Júlio César and the heroics that defined a brilliant career

Júlio César and the heroics that defined a brilliant career

At the sound of the final whistle, several players appeared as though they might collapse onto the pitch. One hundred and twenty minutes of frantic football could not separate Brazil and Chile, and as a result, the first knock-out round match of the 2014 World Cup would be decided by penalties.

Temperatures neared all-time highs for Belo Horizonte that afternoon, and over the course of the second half the humidity index rose to 94 percent. Under such sweltering conditions, players from both sides began to wilt as the deadlocked match moved into extra time. But while the oppressive heat and humidity impacted both teams equally, the Seleção were faced with an extra burden – the immense pressure of advancing at a World Cup on home soil.

From the moment the players walked onto the pitch that afternoon, the tension of the occasion was palpable. The cacophony of voices that sung the national anthem induced tears from both supporters and players, and during the match, Brazil’s anxious play revealed an air of nervousness. The fans were at once rabidly supportive and forgivably anxious.

These World Cup matches were Brazil’s most important home fixtures in over 60 years, and offered the nation an opportunity to redress their disastrous loss the last time they had hosted the competition. The pressure on each player was enormous, and many of them wore the stress on their faces. A thick fog of emotion had lingered over the squad throughout the tournament but this knock-out round clash against Chile brought a new level of intensity.

For the two hours preceding the penalty shootout, the atmosphere in the Mineirão had been nothing short of raucous, but now as the shade creeped across the pitch, an eerie silence began to descend on the stadium. Supporters present at the match would not have been aware that several of Brazil’s best players were in tears as Phil Scolari made preparations for the spot kicks.

Under the scorching heat, plagued by the pressure of a World Cup on home soil, even the typically-stoic Thiago Silva was inconsolable. Finding the microscopic scrutiny of a single kick of the ball too much to bear, Brazil’s captain opted out of taking one of the crucial penalties. While Thiago enjoyed the relative comfort of inaction, his goalkeeper did not have the same luxury. In the hands of Júlio César were the hopes of a nation. 

César is one of Brazil’s most decorated goalkeepers, particularly at club level. He started his career at Flamengo, where he helped the Mengão win four Cariocas during the late 1990s and early 2000s, while also guiding them through several seasons where relegation was a distinct possibility. In 2005, he was offered the opportunity to move to Italy and took it. Though his intention was to play for Internazionale, Serie A rules about the number of foreign-born players meant he had to spend a year at Chievo before he could join the Nerazzurri

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Although he enjoyed a fine season in Verona, it was in Milan that César became known as one of the world’s best goalkeepers. His incredible shot-stopping ability coupled with his positional sense and savvy reading of the game made him a perfect goalkeeper for the Italian league. He won Serie A in each of his first five seasons at the club and played on the Inter team that won the treble.

During Inter’s incredible run through the Champions League in 2010, he was inspired, conceding only nine goals in 10 matches and earning the UEFA Club Goalkeeper of the Year award. Dino Zoff would call César “one of the best goalkeepers in the world”. Gianluca Pagliuca would go one step further, calling him the absolute best.

Success with the Seleção soon followed, and from 2007 onwards Cesar was Brazil’s first choice. He played every match in Brazil’s run to capture the 2009 Confederation Cup title. Behind the conservative defensive formation preached by then-manager Dunga, and boosted by his run of strong performances for Inter, Cesar felt confident heading into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

After conceding only two goals through the first four matches, however, César finally flinched in Brazil’s quarter-final against the Netherlands. Trying to hold onto a 1-0 lead in the second half, César flapped at a cross after colliding with Felipe Melo, and Holland scored. The goal rejuvenated the Netherlands, who would go on to score another goal off a set piece 15 minutes later. César was largely held responsible for the loss, with his mistake being singled out as the reason Brazil were leaving South Africa at the quarter-final stage. He left the pitch with tears in his eyes, feeling the full weight of responsibility for the loss.

