At first glance, Rogério Ceni seems like an unlikely idol; a balding, 37 year-old goalkeeper, who oddly insists on wearing a shirt with the number 01 (hence RC01). He is, though, at least at this moment in time, my favourite player. Many of São Paulo’s sixteen million fans in Brazil would probably share my view. 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.
Rogério, now entering his twenty-first year with the Tricolor, has enjoyed unparalleled success at the club. After joining from a provincial side, he spent a period with the youth team before going on to play a crucial role in the club’s state championship successes of 1998 and 2000. Ceni then 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.
Every player, however, to be truly interesting, requires a moment of darkness; that instant where history could so easily have branched (or indeed did branch) off into oblivion. There’s Cantona’s kung-fu kick, Zidane’s headbutt, and Maradona’s…well, most of Maradona’s career. 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. I have no idea whether such rumours are true (Rogério refuses to speak about the matter), but I rather hope that they are. Such scheming, such bluff, such cunning! I fully endorse all cases in which sportsmen take it upon themselves to act out their spy film fantasies.
I love Rogério, though, for more than his alleged sneakiness, for more than his impressive collection of medals, for more than his goalkeeping ability. He is my favourite footballer because he does something that goalkeepers just don’t do in Europe, something goalkeepers aren’t supposed to do; he scores a ridiculous number of goals. There is nothing more exhilarating, no sugar rush more pure, than seeing a goalkeeper sprint up the pitch, rip the football from the grasp of a poor outfield player, and declare; “I’m taking this.” Rogério has, over the course of his career, racked up no fewer than ninety (yes, that’s nine zero) goals, from penalties and free-kicks.
Now I’m a bit too young to have read Roy of the Rovers, so allow me use a slightly less traditional (but equally apposite) cultural reference. As a child I used to watch The Hurricanes; a cartoon detailing the adventures of a bunch of footballers as they battled with the evil (Greek?) entrepreneur Stavros Garkos. The group was made up of some dubious but enjoyable stereotypes; a burly Scottish striker, a barefoot Indian wonderkid and so on. The point to all this is that Rogério Ceni is the kind of player who seems invented to star in such a show. A goalkeeper with thinning hair who takes all the dead balls and always saves penalties would fit perfectly into the Hurricanes’ starting XI.
So, there you have it. Rogério Ceni, a cartoon player that could only really exist within the mythic sporting culture of South America. One final challenge, in recognition of the fact that statistics often have a numbing effect on a reader; try to remember the last time you saw a goalkeeper score just one goal.