To say Carlos Roa has faced obstacles over the course of his life and professional career would be a huge understatement, with the former Argentina No1, whose star shone brightest for Mallorca and La Albiceleste in the late 1990s, alternating sporting success with immense personal setbacks.
Now 42, the Santa Fe-born ex-shotstopper overcame such varied and testing challenges as malaria, testicular cancer and even a brief retirement from the game for religious reasons. Currently working as goalkeeping coach at Buenos Aires giants River Plate, Roa touched on all of these life-changing events and more in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You dropped off the radar somewhat after retiring from the professional game, so can you tell how us you ended up on the River Plate coaching staff?
Carlos Roa: It was unexpected. Matias [Almeyda] rang me at half past one in the morning, on the weekend that River’s relegation was confirmed, and offered me a place on his coaching staff. It was fantastic! I got on very well with him [when we were part of the Argentina squad] at the 1998 World Cup and, though we weren’t close friends, we’d always have a chat whenever we saw each other. I’ve been very happy ever since this opportunity came about and every day I’m discovering more and more about el mundo River (River Plate’s world), which is really impressive.
What’s it like coaching young goalkeepers?
I learn from them too. You have to adapt to their freshness, their spontaneity and the lively exchange of ideas. They ask me things about my past but I never use myself as an example. With this generation, the worst thing you can do is go around boasting about what you’ve done over your career. These lads have more talent than me, as I was a keeper with very limited ability. I was a late developer, which is why I didn’t get a move to Europe until I was 28. These guys, if they’re committed enough, can go much further.
Do you think young players today are different to in your day?
Possibly. In today’s chaotic world, some of them think that they have to get everything right now: play in the top flight, have the right car and make a name for themselves. And they want it all without making sacrifices. My generation had to really struggle to make it, which is something I value and a message I try to get across. You’ve got to be prepared to make small sacrifices to achieve big things. Things like having a quiet weekend, eating right and getting enough rest. There are a lot of temptations out there but fortunately the lads in my group are very focused.
With this generation, the worst thing you can do is go around boasting about what you’ve done over your career. These lads have more talent than me.
In terms of the goalkeeper’s role itself, do you think personality or technical ability is more important?
I don’t know who invented this saying, but it’s very simple: ‘When the ball’s going wide, don’t knock it in, and when it’s going in, keep it out.’ There’s no more to it than that. You might have a keeper who’s spectacular but if he’s going to let in ones that he should be keeping out then that’s no use at all. I like keepers who are solid, serious and with a strong personality.
Your fellow ex-Argentina keeper, German Burgos, once said you have to be a bit crazy to be a good goalkeeper. Would you agree?
You have to have a certain personality, definitely (laughs). More than anything, you need to be the kind of guy who can bounce back from adversity. It’s a really thankless position and you’ve got 40,000 people ready to insult you if you make a mistake. And you’ve got the fans a couple of metres away, not like outfield players who are moving around all the time and can quickly make up for their mistakes. Keepers have to wait for another attack before they can redeem themselves, so the most important thing is to be mentally strong.
In your opinion, who are the best keepers around at the moment?
It’s hard to choose, but I’ve always admired Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes over in Spain. Even back when I was still keeping goal for Mallorca (Editor’s note: Roa left the club after the 2001/02 campaign) they already looked like quality goalkeepers. It’s no mean feat spending so many years as No1s at those clubs and winning every trophy around: they’re examples to follow. Here in Argentina, the keepers currently in the national squad are great players too.
Sticking with the national squad and we cannot fail to mention your most memorable match with La Albiceleste: the Round of 16 clash with England at France 1998.
It felt like that game went on for two days! It started in the evening and pretty much went on until the next day. It was a pulsating match and had absolutely everything. It’s always special taking on England, who are historical rivals of ours. And even though people say some things don’t matter, everything plays a part. My family called me after that game and told me how on edge everyone was before the decisive penalty and the explosion of joy when I saved it. I’d have liked to have been at home at the same time to witness all that.
Did you have a feeling you’d save one?
