There was a time that combining the words 'goalkeeper' and 'Brazil' raised many a chuckle across world football.  Times have changed, but one South American custodian in particular is moving onto legendary status.  If you don't know about him, let Jack Lang tell you more.

At first glance, Rogério Ceni can seem like an unlikely idol; a balding, 37 year-old goalkeeper, who insists on wearing a shirt with the number 01 (hence RC01). A closer look, however, can help to explain the status of a man who was last week saluted by fans of São Paulo FC for completing twenty years of service with the club. The goalkeeper has played a defining role in the club’s recent history, frequently making the difference at both ends of the pitch during his 928 (and counting) games. Yes, reader, at both ends of the pitch –  Ceni is not only one of South America’s most reliable shot-stoppers, but the paradigm of that mythical breed; the goalscoring ‘keeper.

When Rogério arrived in São Paulo as a gawky 17 year-old in September 1990, few would have predicted the success story that was taking root. Discovered when playing for Mato Grosso minnows Sinop FC, Rogério made his way to the capital paulista for a trial with the mighty São Paulo Futebol Clube. The veteran recalls being taken aback by the sight of the Morumbi; “it was like something from another world…enormous…impressive.” Performing well in a training match (during which he only conceded one goal – scored by future Milan star Leonardo), Rogério was offered a contract with the Tricolor, and moved into club accommodation at the stadium.

With established goalkeepers Zetti and Gilmar on the books, Rogério would have to wait until 1993 for his senior début, but was part of Telê Santana’s Intercontinental Cup-winning squad in December of that year. When Zetti swapped São Paulo for Santos in 1996, the stage was set for Rogério; the youngster cemented his place as first choice ‘keeper, and played a crucial role in the club’s state championship successes of 1998 and 2000.

Every interesting narrative, however, requires a moment of darkness; that instant where history could so easily have branched off into oblivion. For Rogério, that moment came in 2001, when he was suspended for 29 days by club president Paulo Amaral, who accused him of forging a transfer offer from Arsenal in order to improve his pay deal. The confusion almost led to Rogério being sold to Cruzeiro, but Amaral’s replacement by Marcelo Portugal Gouvêa provided a reprieve for the goalkeeper, who renewed his contract with the Tricolor. “I still harbour resentment over the way [Amaral] dealt with the affair,” said Rogério recently, “…I’d tell the whole story if I could, but it’s best for me to stay quiet.”

Whatever happened, Rogério’s achievements in the intervening years have ensured him a place in the history books. RC01 captained São Paulo to a stunning treble in 2005 (comprising the Campeonato Paulista, the Copa Libertadores, and the Club World Cup), becoming the club’s most capped player in the process. Three national titles followed, as Muricy Ramalho’s São Paulo established themselves as the flagship of progress and stability within the frequently chaotic Brazilian footballing landscape. Appropriate then, that Rogério, an all-too-infrequent example of loyalty within Série A, should be the man to lift these trophies.

Rogério’s reputation, though, is built on more than his impressive collection of medals. He has established himself, throughout his playing days, as one of the best last lines of defence in South America. Today, despite his years, Rogério is an agile and imposing goalkeeper; one that opposition strikers must summon up all their abilities to beat. Equally adept with the ball at his feet, Ceni is a fine example of a sweeper-keeper, mopping up long balls and spraying passes to his full-backs. He also has a knack of saving penalties.

There is, though, an even more impressive side to Rogério’s game. When, on August 20th 2006, he netted a brace (!) against Cruzeiro, he became the highest-scoring goalkeeper in the (recorded) history of professional football, surpassing the 63 racked up by Chilean José Luis Chilavert. Cut to last month, and Rogério’s effort against Fluminense saw him break the 90 barrier. The novelty of this record shouldn’t obscure what is a truly stunning achievement; Rogério has averaged roughly a goal in every ten games over the course of his career. As unerringly accurate from free kicks as he is from the penalty spot, Ceni has understandably earnt the esteem of the 16million São Paulinos in Brazil.

Let us conclude, then, by allowing the man himself to reflect on his twenty years at the top. “I have achieved everything that I could have at São Paulo…things that nobody in our country can match. […] But I always want to win more; I want the chance to win another treble… I feel great, physically fit… My contract runs until December 2012 [so] we’ll see what happens then.” The story, it appears, is not quite over yet.

(Rogério Ceni interview translated from Globo Esporte)

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AuthorJack Lang