Zé Carlos knew he didn’t belong here. He stood out like a sore thumb.
He looked across the training field at his squad mates: the laughing and joking duo of Roberto Carlos and Denílson, the lantern jawed Claudio Taffarel and Dunga both brimming with experience, the mercurial Ronaldo with the world at his feet. And Cafu, the legendary full-back who he was assigned to replace; whatever planet this was it wasn’t his.
The feeling wasn’t helped by the 800 or so journalists and photographers who had assembled to watch Brazil train. They weren’t looking at Ronaldo, nor Rivaldo or even wise old Bebeto – their eyes were trained on him. He was as foreign to them as they were to him.
In truth this was an alien situation. Brazil’s previous game – the 1998 World Cup quarter final versus Denmark – hadn’t gone entirely to plan. On a sticky night in Nantes the Danes had refused to lie down, taking the lead early and then equalising once Brazil had finally awoken. But eventually the win was Brazil’s and Canarinho had made it through unscathed. Almost.
In the 80th minute Cafu had broken down the right and, using his own ingenuity, had won a free kick deep inside the opposition half, the perfect tonic to the pressure the Danes had been exerting. But, in his haste to preserve his team’s lead, Cafu delayed taking the free kick, firstly by resetting the ball and then fiddling with some imaginary boot issue.
The referee’s patience broke and as he strode towards the Brazilian, yellow card raised, Cafu turned away, barely hiding his self-loathing at such a nonsensical error. He knew that meant he would miss the semi-final.
“He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t good enough,” Mário Zagallo responded flatly. But the question was a legitimate one. Cafu – a man with 71 caps to his name – was to be replaced by a player with zero caps – nada, zilch, nada. Zé Carlos had first been drafted into a Seleção two months prior to the tournament.
Cafu had just completed his first season with Roma whereas just a year previously his replacement had been making such little money playing for Matonense in São Paulo’s second tier that he had to supplement his income by selling watermelons.
A move to the São Paulo FC reserve team meant financial security, something the 29-year-old journeyman had never enjoyed before. He bought a house and set a date for his wedding: June 1998. But Zagallo had made a mental note of the diligent right back after observing him in a league game.
Then came the news that midfielder Flávio Conceição, who had played in the country’s Copa America victory the year before, was not fit. Zé Carlos’ phone rang and the wedding day was postponed.
“I’m privileged,” Zé Carlos said. “God accompanies me and illuminates my steps. I’ve nothing to complain about.” He may have tried to put a brave face on it, but within the Brazil camp there were plenty of complaints.
In a training game prior to the semi-final the uncapped right back was singled out as at fault for all three goals as the first eleven drew with the reserves. A further tension in a squad already burdened with it. Roberto Carlos was feuding with Dunga over free kick taking responsibilities’ Ronaldo and Bebeto barely spoke.
Feeling the strain of being the new guy perhaps mixed with a misplaced notion that it was he who must fit in, Zé Carlos felt he had to act. “Cluck, cluck, cluck..BUKARK!” All heads in the leisure room turned in unison to the right back and then broke out in raucous laughter. Next came the impression of a cat, dog and then parrot. The ice had been broken in the most surreal way.
At the pre-game press conference Zagallo fielded the same questions over Zé Carlos. This time the coach responded more whimsically. “I told Zé Carlos that since he can imitate dogs, parrots and owls, now he’ll imitate Cafu.”
Zé Carlos knew he would not participate in the final – he’d admitted as much to the press days earlier – but there was still the matter of overcoming a Dutch side riding high after Dennis Bergkamp’s audacious genius had slain Argentina at the last in Marseille. As the Brazilians exited the tunnel, hand in hand, Zé Carlos’ eyes were fixed on the ground, as if at any moment the ruse would be discovered.
During the opening passages of the game the Dutch had started their own investigation. Phillip Cocu, who was filling in at right back, sent probing passes down the wing toward a spritely Boudewijn Zenden. As an acid test the first ten minutes did not bode well for ‘the peasant’, as time after time he was second to the ball, relying on Aldair or even Dunga to cover.
The first thirty minutes of Zé Carlos’ international debut were, somewhat understandably, a nervous affair. Not once did he look to either receive the ball from his teammates or venture beyond the confines of his half. But slowly, with each neatly timed interception, his confidence grew, although his forward runs still did not match the adventure of those of Roberto Carlos on the opposite side.
The second half began with all the decisiveness its recently expired predecessor lacked. 22 seconds after kick-off Ronaldo scored one of the great forgotten goals of career. As Il Fenomeno wheeled away, arms outstretched, it seemed on first viewing that it was a simple finish. Only on closer inspection did the movement, pace, strength and skill utilised become apparent. As Aldair, Roberto Carlos and Júnior Baiano all joined in the celebrations near the Dutch goal, Zé Carlos returned back to his position. If God has blessed you, do not mock him with arrogance.
The Dutch pressed, particularly on the left wing, believing that at some point industry would give way to experience and ability. But Zé Carlos stood firm, scrambling to his feet after every interception, reset and ready to go again.
In a twist the Netherlands equalised from the right hand side with Roberto Carlos tucked in far too deep, allowing Ronald de Boer time and space to deliver. Patrick Kluivert, who up to that point had found little reward for his efforts, rose above Brazilian heads and contorted himself in the air to drive the ball back down past Taffarel.
Extra time raced by in what seemed like a matter of seconds, both teams playing with the brakes off, showcasing differing ideas of how to win a football match. Brazil encouraged their number nine to attack the defence from deep while the Dutch pinged long balls into the opposition area in attempt to exploit the aerial threat.
Zé Carlos’ body, having never experienced such intensity for such an extended length of time, periodically broke down. Bouts of cramp forced him to sit even more deeply than before, lest he become stranded up-field. His mind stayed alert, almost nullifying the threat from the left flank. Zagallo’s assertion that the debutant could perform in the same way as Cafu was misguided; he was never going to be Cafu, but he had done his job, his way.
Brazil scored four of their penalties and the Netherlands didn’t. Taffarel was mobbed, Zagallo was in tears, the De Boer brothers fought and Dunga hugged Ronaldo. As Júnior Baiano jogged towards the Brazil supporters he turned and beckoned a teammate: number 13. The defender throws his arm around the debutant. Zé Carlos affords himself one moment of self-indulgence and smiles.
Zé Carlos never played for Brazil again and retired from football in 2005. Since then he has opened a school in Mato Grosso for under-privileged children and plans to open more. He still lives in São Paulo, where now only his close friends enjoy his farm yard impressions.