After the disaster in Port Elizabeth, César’s club career would also take a turn for the worse. In the wake of José Mourinho’s departure for Real Madrid in 2010, Inter struggled, and a second-place finish in 2011 was followed by a sixth-place finish in 2012. Cesar again found himself on the wrong end of supporter scrutiny. Inter came precariously close to their record for most goals conceded in a single season during the 2011/12 campaign, and as the summer approached, the club made the decision to part ways with their once great goalkeeper.

In August 2012, César made his way to England, joining Queens Park Rangers in a summer when Rs’ ownership made massive cash infusions into the club in an attempt to climb into the top half of the Premier League. César was confident, even saying that he believed he could help QPR win the Premier League. Most of the transfer money was spent on older players, however, with many of them well past their prime. The squad failed to gel over the course of the season and, by April 2013, the club was relegated to the Championship.

The winds of change were felt at QPR that summer as manager Harry Redknapp decided to stay at the club during their spell in the Championship and attempt to bring them back up into the Premier League. Despite César playing in every match during the 2013 Confederations Cup for Brazil, including the final where the Seleção defeated then-world champions Spain, Redknapp declared early in the campaign that he preferred English veteran Rob Green between the posts. It seemed almost unprecedented that a player who just won Best Goalkeeper at the Confederations Cup would be unable to secure a starting spot at a Championship club.

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The decision to bench César was not entirely motivated by performances on the pitch. With less financial resources after their relegation to the second division, Rangers were keen to offload many of the high earning players they had brought in only a year earlier to try and climb the Premier League table. César was among those players. QPR were clear in their desire to see the back of him and threatened to bench the Brazilian to help expedite his exit.

After very few clubs offered to take on César’s high wages during the summer transfer window, however, QPR were forced to hold onto him until January. Redknapp publicly announced his unwillingness to start César over Green in the league. The former UEFA Goalkeeper of the Year was iced out of his club in a World Cup year – his last opportunity to atone for his sins in Port Elizabeth four years earlier.

César continued to commit himself to playing for the Seleção that summer, even buying his gloves and equipment to train in the park with his young son to stay in shape. When César speaks of these months in London, tears often fill his eyes. Locked out of club football and understanding that playing regular matches was his only way to ensure his place at the World Cup, he continued to commit himself to his craft.

Scolari insisted that César needed to play regular football, however, and in January the Brazilian keeper secured a loan move to Toronto FC in Major League Soccer. Though he only played seven matches for the Canadians, it was enough to convince Scolari to include César in his squad as the starting goalkeeper for the World Cup.

In the run-up to the competition, César and Scolari were ambushed with a number of questions from journalists wondering how a player with minimal preparation in the form of actual matches could be starting for Brazil. Supporters had not forgotten his poor performance against the Netherlands, and reporters often brought up his mistake during interviews. There was also the incessant conversation regarding the Seleção’s goalkeeping the last time Brazil hosted a World Cup.

Though separated by 64 years, César was inextricably linked with Moacir Barbosa as they were the only two Brazilians who had played between the posts at a World Cup on home soil. A mistake by Barbosa in the final of the 1950 tournament haunted him for the rest of his life, and reporters were keen to ask César if he feared the same fate.

César attempted to downplay the comparison, but could not help but draw some similarities, saying in an interview before the tournament: “I’ve already gone through an experience like [Barbosa’s] in 2010, and I know how much it hurts for a player, in this position, to be crucified because of a play that potentially determined the match.

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“Barbosa was the only Brazilian citizen to have a life-in-jail sentence, because that doesn’t exist in Brazil. He paid for something that happened to him in 1950. I hope the Brazilian fans enjoy this World Cup … and that they don’t make that kind of comparing of what happened in the past and what is happening now.” With a combination of pressures both past and present, the former Inter keeper had much to prove as the tournament started.

