On 27 March 2011, São Paulo took on Corinthians in one of the biggest and most heated derbies in South American football. São Paulo hadn’t won any of their last 11 games against their old rival, a run stretching back four years, and their supporters were desperate for a victory. It was early in the second half and São Paulo were already 1-0 to the good when winger Fernandinho was brought down on the edge of the Corinthians penalty box at the end occupied by the Torcida Independente, São Paulo’s biggest and most fervent torcida organizada.
A palpable tension engulfed the Arena Barueri. The player stepping up, São Paulo’s most loyal servant and the idol of all of their fans, was on 99 goals for the club. He placed the ball, took a step to the side to check the position of the Corinthians goalkeeper, and then started his run-up. For the first time in the game, there was a moment of deadly silence.
The fans behind the goal knew what was coming; they had seen it so many times before. The ball looped up and over the wall, curling and dipping beautifully, just at the right moment to sail into the very top corner of the Corinthians net. The stadium erupted with the sort of unbridled joy that greets only moments that are truly special, the kind of moment that is indelibly etched into the memory of anyone lucky enough to be present.
The player who had struck the ball wheeled away towards his adoring public, mobbed by his team-mates as he ripped off his shirt in celebration. Printed on the back of that shirt, and the back of so many of the replica kits worn on the terraces, were his name and number: R. Ceni – 01. Rogério Ceni, the goleiro artilheiro (goalkeeper marksman), had just reached a century of strikes.
By this point, Ceni was already 38 but incredibly he managed another four-and-a-half years as o Tricolor’s first-choice shot-stopper before retiring at the end of 2015. In total, Rogério spent 25 years at São Paulo having arrived in 1990 at the age of 17. He finished his career with 1238 appearances for the club and a breathtaking 132 goals, 61 being free-kicks, 70 penalties and one coming from open play.
This record makes him the highest-scoring goalkeeper in history, as well as the Brazilian with the most appearances for a single club, ahead of Pelé. During this incredible career, Ceni won almost everything there was to win with o Tricolor, including three consecutive Brazilian titles, four São Paulo state championships, the Copa Libertadores, and a Club World Cup in which he was awarded player of the tournament and man of the match in the final.
A one-club-man in the mould of Ryan Giggs, Francesco Totti or Jamie Carragher, Ceni was one of a dying breed, loyal not only to São Paulo but to his country and its domestic leagues in an age when moving away from Brazil is seen as the natural thing to do for any talented player.
Ceni’s incredible journey, however, was almost over before it had begun. When his mother became pregnant with him she was advised by her doctor that the pregnancy was one of high-risk to her and the baby and that it would be safer for her to have an abortion. With the support of her husband, Mrs Ceni decided not to heed the doctor’s counsel and Rogério was born on 22 January 1973 in the southern-Brazilian state of Paraná.
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At a young age, his family relocated to the city of Sinop in Mato Grosso, a state known as the breadbasket of the nation, in Brazil’s centre-west region. It was here that his father Eurides, who Ceni cites as his main influence and who was himself a capable ‘keeper, taught his son a love of the game.
Rogério began playing in the youth teams of local minnows Sinop FC. At first he alternated between playing as a goalkeeper and a full-back but the influence of his dad, and his obvious talent between the sticks, resulted in him choosing to focus solely on the game’s most exposed and isolating position.
In 1989, when Rogério was just 16, the Sinop manager asked his father if he would permit his son to become the senior team’s third-choice goalkeeper for that season’s state championship. Ceni senior refused. Eurides said in an interview for a 2013 documentary about his son’s life: “He already worked at the Bank of Brazil, and the championship lasts four months. They wanted him to leave the bank to be the third goalkeeper and I didn’t agree to it. What are you going to do after? Four months, then what are you going to do?”
This rhetoric is indicative of the precarious existence of a huge percentage of professional footballers in Brazil, with many who play at the lower levels subject to lives of short-term football contracts on low wages and long periods of unemployment. The next year, though, a restructuring process at the bank left Rogério out on his ear, so when Sinop’s manager came calling again, his father gladly accepted the offer of employment.
He spent the first part of the season as third choice and so did not feature in any matchday squads. However, a serious knee injury for the starting keeper Marília put him on the bench for the first time midway through the campaign.
