot of the tournament, conceding sloppy goals against Romania and Peru, while the semi-final with Uruguay was no better. Caught yards out of position, a weak bobbling effort from Luis Cubilla crept inside Félix’s far post.

His performance in the final against Italy was somewhat reminiscent of the Uruguay game. With Brazil leading through a goal from Pelé, Félix attempted to snuff out an Italian attack when he raced out of his area a moment too late. Brazilian defender Brito slid in on Roberto Boninsegna and knocked the ball away, but due to Félix’s rush of blood to the head, the Italian striker was able to compose himself and stroke the ball into the empty net. However, a one-handed save from a Gigi Riva shot and two more stops from Angelo Domenghini kept Brazil in the game at crucial times. The narrative of Félix as the worst keeper in the best team may have some truth to it, although in a side of that quality any goalkeeper’s ability would struggle to stand up to that of their teammates. 

The 1970s saw the rise of Total Football in Europe, with its interchangeable positions and high pressing style the perfect antidote to the laissez-faire swagger of the South Americans. Brazil was always one step ahead when it came to behind-the-scenes preparation. Sports psychologists, medical experts and even dentists were all part of the set-up, although the first national goalkeeping coach wasn’t appointed until 1970. The overwhelming change in style though caught them off guard, and for the first time, Brazil were playing catch up.

The narrative of the inadequate goleiro was mothballed for a decade. Émerson Leão performed admirably in two World Cups as he became the first goalkeeper to captain Brazil. Argentina’s success at the 1978 World Cup gave Brazil hope that the South American way was best so they reverted back to their original style under Telê Santana for the tournament in 1982. When Waldir Peres let a swerving Andriy Bal shot through his hands in the opening game against the USSR, however, the old perceptions reared their ugly head.

Many critics saw this team as having similar devastating capabilities to the 1970 side, although after the mistake, obvious comparisons were made between Peres and Félix. The former enjoyed a relatively quiet tournament until Paolo Rossi’s second-round hat-trick shook the world and dumped Brazil out of the tournament. Watching on, a small, blonde teenager from the farming town of Santa Rosa aimed to put the weak link theory to bed once and for all. 

Although by his own admission, Cláudio Taffarel was “born to play in goal”, he actually played both as goalkeeper and striker for his local club Crissiumal. His future lay in goal, however, as he signed for Porto Alegre club Internacional following a successful trial, making his debut in 1985. By 1988 he was established as the number one for his club, where he received the Golden Ball as best goalkeeper. His international debut also came that year as he won a silver medal at that summer’s Olympic Games in Seoul.

Despite being a shade under six foot, Taffarel had many of the tools a top goalkeeper needs. Although a fan of volleyball with a tremendous leap and great reactions, he struggled with the physical and mental demands of the position. National team goalkeeper coach Nielsen set out a plan to prepare his charge for the 1990 World Cup, building stamina on the training pitch and adopting visualisation techniques to help on match day. The personal results were impressive. Taffarel conceded only two goals, although the 20-year wait for their fourth title continued as rivals Argentina eliminated them with a single goal in the last 16.

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The performances of Taffarel saw him become a pioneer for Brazilian goalkeepers as the first goleiro to play abroad, with Parma. Success came quickly in northern Italy in the shape of UEFA Cup qualification in his first season and a Coppa Italia win in his second. The Gialloblu, backed by parent company Parmalat, looked to strengthen their squad with overseas stars, but a UEFA rule indicated only three could play at any one time. Taffarel found himself surplus to requirements and with another World Cup on the horizon he moved to Reggiana to prepare. 

This proved to be a wise move as he only conceded three goals in the tournament and found himself centre stage in the final. After palming Daniele Massaro’s effort away in the shootout, he fell to his knees in prayer as first Franco Baresi and then Roberto Baggio saw their penalties sail high into the Pasadena sky. Taffarel amazingly found himself unemployed after the tournament, so he returned home to Atlético Mineiro to rebuild his club reputation before embarking on a successful spell with Galatasaray, winning the UEFA Cup – again on penalties – in 2001.

In 1998, Brazil reached their second successive World Cup final in France after Taffarel cemented his place as a penalty specialist by keeping out Phillippe Cocu and Ronald de Boer of the Netherlands during their semi-final shootout. Defeat in the final to France would be Brazil’s first since 1950, but the goalkeeper would avoid the role of the scapegoat this time, something that unjustly befell the bewildered Ronaldo.

Taffarel equalled Sepp Maier’s World Cup record of 18 appearances for a goalkeeper and also received 101 caps, second only to Cafu. Maybe not a world-class goleiro, but he did make the most of his ability, and his longevity in the national team was a great source of pride for the born-again Christian.

On the back of this, more and more Brazilian goalkeepers moved abroad as previously suspicious European clubs put their faith in them. Perhaps his biggest achievement was in making the position popular again, his success heralding a new generation of goalkeepers – a generation he is now overseeing as the goalkeeping coach for the national team.

The 2002 World Cup-winning team had Palmeiras ‘keeper Marcos in goal. A one-club man known as ‘Saint Marco’ by the fans, he accumulated 533 appearances for the Verdão. His former club coach and then national manager Luiz Felipe Scolari had his faith in Marcos repaid as he outshone rival Oliver Kahn in the final. Injuries curtailed his international career, yet adequate replacements in Dida and Júlio César were waiting in the wings. 

With Brazil’s qualification for Russia 2018 secure, the question of who wears the gloves next summer is up for debate. Incumbent stopper and Taffarel favourite Alisson is making the most of his chance at AS Roma, although some expect a late run from Manchester City’s Ederson, who made his international debut in the recent qualifier against Chile.

Recent opinions may have changed but the finger pointing is never far away. Brazil may never have had a truly world-class goalkeeper to show for all their success and yes, they may have been prone to mistakes, but many suffered in comparison to the wealth of talent in front of them.

The enigma of the goleiro is perhaps best summed up by Gilmar himself. “The goalkeeper is the team’s solo star, an artist all on his own. He dances to a different tune, he has to jump and then stand around doing nothing, things that no one else has to do. He has more responsibility than the forwards because it’s there that the game is won and lost. At the end of the day everyone’s always got a shoulder to cry on – everyone, that is, except the goalkeeper.”

By Matthew Evans  

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