During the group stage, César’s performances raised few eyebrows. Brazil conceded two goals in three matches and César had little opportunity to save either – one an own goal in the opening match against Croatia and another a tap-in by Joël Matip against Cameroon. He did make one particularly strong save against Mexico to keep the match at 0-0, though his performance was overshadowed by the heroics of Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. With a few matches under his belt, César headed into the game against Chile with confidence, stating in an interview: “I am improving with every game, improving my rhythm and enjoying every moment.”

The atmosphere at the Mineirão on 28 June reflected the intensity of the rivalry between Chile and Brazil. The match was a tremendous showcase for the World Cup, and the activity of the crowd matched the passion of a match, which the BBC’s Guy Mowbray aptly described as “having the feeling of a local derby.” Each time a Chilean flew into a crunching tackle, each time Neymar danced past a defender, each time a shot landed just past the post, the crowd jeered or jumped out of their seat.

Historically, Brazil had the beating of Chile, particularly at the World Cup. Prior to this meeting, the two nations had met three times previously in the competition, and Chile had never managed to claim victory against the Seleção. Even when Chile hosted the World Cup in 1962, La Roja faltered against Brazil in the semi-finals. Only a few days after the loss, the entire nation was forced to watch Brazil celebrate their second consecutive world title in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago

For most Chileans, however, this World Cup was different. Led by elite players who plied their trade at Europe’s top clubs, this edition of La Roja would eventually win both the 2015 and 2016 Copa América. They were well organised and well drilled, managed by the smart Jorge Sampaoli. Not only were Chile talented but they were meeting Brazil at a low ebb, in a rare moment in footballing history when the Seleção were low on both confidence and talent. This was Chile’s big chance to exercise the demons of 1962, 1998 and 2010. After over two hours of football, they were only five kicks away.

Before the start of the shootout, many fans prayed, others simply looked to the heavens. An exit for this Brazil side at this stage, given the overwhelming hype and expectation for this World Cup, would have been devastating. And now, the eyes of every football-crazed supporter in this football-crazed nation would have been glued to Júlio César, a 34-year old whose 2014 club campaign consisted of seven matches in MLS.

Before this match, only one goalkeeper had ever won a World Cup penalty shootout for Brazil (Cláudio Taffarel – in both 1994 and 1998), but César would have been buoyed by his penalty record for the Seleção. During the 2004 Copa América, he faced both Uruguay and Argentina in penalties, the latter in the final. Brazil won both matches, with César making at least one save in both shootouts.

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He was also the goalkeeper during the 2011 Copa América, however, when Brazil exited the competition against Paraguay without converting a single kick. The memory of that last loss lingered for many of the members of this World Cup team. With a firm grasp on the importance of the moment, César stepped forward in the Brazilian team huddle with a rosary in hand and said: “I’ll save it.”

The kicks would be taken from the mixed end of the stadium, with both Chilean and Brazilian supporters standing behind the goal. Brazil would kick first, and David Luiz converted easily, sending Claudio Bravo the wrong way. He celebrated emphatically, egging on the crowd before handing the ball to Mauricio Pinella, the Chilean whose shot at the end of extra time nearly handed La Roja victory at the death. Pinella tried to sidefoot the ball down the middle but César held his nerve and got both hands on it. Brazil had the advantage.

César’s save against Pinella was followed by a miss by Willian, who dragged the ball wide and covered his face. Willian was so emotional that David Luiz and Luiz Gustavo had to run from midfield to escort him back to his teammates. Alexis Sánchez followed for Chile. Their star and best player, he had scored a goal during the first half of the match. He went low to the left, but so did César. If the first save was down to a poor kick, this was down to a fantastic save. César had read it perfectly.

