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For Brazilians, goalkeepers are just ‘chicken men’

SÃO PAULO, Brazil: For years, it has gone without saying in Brazil that fathers do not let their children grow up to be goalkeepers. This is the land, remember, of the jogo bonito, the beautiful game. It is for strikers and stylists and supermen. Attackers here are likened to legends like Pele and Zico. But goalkeepers? They are likened to, well, poultry and produce.

Júlio Cesar, the starting goalkeeper for Brazil, is a frangueiro (chicken man). He is also a peru (turkey) and a mão de alface (or, roughly, lettuce hands). These are the printable euphemisms that Brazilians have for goalkeepers.

In Brazil, goalkeepers are special, and not in a good way. In pickup games on the countless asphalt courts around this country, children usually play a form of rock-paper-scissors to decide which unlucky soul has to begin the game at goalkeeper. In the more organised games in which adults rent a field to play on, anyone who agrees to play goalkeeper always plays free of charge.

When watching professional games, most fans in Brazil have little use for goalkeepers, to the point that some of the saints and martyrs who actually take on the job have likened the feeling of playing goal to living on death row. The analogy is not far off the mark: After all, for goalkeepers in Brazil, it sometimes feels as if each game is just another day closer to the moment that ends you.

“The fans, they are always waiting, waiting, waiting for the mistake,” said Zetti, a former national goalkeeper. “A forward, he misses nine shots and no one says anything. A goalkeeper misses one shot, and they say he takes a frango.” Zetti shook his head. “They say that because it is like trying to catch a chicken – the ball slips away,” he said. “It is very disrespectful. I always hated it.”

About six years ago, his teenage son wanted instruction on how to become a goalkeeper. Zetti began teaching the boy and a few of his friends. Soon, there was interest from other children in the area. Zetti began to wonder if perhaps there could be a business, even as the basic notion – teaching Brazilians how to be goalkeepers – seemed about as feasible as opening a school for sunbathing in Siberia.

Now, Zetti oversees a multitude of classes in the Santa Amaro neighbourhood of this city that is named Fechando o Gol, or Closing the Goal. There are two small, fenced-in fields that are designed for goalkeeping drills and instruction, as well as a snack bar where parents can watch their children dive and slide and jump high to catch a cross.

More recently, the public perception of goalkeepers in Brazil improved slightly as some, like Júlio Cesar, joined the procession of top Brazilian players to club teams in Europe. Yet the best-known goalkeeper these days may be Rogerio Ceni, the starter for São Paulo FC. Rogerio, was a reserve for the Brazilian national team at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups but has made his name by – naturally – figuring out a way to score goals in addition to saving them.

Rogerio, 41, scored his first goal when he was 24, coming up the field for a free kick near the opposing penalty area and whizzing the ball into the goal. He continued to hone his skills on free kicks and penalty kicks and, in 2006, became the international record-holder for most goals by a goalkeeper. Five years later, he scored his 100th career goal, a total that has made him beloved by even the biggest goalkeeping cynics.

When asked whether it feels better to save a goal or score one, Rogerio could not lie. He is Brazilian. “Defending a penalty kick on a decisive moment is invaluable, no doubt,” he said. “But the sensation that you, even as a goalkeeper, can actually be the one to score? The athletes that can know that feeling are very, very rare.”

© 2014 The New York Times


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