After the final of the Copa del Rey [in 1998] against Barcelona (Editor’s note: Roa made three saves in Mallorca’s 5-4 penalty shoot-out defeat), I was tagged as a penalty specialist but I wasn’t. I remember [then Argentina coach] Daniel Passarella came up to me at the end of the game [against England], patted me on the back and said that ‘we have to win on penalties, right?’ He put a 5,000kg weight on my shoulders! I remember going to my goal thinking ‘Oh no, what if we lose on penalties. The guy’s just told me I have to save them, but what if I don’t? It felt like the night was going to swallow me up!’ Thank God everything turned out ok. That game was a huge boost for my career.
However, when you were later offered the chance to join Manchester United, you turned them down and subsequently retired for religious reasons. Looking back, is that something you regret?
It was a very difficult decision for me to take when I was at the peak of my career, though I was convinced that I was doing the right thing for me and my family. If you look at it in footballing terms it wasn’t a good move: coming back later on wasn’t easy at all. Even now I get people stopping me in the street and telling me I let them down, that I made them cry, which is harsh. When you’re in the public eye you’re under close scrutiny. But I wouldn’t say that it was a bad decision in every way. After that happened, it really opened my eyes to some things in my life.
Such as being surrounded by hangers-on?
Yes, that happened to me. That's why I say that it was helpful, as it gave me the chance to change certain things surrounding me, issues that wouldn’t have surfaced otherwise. It’s disappointing when you see how close friends or relatives who were once at your side are no longer there – it’s not what you expect. But it also makes you realise you can’t trust everyone and you need to think carefully before every step you take.
You subsequently decided to return to the game, so what was it you missed?
Playing! I missed the adrenaline, the people, taking the field and hearing the roar of the fans, the chanting. It’s all priceless! When I retired I went out into the countryside in Cordoba [Argentina], practically in the middle of nowhere. I just became another local lad out there in the mountains. It was a really radical and tough transition to make, but it was spectacular. I don’t regret anything, though coming back to football after that was hard. Getting cancer was much harder though.
If you look at it in footballing terms it wasn’t a good move: coming back later on wasn’t easy at all. Even now I get people stopping me in the street and telling me I let them down.
What was that like?
I was at Albacete then, I felt perfectly fine and there was even talk about breaking back into the national team. But that relapse was incredibly difficult to take.
What’s the toughest part of going through something like that?
The fact that you know it’s out of your hands. When you’re told you’ve got cancer, it’s very tough. Mine was testicular and it was made clear to me that it was treatable and I was going to be fine. I was given a 95 per cent chance [of overcoming it], but you can’t help but go over the other five per cent chance in your mind. It’s an awful disease, it eats you alive. It wasn’t easy for my family to see me losing weight and my hair. It transforms your body completely. But anyway, being a believer and having faith in God really helped me.
Is there anything you can take from such a terrible experience?
Sometimes as people we go through situations that make us re-examine a lot of things in our lives. It calmed me down a lot. I used to be hyperactive, a perfectionist, and what for? I’m not saying that being that way didn’t have its rewards, but your life on Earth is over in an instant and you have to enjoy it. Now I’m less full-on, calmer and I try and put others first.
You’ve endured a number of health scares over your career, including when you caught malaria during your time at Racing Club.
That was a disaster! We went on tour to Africa in the early 1990s and I caught it, even though I’d taken the medication. The disease wasn’t very well-known in Argentina and I didn’t show symptoms until I got back home. Then I was about to be given the all-clear when I suffered a relapse that kept me in hospital for a month. They had to go to Brazil to buy the medication because there wasn’t any where I was. I really went through the mill, it was a miracle I was cured. I think I’ve been operated on around ten times in my life, which must be a record! Thanks to God’s help I’ve come through it all though, so my belief gets stronger all the time (laughs).
After a life already so rich in both positive and negative experiences, what’s your biggest wish for the future?
I’d like to live many more years so I can spend them with my daughters. I want to see them get married and really enjoy my time with them to the maximum. I’d love to live to be very old and very grey and be able to see my grandchildren grow up too, alongside my wife Silvia of course. I can’t forget to mention her or she’ll kill me!