The reserve keeper started the game, but in the second half he went up to challenge for a cross and collided with the centre-forward, snapping his wrist. Rogério came on and a solid performance was enough to convince the manager that there was no need for any emergency signings to cover the loss of the two senior goalies.
In his first start, a vital game as Sinop were pushing for the Mato Grosso state title for the first time in their history, Ceni saved a penalty in the dying seconds to preserve a 1-0 lead. Rogério retained his place for the rest of the campaign and the club went on to claim that year’s state title, handing him his first taste of silverware.
However, this silver lining did have its cloud; he was once again out of a job and could have been until the start of the next season eight months later but for a slice of good fortune. After the season finished, his dad was able to arrange a trial at São Paulo through an old contact of one of Sinop’s directors. He immediately impressed o Tricolor’s goalkeeping coach and was signed to play for the club’s under-20 development squad.
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For the first four years of his time in São Paulo, he trained with the youth teams and lived with the other aspiring professional players in the bowels of the Morumbi Stadium, the imposing concrete bowl that the club calls home. Of his time living in the stadium, Ceni says: “I was incredibly happy. I would wake up at five o’clock to get a lift to the training ground with the cleaning and catering staff. We arrived at six and I would sit on the sofa waiting for training at 8.30. I used to start training at eight because Telê Santana [then manager of São Paulo] always told me to start half-an-hour earlier than the others.”
Santana, coach of the wonderful Brazil team of 1982, was a big influence on Ceni and reinforced the work ethic that had been instilled in him by his parents. Telê was also a coach focussed on youth development and regularly allowed the boys to work with the first team.
The São Paulo team with which he found himself training was undoubtedly one of the finest in South America at the time and Rogério watched on as his older colleagues won the Brazilian league title in 1991 and the Copa Libertadores in 1992. That year the under-20s finished as runners-up in the prestigious Copa São Paulo de Futebol Júnior, however Ceni was still only second choice at this level. Ahead of him in the pecking order was the even more promising Alexandre, a player one year his senior.
A few short months after this youth tournament, though, Alexandre, who was by now second choice for the first team and threatening to make himself the new number one, was tragically killed in a car accident aged just 20. Ceni himself admits that Alexandre was the superior player and had the accident not happened his career may well have taken an entirely different path.
After the accident he by default became São Paulo’s third-choice keeper and moved to train with the first-team squad as they won the Intercontinental Cup against Barcelona in December 1992, the Libertadores again in 1993 and a second consecutive Intercontinental Cup, beating AC Milan 3-2 at the end of 1993.
Over the next few years, players left and results worsened. São Paulo would finish mid-table in Série A in ’94, ’95 and ’96. Ceni, though, started to make a few appearances in the state championship and cup tournaments and began putting pressure on Zetti for a place in the first team.
In 1997 that pressure paid off; Rogério would be the undisputed number one for the first time, playing 70 games in the year. It was another difficult season for the team but he had done enough to confirm his status as first choice between the posts. It was also in this season that Ceni gave Brazil the first demonstration that he was as capable of putting the ball in the net with his feet as he was keeping it out of the net with his hands.
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New manager Muricy Ramalho, noticing Ceni’s ability to shoot at goal in training, encouraged his number one to improve his free-kicks to a level where the risk of having the keeper 90 yards from goal was one worth taking. After six months and an estimated 15,000 practice kicks on the training ground, Ramalho made the decision to designate the goalkeeper as his dead-ball specialist.
In that year’s Campeonato Paulista, in a game against União São João, São Paulo were awarded a foul on the edge of the opposition box, and to everyone outside the club’s surprise Ceni stepped up. He noticed that the União keeper was positioned behind the wall, a fair distance from the side of the goal that he should have been covering, so resolved to hit it low and hard around the six-man barrier.
The ball flew into the bottom corner on the goalkeeper’s side and the 24-year-old reacted with the sort of disbelieving delight that you would expect from a goalkeeper scoring a set-piece for the first time. Rogério only went on to score another two that season but there was no doubt about his ability to convert from dangerous dead-ball situations.
In 1998 and 2000 São Paulo got back to winning ways, taking the state championship in both years. This gave Rogério his first silverware with the first team and, in the second leg of the 2000 final, he set one of his many records, becoming the first keeper to score in the deciding game of a FIFA recognised tournament.
