This is the tale of two interviews, four years apart.
In the first, Julio Cesar is confronted immediately after Brazil has been bounced from the 2010 World Cup by the Netherlands.
Up until an hour ago, he’s generally been considered the best goalkeeper in the world. That impression has curled up here and died.
Early in the second half, a ball is launched into the Brazilian penalty area. Cesar comes for it. So does defender Felipe Melo. The pair collides in the goalmouth. Cesar’s attempted punch is nowhere near the intended target. The ball glances off Melo’s head and in.
The eventual collapse is not his fault – not all of it, at least – but he already knows he’s eating this one.
Cesar is gasping, wordless. He seems in danger of fainting. He tries to speak, but can’t, so retreats into the mindless work of yanking off his gloves. He offers his excuses. He doesn’t sound as if he believes them himself.
“I ended up … well … there was a little doubt there with Melo. He headed the ball. I missed it. And … well … things like that happen in football.”
They do, but not in World Cup quarter-final games. And not to Brazil.
He trudges off to find a cliff’s edge to go over. In the coming months, his form bleeds away. Inter Milan, the European champions, dump him onto Queens Park Rangers. Soon after arriving, he loses his starting job. He’s no longer good enough to play for the worst team in the Premiership. Awash in frustration, he begins walking home after matches, rather than driving.
In order to get a game, Cesar has to accept a loan to Toronto FC.
The time between two World Cups – that’s how long it takes to reach the outer rim of the known footballing universe.
“He has spent the last four years in hell,” Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari said this week.
This stage rarely offers anyone a chance at redemption. Four years is a long time to maintain your place in a top team. It’s a very short time to expect people to forget your sins.
One moment of indecision here attaches itself to you, and defines you. That is especially true for goalkeepers.
Colombia’s thwarted midfielder in net, Rene Higuita, was the darling of the 1990 World Cup. Right up until he got caught in possession practically at the halfway line by Cameroon’s Roger Milla, who dinked around him and scored on an empty goal. Twenty-four years later, I still perfectly recall the expression on Higuita’s face as he chased Milla back toward his own net. It’s the look of a man who knows his life is about to be ruined.
England’s Robert Green palmed a ball into his own net in South Africa. He was the man who took Cesar’s job at QPR, but that once-in-a-thousand-tries failure is all anyone will remember about his career.
But the worst of the worst – the lowest ring in hell – is reserved for Brazilian goalkeepers who implode in the colours of their country. This nation has never produced a really legendary netminder. Since they’re all so good with their feet, why would anyone want to work with their hands?
The best Brazil’s goalies can hope for is reflected glory and a pleasant anonymity. When they are noted, it’s only for their failures, and then forever.
Moacir Barbosa was blamed for the goal that gifted Uruguay the last World Cup played in this country. For the rest of his life, he was portrayed as a jinx. His exile took on a disturbingly moral element.
Upon retirement, someone gave him the goalposts from the Maracana as a souvenir. He took them home and burned them.
“Under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years,” Barbosa said shortly before he died. “My imprisonment has been 50.”
That’s the territory 34-year-old Cesar was drifting toward – a lavish and unbearable postsoccer life as the unfunny punch line to a national joke.
Then, serendipitously, a chance at redemption. Two things worked in Cesar’s favour in Brazil’s Round of 16 win over Chile – he was wonderful; the rest of the team was awful. He was still only a crossbar away from disaster. The Chilean who nearly won the game, Mauricio Pinilla, went out afterward and had the moment tattooed on his back. A transcription runs underneath it: “One centimeter from glory.” For Cesar, one centimetre from perdition.
Before the eventual penalty shootout, he carried out a rosary that Brazil’s back-up ’keeper, Victor, worries during games. He was already weeping.
In the most important 10 minutes of his life, he was magisterial. He didn’t erase the memory of 2010. He vindicated it.
He was the first person off the pitch and in front of the microphone. Once again, he was gasping. This time he allowed himself the luxury of tears.
“Only God and my family know what I went through,” he said.
For him, validation. For us, the comforting sense that, while still knowing the universe is capricious and cruel, having occasional proof that it may allow us to write our own ending.