Conversions by Marcelo for Brazil and Charles Aránguiz for Chile followed, putting the shootout at 2-1 after three kicks each. In the first kick of the fourth set, however, Hulk missed for Brazil. Opting for pure power rather than placement, Hulk’s afternoon of embarrassment was complete. A conversion by Chile’s Marcelo Díaz meant that after four rounds, the two sides were locked at two penalties each. Brazil had saved Neymar as their fifth penalty taker, and he did not fail to match expectation, nonchalantly sending Bravo the wrong way to give Brazil a slight advantage. After scoring, Neymar embraced César, who took his place in goal.

Gonzalo Jara refused to look at César in the preparation of his kick given César’s history of intimidating penalty takers. After a five-step run-up, Jara struck the ball aiming for the top right-hand corner. It hit the post. Brazil had won. Despite how the play appears on initial viewing, replays confirm César’s hand did not touch the final penalty on its way to the post. Goalkeepers often state that a shot off the crossbar, particularly in a shootout, is as good as a save. In that moment César would have been hard-pressed to disagree.

The Mineirão erupted, and the Brazilian squad rushed to César to celebrate. The noise was deafening, equal parts jubilation and relief. Guy Mowbray said it best when he exclaimed: “A nation rejoices. A nation exhales.” Many of the Brazilian players and staff broke down in tears after the final kick, allowing emotions to get the better of them after one of the competition’s most poignant matches. Brazil would live to play another match at their World Cup on home soil, having dashed Chilean hopes yet again. 

Júlio César’s performance was the stuff of dreams. Throughout the match, cheers of “eu acredito” rang around the Mineirão, and even for the most cynical supporters of the Seleção, those moments would have provided goosebumps. The heroics of Júlio César not only made amends for his mistake four years earlier, they lifted an entire nation to believe that despite the obvious shortcomings of this squad, perhaps it was just their time.

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Like so many other champions in competitions across the annals of footballing history, an air of destiny had trumped logic. To watch the 34-year old César lift the Seleção into a quarter-final was to begin to believe that Brazil winning this World Cup on home soil was fate.

The line between destiny and tragedy is razor thin, however, and just over a week after the win against Chile, Brazil were exposed in the very same stadium. Finally out of heroics, they were torn apart against Germany. The signs were there in the run-up to the semi, from their unorganised formation to the emotional haze that was following them every time they stepped onto the pitch. An opposing team finally had the nerve and the ability to punish Brazil’s naivety, and Germany routed Brazil in a 7-1 match that is now etched into the history of the Seleção. César was not responsible for the catastrophe, but he was on the pitch, a member of the side that suffered one of the worst defeats in football history.

In the final tally, replays of César picking the ball out of his net during the Mineirão will be replayed more often than those of his heroics against Chile. For many casual fans, his memory will be defined by that horrible night against Germany. But for dedicated supporters of the Seleção, his performance on that sweltering June day cannot be ignored.

Júlio César suffered four years of anguish after the 2010 World Cup, having to constantly dwell on that poorly met cross against the Netherlands, having to leave the club where he made a name for himself, having to suffer relegation with QPR, and having to practice in a local park to ensure his spot on the Brazilian national team. For a singular afternoon, however, he achieved redemption. After the match, he said: “Four years ago, I gave you an interview. I was very sad in this interview, and today I speak to you with tears. But today these are tears of joy.”

Machado de Assis, one of Brazil’s most famous novelists, once wrote that “dreams disdain fine lines and finishing touches on landscapes – they content themselves with thick but representative brushstrokes.” The Brazil match against Chile in the 2014 World Cup is an impressionist painting of a football match.

As time passes, the catastrophic loss to Germany will come to define Brazil’s journey during 2014, and the details of their last-16 match against a South American rival will fade. For many supporters, all that will remain of that match with Chile are the colours and the sounds, the heat and the humidity, a blurred memory of the action coupled with that joyful sensation of victory.

But while so many of details will be lost in the haziness of the dream, one can only hope that the image of Júlio César celebrating on the pitch, crying those tears of joy, will endure.

By Chase Haislip @CanaryandBlueFP

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