Brazilian football said farewell to one of its 21st-century stars on Saturday. Rio giants Flamengo were at home to America in the second round of the Brazilian Championship. Julio Cesar was in goal, ending his career back where it started two decades ago, keeping a clean sheet and making some smart saves in a 2-0 win. The venue was the Maracana stadium, where he had hoped to crown his international career with a match-winning performance in the 2014 World Cup final.
Instead, of course, it all went wrong in the previous round, in that fateful 7-1 semi-final thrashing by Germany in Belo Horizonte. Julio Cesar was very clear about what the future has in store for him. This week he was anticipating his own obituary when, many years from now he hopes, he passes away. “Death of the goalkeeper in the 7-1,” he predicted.
It is surely an accurate guess. The local media instantly leapt to look at the headlines following the death of Barbosa, Brazil’s goalkeeper in the traumatic 2-1 1950 World Cup defeat by Uruguay. Sure enough, they invariably led with his role on that Rio afternoon.
Barbosa was always blamed for being beaten on his near post for Uruguay’s winning goal. Julio Cesar has never explicitly been blamed for any of the seven that Germany put past him – his colleagues in front of him were suffering a nervous collapse, a collective off-day, and the German tide kept coming.
But he will also be remembered for a mistake that was undoubtedly his – one which played a large part in Brazil’s elimination from the previous World Cup. The side were 1-0 up against Holland in the 2010 quarter-final, and playing their best football of the competition. But Julio Cesar made a rash lunge off his line, was caught in no man’s land and Holland equalised – at which point the Brazilians fell to pieces and Holland went on to win the game.
He was in floods of tears talking to the Brazilian media afterwards. It was very cruel. It was a moment when he was at the peak of his career. He had been a vital part of the Inter side that had just won the Champions League, and some of his performances in World cup qualification – especially away to Uruguay and Ecuador – were close to perfection. One little lapse of judgement had undone it all.
There are few – if any positions in sport as cruel as that of Brazil’s goalkeeper in a World Cup. There is often very little to do. But there will be times in the tournament when doing it badly can have a disastrous effect on the mood of 200 million people. The mental pressure, then, is insane.
The man who dealt with this best was Taffarel, a before and after figure for Brazilian goalkeepers. His sense of calm was legendary, and he played three World Cups with barely a blemish and with lots of high points. Taffarel made a success of European club football, doing much to destroy the distrust which had traditionally surrounded Brazilian keepers, and thus opening up the doors for many of his successors.
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And, on Brazil’s coaching staff, Taffarel was the man who suggested that the team should take a gamble on an inexperienced keeper called Allison. He was thrown into the deep end for the second round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and, with Taffarel’s blessing, has kept his place ever since. Brazil even kept faith with him when he spent the entire 2016/17 season on the bench for Roma. And now, despite the impressive Manchester City debut campaign of Ederson, there would seem to be no thoughts of making a change.
Allison, of course, has now established himself as one of the world’s most sought after keepers, showing magnificent form for the surprise Champions League semi- finalists. He goes to Russia as undisputed first choice.
He should, though, beware the experience of Julio Cesar. A year before the disaster of Belo Horizonte, Julio Cesar was performing a lap of honour with his team-mates. Brazil had just beaten Spain 3-0 in the final of the Confederations Cup. Julio Cesar had words for the beaten finalists. They had to recognise, he said, that football had a hierarchy.
It was a foolish statement, a boorish dismissal of the reigning world and double European champions. True, with five World Cup wins, Brazil stand at the top of the tree. But history never stops being written. And as he is now well aware, Julio Cesar’s history will forever be linked with that extraordinary afternoon in Belo Horizonte.