It takes a special player to hold on to a first-team place at a big club for 14 years. Aside from being talented, that kind of enduring achievement requires a dogged if not obsessive commitment to one’s trade. Those are just the qualities that Sao Paulo’s indefatigable goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni has in spades, and which have taken him to the brink of 900 appearances for the club, a landmark he will reach in Wednesday’s Copa Libertadores tie against Universitario in Lima.
An indication of Ceni’s dedication to his craft came during this exclusive interview with FIFA.com. In giving a blow-by-blow account of Santos’s third goal in the recent Sao Paulo state championship play-off semi-final, Ceni pulled out a magazine to represent the pitch and used the interviewer’s tape recorder as a makeshift goalmouth to show exactly why he had no chance of preventing what proved to be the match-winning strike.
It is that kind of attention to detail that his kept Ceni at the top of his profession at the ripe old age of 37, a stage in his career when he could easily be forgiven for quickly putting the goals he concedes to the back of his mind.
That has never been his style, however. Asked if he has always been competitive, Ceni responds without a moment’s hesitation. “Very much so. In everything I do, not just in football. I have to admit that I really don’t like losing. I suffer a lot because of that, too much in fact. Whenever we lose I find it hard to sleep, and now we’ve got the knockout phase of the Copa Libertadores coming up, which will be a huge psychological strain for me.”
Despite the vast experience he has acquired, Ceni suffers just as much as for his art now as he has always done. “When you’ve spent 20 years in the same place like me everything become much more intense,” he explains. “On the one hand, winning is that bit more special, but on the other, when you lose everything can come down on top of you. The youngsters in the team can just get on with things if we lose because they’ve still got 12 or 15 Libertadores ahead of them. I don’t. I’ve only got two or maybe three left.”
As that explanation suggests, the Sao Paulo shot-stopper is contemplating extending his career beyond his 40th birthday. “Things are very different when you near the end of your playing days,” he continues. “You have to make the most of everything. As time’s gone by I’ve got even more competitive because I know I don’t have an awful lot left in front of me. That’s why I need to win. But the day is going to come when I’ll say I’ve had enough. I’ll think I’ll be able to relax more when it finally does.”
More than just a goalkeeper
No sooner is Ceni trooping off the pitch at the end of a game than he starts replaying it in his head, “including the mistakes that most people don’t see and the easy saves that everyone thinks are brilliant”. And asked if he could ever settle for less and play for a less successful club than Sao Paulo, he is unequivocal: “I’d play because I’m a professional, but my heart would stop beating.”
His enduring drive and determination have allowed him to match the longevity of the game’s ageless greats. Now well clear of Junior’s 865 appearances for Flamengo, he is about to overtake Paolo Maldini’s 902 outings for AC Milan. No longer known merely as a goalkeeper who scores goals, Ceni is a distinguished record-breaker and arguably the best-known modern-day Brazilian pro never to play in Europe. “It’s not something I’ve thought about to be honest,” he says. “I don’t really think I’m all that well known.”
Scoring a goal is special even for a goalkeeper. That’s the whole point of football.
The scorer of 89 goals for Sao Paulo, Ceni identifies the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2005, against Liverpool, as the match that probably did more than any other to raise his profile.
“That was a game in which I could have showed the world, and especially European fans, that I do score goals,” he explains. “But there are lots of matches where the most important thing is for me to do my job properly. And my number one job is to stop people scoring. If I can score myself, then I’m adding a little bit extra, of course, and even making a name for myself. But the fact is that no one can play 900 games as the first-choice keeper for a big club like this just because they score goals, unless they get 900, one a game.”
The pleasure principle
The stalwart custodian has always enjoyed having the ball at his feet. A midfielder in his childhood years, he turned his hand to keeping when he was 15.
“My father said to me, ‘You have to decide once and for all whether you want to be a goalkeeper or an outfield player. If you don’t, you’ll never be either.’” Though he opted to don the gloves in the end, he nevertheless managed to incorporate an outfield skill into his game, patiently honing his ability to take deadly free-kicks from just outside the penalty area.
“I never used to take free-kicks,” he reveals. “I started practising them in 1996, after I’d joined Sao Paulo. I was promoted to the first team along with four or five kids from the youth side, but they were all loaned out to clubs in the interior. I used to arrive at training early and as I didn’t have anyone to have a kickaround with, I just put a wall up and practised hitting 50, 80 or 100 free-kicks a day. It got to the point where I felt I could take one during a game. There was one season when we’d only scored one goal from free-kicks and I remember saying to Zetti [Sao Paulo’s goalkeeper at the time], ‘If I become the first-choice goalkeeper one day, I’m going to score a free-kick’. And I did, didn’t I?”
Ever since then Ceni has had the dual pleasure of being able to save goals and score them, though he confesses to getting more satisfaction out of the latter. “Scoring a goal is special even for a goalkeeper,” he confirms. “That’s the whole point of football. It’s fantastic when you’ve had a good match and haven’t made a single mistake. But when it comes down to it, there’s nothing that compares with that feeling when the ball goes in the back of the net. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Being the ultimate competitor that he is, it is no surprise to hear that Ceni still gets a big kick out of the game. On the point of clocking up 900 games for his beloved club, it is entirely probable that he will one day take that figure up to 1000, which, incidentally, would give him more than enough time to reach another milestone: his 100th goal. Even by Ceni’s impeccably high standards, that would be quite a century.