January 31, 2023



Carlos’s 1986 World Cup foul and the value of rethinking our villains | Jonathan Wilson | Football

5 min read

Football can give you completely the wrong idea about people. One incident in one match can skew the perception. For years I thought I hated Carlos, the Brazil goalkeeper who pulled back Bruno Bellone after the France forward had gone round him in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final and somehow went unpunished.

How, four years after Harald Schumacher’s horrendous assault on Patrick Battiston, could that glorious France – Platini! Tigana! Giresse! – be cheated once again by a goalkeeper? Carlos’s offence had nothing like the raw violence of Schumacher’s, but it was cynical. And so, for compounding the injustice of Seville 1982, he went on the blacklist.

Then I met him. I was in Brazil researching my book on goalkeepers and sent out a load of interview requests. I spoke to Emerson Leão, Waldir Peres and Nielsen, but Carlos was elusive. He didn’t say no, but he kept making excuses. On my final day in São Paulo, he said he had been called out of state unexpectedly. But when I went to the goalkeeping school run by Zetti, São Paulo’s keeper when they won the Copa Libertadores in 1992, there was Carlos, having a coffee, his mass of frizzy curls, albeit thinner and greyer now, making him instantly recognisable.

He was clearly still reluctant, but Zetti guilted him into doing the interview. In truth, I was largely unprepared and, given his discomfort, I was expecting an awkward 15 minutes that were unlikely to yield more than a couple of sentences. But once he got over his initial shyness, it all came rushing out.

Carlos was intelligent, sensitive and, for all that he had won 37 caps and twice come second in the Brazilian league’s player of the year award, had a deeply ambivalent relationship with football. He wanted to be an architect but instead became a goalkeeper, almost by mistake. Carlos started out as a defender. “I didn’t have skills,” he said, “but I had a good reading of the game. I had a good sense of position, but I was afraid of heading the ball.”

But he had already been attracted to goalkeeping because of the radio. “You didn’t have matches on television, so you listened to games,” he explained. “The most spectacular play would be around the goal: you either had a goal or you had a save from the goalkeeper. So when I played I tried to imitate what I heard and imagined. At the time there was a thought that the goalkeeper was just a player who couldn’t play outfield so nobody wanted to do it. But I liked it. I already liked it.”

And he was tall. “At school I did high jump and I played basketball. I was 12 or 13 when I decided goalkeeper was my position. I started out playing against teams my age but because nobody wanted to be a goalkeeper I started playing with older people. When I was 14 I would play with people 20 years older than me. Sometimes they would get mad at me because I couldn’t save everything.” The fear of letting people down would become a familiar theme.

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The local professional club, Ponte Preta, would play friendlies against local sides and after coming up against Carlos, they invited him to train with them. “I liked football,” he said, “but to be a professional goalkeeper … I didn’t enjoy it because of the pressure. Even though I was playing with people my own age, there was a responsibility to play well. I didn’t enjoy that; I wasn’t comfortable.

“I went there one morning and told them I wanted to quit, but the coach who had taken me to Ponte Preta insisted. He spoke to my father. So we agreed that I’d move school to be nearer to the club. A lot of my friends wanted to be professionals but didn’t make it, so even though I wasn’t enjoying it I had a responsibility to them.”

He was called up to the national under-18 team. Again, he felt a reluctance. “It wasn’t easy to enjoy,” he said, “but once I’d been called up to the national team they kept picking me.”

By any reasonable standards, Carlos had a fine career. After Ponte Preta, he spent four years at Corinthians, where he won a state championship. He played in an Olympics and a World Cup and was a gold medallist at the Pan-American Games. But he never felt he belonged. “The pleasure came from the titles and the accomplishments,” he said. “But I really had to fight against anxiety. I thought too much. I would be frozen with indecision. Sometimes I’d be in the national team thinking: ‘I’ve got to get better. There’s other goalkeepers who could be in my place.’ And yet I was there in the national team. There was a contradiction. I was saying: ‘I’m here but I can’t be here but I have to be here because I’m good enough to be here.’”

The doubts humanise him. He is no longer just a grainy sprite on a screen who cheated more than three decades ago. Some blossom with the eyes of the world upon them, but Carlos represents the other side of that, those who feel fear, who expect criticism.

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Is that then an excuse? Can we blame somebody so tormented by his anxiety for being so desperate not to concede, even if it means grabbing a player who has just run by him after he has slightly impetuously left his box? Surely, 26 years on, this thoughtful man, somebody who dwells on errors and his place in the world, must have been wracked by contrition?

“I don’t feel guilt. The forward was through against me alone. The player put the ball past me and I went to pull him down, but I didn’t. I just slowed him down and a defender could get back. The referee didn’t give the foul because he decided the forward had the advantage. It was lucky for me. In those days it wasn’t a red card, so you did what you did. Now the rules are different so I would do something different.”

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