In the week leading up to that match, Ceni reportedly struck 80 free-kicks a day practising, expecting an opportunity to come his way. In the 38th minute, São Paulo won a foul about 25 yards from goal right in the centre of the pitch. Rogério struck with force, curl and dip, and it went in off the underside of the crossbar, giving his team a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Shortly after this conquest, he was given the captain’s armband and in 2001 led the team to more silverware in the Torneio Rio-São Paulo. Two goals in the first leg from Luís Fabiano and two in the second leg from another promising youngster named Kaká helped São Paulo to a comfortable 6-2 aggregate victory over Botafogo in the final.
Kaká and Fabiano, like all the players who have played with him during his career, line up to sing his praises, not only eulogising about his ability as a footballer but about his strength of personality and value as a person and leader. In a TV Globo documentary entitled The Construction of the Myth, made to mark Ceni’s retirement, Kaká said: “Rogério is considered o M1to (he is commonly referred to by this name in Brazil, Portuguese for myth/legend, written incorporating his number) for his competitiveness and his capacity to stay motivated. After all, he has won both collectively and individually he still … trains with pleasure because he really wants to win each game.”
This perhaps is what sets him apart more than any number of goals, trophies or match-winning saves; his insatiable desire to win and to succeed is what carried him to the level that he reached.
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For the next few years, São Paulo had strong league seasons without any silverware to show for their efforts. In 2003 though, they managed a third-place finish in the league which meant they qualified for the 2004 Copa Libertadores, their first appearance in South America’s top club competition for a decade.
Unfortunately, however, this campaign turned out to be the low-point of his career and of his relationship with São Paulo’s hugely demanding torcida organizada. In the semi-final against Colombia’s Once Caldas, the surprise package and eventual winners of the tournament, Rogério made two horrible errors that led directly to the goals that put São Paulo out.
Shortly after São Paulo exited the competition, during a game against Palmeiras in the Morumbi, the fans protested against Ceni’s continued selection and captaincy and called for Zetti’s return. The management kept faith in Ceni, though, and he rewarded them by leading the team to another third-place league finish and another go at South America’s premier club competition. The second attempt at the Libertadores was to prove his personal redemption and the start of a triumphant period for Ceni and the club.
São Paulo were drawn against city rivals Palmeiras in the round of 16, and took the away tie 1-0. In the home second leg, with 10 minutes to go and the score at 0-0, São Paulo were awarded a penalty. Their number one smashed it straight down the middle to make it 2-0 on aggregate and take the tie beyond the reach of the opposition.
In the next round São Paulo faced Tigres of Mexico and in the first leg blew them away, winning 4-0 with the help of two free-kicks from their lethal keeper. One was from 30 yards into the top right corner, the other from 22 yards into the top left, perfectly demonstrating the range of Rogério’s dead-ball abilities, something which often left opposition goalies not knowing which way to turn. In this game, he also had the chance to join José Luis Chilavert as the only shot-stopper to have scored a hat-trick but blazed a penalty over the crossbar.
In the semis Ceni had another opportunity from the spot, this time converting against River Plate in the Morumbi to make it 2-0 in the first leg. In the second leg, São Paulo went to Buenos Aires and beat the Argentine giants 3-2 in their own back yard, comfortably knocking out the team who until then had been favourites to take the title.
In the final they faced Atlético Paranaense, drawing 1-1 in the first leg away from home before destroying the team from Paraná 4-0 in the Morumbi to take the most coveted title in South America, the one that Rogério had dreamed of since his arrival at the club 15 years before.
Later in the year, o Tricolor travelled to Japan for the Club World Championship, with Rogério on a personal mission to emulate the São Paulo team of ’92 and ’93 that had conquered two Intercontinental Cups against Barcelona and Milan. In the semi-final, against Al-Ittihad, Ceni again scored a decisive goal from the spot, giving his side the edge in a 3-2 win.
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In the final against Liverpool, he would show his value at the other end of the field making a series of stunning saves, including a sensational stop from a Steven Gerrard free-kick that will live long in the memory of every São-Paulino. His heroics handed his team the title, prevailing 1-0 over the Merseysiders, and handed him the award for player of the tournament. That season had been his most productive in front of goal as well. He scored an incredible 21 times in all competitions, including the six he had notched up on the way to the successes in the Libertadores and Club World Championship.
