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Julio Cesar takes a break from practice with the Team Brazil on June 4. (REUTERS)
Julio Cesar takes a break from practice with the Team Brazil on June 4. (REUTERS)

Weight of a nation on Julio Cesar's shoulders as Brazil attempts to right wrongs of 1950 Add to ...

In the often cruel narrative of World Cup lore, he was the man who made Brazil cry.

With a world-record crowd of 210,000 crammed into Rio de Janeiro’s purpose-built Maracana Stadium to witness a meticulously planned coronation, Moacir Barbosa, arguably the world’s finest goalkeeper at the time, let his country’s 1950 world championship dreams slip through his fingers.

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For the next half century, until death spared him further torment, he was never allowed to forget the day his error permitted upstart neighbour Uruguay to gatecrash the party with a come-from-behind 2-1 win in the tournament’s deciding match, humiliating the hosts.

Now, with the World Cup back in Brazil and the memory of the country’s biggest tragedy as the backdrop – “Our Hiroshima,” according to late Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodriguez – the current incumbent between the sticks, Julio Cesar, finds himself on the precipice of immortality, or, as Barbosa put it, becoming “a convict for the rest of my life.”

Of course, times have changed in the intervening years. Cesar, like so many of his teammates these days, plies his trade overseas, far from the searing spotlight that will follow every move of the Selecao, as the national team is known, before, during and after Brazil kicks off this year’s World Cup in Sao Paulo on Thursday against Croatia.

And having captured a record five World Cups since that 1950 nadir, Brazil is no longer an up-and-coming contender in the global game, instead simply looking to further solidify its legacy as the greatest footballing nation in history and end a 12-year title drought in the process.

That, in itself, puts the weight of expectations on Cesar’s shoulders, a situation he knows all too well after accepting much of the blame for Brazil’s quarter-final exit against the Netherlands in South Africa four years ago.

“The pressure is always there, regardless of whether the World Cup is in Brazil,” he says. “Everybody remembers that World Cup so the pressure is on because it is our home turf, but the pressure is always there being Brazilian anyway.”

But while the rest of Brazil’s 23-man squad, many with instantly recognizable mononyms such Neymar, Hulk or Fred, have spent much of the past 12 months preparing for what will be a life-changing tournament with some of the planet’s greatest soccer clubs, a confluence of circumstances left Cesar scrambling for a game. When his club, Queen’s Park Rangers, were relegated from the English Premier League at the end of the 2012-13 season, Cesar felt he needed top-flight soccer to adequately prepare for the World Cup and told manager Harry Redknapp that he would pursue a move elsewhere.

“The goalkeeper was unlucky,” Redknapp says. “He made up his mind he didn’t really want to play in the Championship, he wanted to play in the Premier [League] or play abroad, and it looked like he was going to Napoli, and I started the season with [former England international] Rob Green, who’s also a top goalkeeper.

“Rob played great and so it was difficult to change him, even though I always knew Julio wanted to go and play somewhere else.”

To make things worse, Cesar, voted UEFA goalkeeper of the year just four years ago after backstopping Inter Milan to the treble of Serie A title, Italian Cup and Champions League, was often not deemed good enough to sit on the bench at Loftus Road for much of the first half of QPR’s season, relegated to third choice behind Green and career journeyman Brian Murphy. Even more bizarrely, through the end of January this year he had played more games for Brazil (three) this season than he had for QPR (one).

Although the Brazilian national team manager, Luis Felipe Scolari, had always expressed faith that Cesar would be his starting goalkeeper at the World Cup, with his continued lack of first-team action, concern began to spread that Cesar wouldn’t be in the kind of form he needed to be for what may be the pinnacle of his career.

But just when the situation seemed at its most dire, a lifeline came in – from Canada of all places.

Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen, a former teammate of Cesar’s at QPR, was contacted back in January by the goalkeeper’s agent about the possibility of taking the 34-year-old on loan. When Nelsen called up Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of team-owning Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., to discuss the idea, Leiweke response was swift: Get off the phone and get the deal done. Best of all, for a team that had already added the multimillion-dollar salaries of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Gilberto, Cesar would cost TFC just $202,000 (U.S.), a far cry from the roughly £70,000 ($128,000 Canadian) weekly wage packet he had been picking up in West London.

Freed from the shackles of his bit-part existence in England’s second division, the 80-times-capped Brazilian goalkeeper embraced his new life in Canada, bringing his wife, Brazilian model Susana Werner, and two young children with him to live at Trump Tower in Toronto’s downtown core, taking in Toronto Raptors games at courtside and spending quality time together.

“He said to me this is the first time they’ve really been alone as a family and I think that’s really helped him because he’s had two things to concentrate on: football and family,” said TFC’s goalkeeping coach, Stewart Kerr. “And he’s got the World Cup on the horizon and I think he’s really appreciated that he’s been allowed to get on with his job because if he’s in Italy, or he’s in Brazil, he’s a god.

“Here, people recognize him but it’s not the same hysteria so he can do things off the pitch, he can take his family places and he can just get on with his job basically and I think at his age that cleared his mind.”

On the pitch, he put his energy into regaining his best form. At Scolari’s request, he swore off alchol and stripped more than 2 per cent off his body fat total while playing the first seven Major League Soccer games of the season for his new club.

“He came in and he told me that this was a huge step for him,” says TFC goalkeeper Joe Bendik, who was forced into a backup role after Cesar’s arrival. “After training he was in the gym every day working on his body. When he came here he wasn’t in shape and he’ll be the first one to admit that, and then within one month he looked like the guy who won the Champions League, the Golden Glove, the Confederations Cup.”

Bendik, who Cesar considers his closest friend among the TFC players – Cesar gave him a signed photo of the pair that said exactly that for his birthday – says that despite the lofty perch occupied by the Brazilian in world soccer’s stratosphere, his ability to be one of the guys is perhaps his most endearing asset.

“All of us love him here, he’s just an unbelievable guy,” Bendik explains. “It’s always about the team. When we travel, if he has a first-class ticket he comes back and sits with the guys [in coach] because that’s his mentality.”

He likely won’t be back in Toronto, whatever happens in Brazil. He’s still under contract with QPR, and though his loan deal with TFC lasts through to the end of the MLS season, Nelsen says there is a “gentleman’s agreement” between the two clubs to terminate it at any time, a likely scenario given that QPR regained promotion to the Premier League last month.

In the meantime, both Cesar and TFC will be hoping he can follow in the footsteps of Brazilian World Cup-winning goalkeepers such as Felix, Marcos and his idol, Claudio Taffarel, who was so caught up in the aftermath of the 1994 World Cup final shootout victory over Italy that he left his winner’s medal and $60,000 (U.S.) in cash in the back of a Los Angeles taxi cab.

“I really hope it happens for him where if he goes up and picks up that World Cup, it’s going to say Julio Cesar, Brazil and Toronto FC and that, the advertising that gives you, you couldn’t buy it,” says Kerr.

As for the pressure of an entire nation falling squarely on his shoulders, having coached him for the past four months, in addition to their time playing together in West London, Nelsen says it won’t affect Cesar one jot.

“No chance,” said the New Zealander. “He’s been there, done that. Some guys love it, some guys pretend they love it but really hide and some guys run for the hills. He’s a guy that just takes it on board and in the end whatever happens, he knows he’s had such a great career and he’s done what he’s done, so he just walks in there pretty relaxed.”

Follow on Twitter: @paulattfield

 

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