It was these two titles that took Rogério the man and turned him into Rogério the myth, cementing his place in São Paulo’s history and turning him into one of the club’s greatest ever players.
The next year São Paulo again found themselves in the final of the Libertadores, again confronting Brazilian opposition, this time Internacional of Porto Alegre. However, it proved impossible for his side to repeat the back-to-back Libertadores titles of the early-1990s. The final marked another personal low-point for Rogério as he made a mess of a cross in the Morumbi that led to Inter’s second goal, and that proved vital in São Paulo’s narrow 4-3 aggregate defeat.
He and the team bounced back immediately, though, showing the incredible strength of character for which he is renowned, winning the league and in doing so taking their first Brazilian title for 15 years. The ‘keeper had another productive goal-scoring season as well, this time netting 16 in all competitions.
One game that year really defined the importance of Rogério to the team and his resilience as a person. Losing 2-0 to Cruzeiro in a game not long after the disappointment in the Libertadores, São Paulo’s number one stopped a penalty that would have taken the game out of the reach of his side.
Just moments later he went up the other end of the field to take a free-kick, curling it through a gap in the wall and into the bottom corner. This goal took him onto 63 in his career and past Chilavert as the highest-scoring keeper of all time. In the second half, his team won a spot-kick and he stepped up again, converting to save a vital away point for his team. This Roy of the Rovers performance was seen as redemption after his mistake against Internacional and continued an undefeated run that would be vital in that year’s league-winning points tally.
This ability to bounce back from difficult moments on the pitch is what defined Ceni’s career and perhaps is what endeared him so much to the fans. He has at times appeared just as fallible as the rest of us yet he has always found strength from within to pick himself up and go on to more success.
In the two subsequent years, São Paulo won two more national titles, storming home by a 15 point margin in 2007, conceding only 19 times in 38 games thanks to a solid defence backed up by their talismanic goalkeeper. In 2006 and 2007 Ceni was awarded the Craque do Brasileirão award, the CBF’s prize for the league’s best player, and in 2008 he was also awarded the Bola de Ouro by Placar magazine as the standout player of the year in Brazil, a rare feat for a goalkeeper.
After the 2008 league victory, São Paulo once again went into relative decline, passing through the negative part of the cycle once more. Rogério also suffered from injuries and poor form during this period but such was his standing within the club by this time that no one dared protest against his position as number one.
Rogério and São Paulo had to wait until 2012 for another trophy, when they won the Copa Sudamericana, South America’s Europa League equivalent. O Tricolor defeated Tigre of Argentina 2-0 on aggregate in the final of the competition with goals from Lucas Moura and Osvaldo in a six-minute spell early in the second leg.
This was to prove the last piece of silverware for Ceni in his long and storied career, though São Paulo did manage a runners-up spot in the league in 2014, o Mito’s penultimate campaign for the club, as well as seeing the man himself conquer all of his various personal records.
Since his departure, São Paulo have been enduring a mixed time on the pitch, which is perhaps a testament to his influence and quality. His original replacement Denis was singled out for criticism on numerous occasions as he tried to fill the cavernous void left by his predecessor.
Despite hanging up his gloves in 2015, Ceni is still heavily involved in the game to which he has dedicated his life. In June 2016, he travelled to the USA as the goalkeeping coach with Dunga’s Brazil squad for the disastrous Copa América campaign. He later returned to Sao Paulo as manager, lasting just seven months before he was sacked following a number of poor displays, many of which were put down to the distinctly average squad and his disposal and not the returning hero. He’s since taken charge at Fortaleza, who he led to the Série B title in 2018 and a maiden voyage in the top-flight.
Ceni’s insurmountable goalscoring record is what has given him the relative fame he enjoys across the world, but if you ask any Brazilian, they will tell you that his career and his reputation was built on far more than precise penalties and fierce free-kicks.
His is a story like few others, perhaps only matched in magnitude by Totti’s chronicles at Roma. It is a story of true love and dedication between one man and one club. Sure, there were rough patches, but these were blips from which he bounced back time and time again. The strength of the bond with his adoring public is unbreakable and it would come as no surprise if, in a few years, he is back at his beloved São Paulo, calling the shots and lifting trophies once more.
By Joshua Law @FootyCanarinho