With a brief spell at Real Madrid, a lengthy and highly successful time in German football and two FIFA World Cup™ campaigns under his belt, midfielder Ze Roberto – a recent big-name signing by Brazilian Serie A outfit Gremio – has plenty to say for himself.
FIFA.com was fortunate enough to speak to the vastly experienced player about some of the biggest moments of his career, several of which involved France legend Zinedine Zidane appearing to spoil the party. Currently adding his expertise to Gremio’s league title tilt and still in peak condition at the age of 38, Ze Roberto is by no means ready to hang up his boots just yet: “I’m lucky enough that when I retire it’ll be my decision.”
FIFA.com: How have your first few weeks back in Brazil been, given you’ve spent so much of your career abroad?
Ze Roberto: I’m really happy, particularly because of the project Gremio have unveiled. I’m committed to the cause and hoping to do a great job. It’s been a little difficult to start with, since I’m lacking a bit of match fitness and need time to gel with my team-mates. The city itself is very similar to Germany, with a very organised transport network and polite people. That’s caught my eye, while the fans are really friendly. I’m enjoying myself a lot.
You’ve not played too many games for Gremio yet, but you’ve already proven you’re still in good physical condition. How do you manage to stay in such great shape so late in your career?
I’m very thankful to the good genes that God gave me, which have helped me stay at the top level so long. That said, I’ve always looked after myself. My family are my rock too: I’m always with my children, I’m not someone who skips nights with them. Both before and after training sessions, when I can, I do individual work to keep on top of things - working on my explosiveness and doing strengthening exercises for my joints and lumbar region. It’s also helpful, when it comes to playing professionally for nearly 18 years, to have never had a serious injury. I’ve never even got the usual ones – grade one, grade two etc. – so I don’t know what they are. I’ve not had anything that’s kept me out for long.
There are many cases of players, such as Matthias Sammer and Lothar Matthaus, that dropped into a deeper playing position over the course of their long careers. You’ve gone the other way, however, starting at full-back, then central midfield and now playing as a No10. How did that happen?
I’ve always been a very slightly-built player. I weigh nearly the same as when I started out and, when you combine a slight frame with skill and speed, it gives you the opportunity to play pretty much any position. But I think that it’s due to my technical ability, being able to create chances for the forwards and go it alone too, that I’ve been moved further forward. And when you avoid injuries, you can play as long as you want to. The only problem I have is that I can’t stand being away from my family for long. Whenever I have time off I want to be with them. Here in Brazil they demand a lot from players, which keeps you away from your family a lot. I’ll have a think about things come the end of the year. It’s much better being able to decide when to quit rather than simply not being good enough anymore. I’m very fortunate in that regard.
Turning back the clock to early in your career, and your first foreign adventure was on Spanish soil. In theory, as a Brazilian, it should have been easier to adapt there than in Germany, but things didn’t work out. Why was that?
I left Brazil very young, particularly when you take into account I left a so-called small club like Portuguesa to join a genuine giant like Real Madrid. I knew that I was going to need time to succeed over there. But I dreamt of playing at the World Cup [France 1998] and had been a [national team] regular from U-23 level, so I had a very frank conversation with [Mario] Zagallo. He told me that he saw me as part of the squad, but only if I was playing regularly. I knew that if I wanted to cement a starting place at Madrid I’d need to stay for a few years. So, with the World Cup in mind, I left Real and joined Flamengo. I believe that if I’d have stayed [at Madrid] I’d have been a success, however fierce the competition was, just like happened in Germany – where I spent 12 seasons. The difference was that over there I had time to adapt to the culture, pick up the German language and learn how they play the game.
Staying with your extensive spell in German football. From the outside it might appear that you settled very easily, but that wasn’t the case to begin with was it?
No, the most difficult part was the period I needed to adapt to life at Leverkusen, which took me nearly a year. I arrived there in the summer but three or four months later a really fierce winter took hold, with snow and temperatures of around -10°C. That alone is tough for a Brazilian, then you had the language barrier. It all makes you want to jump on the first plane home but, as I’d already been to Spain without success, I was really determined to overcome those difficulties. Plus I’d joined a club that offered great support for its foreign players. We had interpreters and there were other Brazilians like Emerson, Robson Ponte and Paulo Rink. It was where things really took off for me, even though it was somewhere I never thought I’d be. When I got the offer from Leverkusen, I convinced my wife that it was an opportunity that we might not get again, that we’d go for a year and I’d take advantage of being in the shop window. And we ended up building nearly our whole life over there.
Now on the subject of the FIFA World Cup. You appeared at the 1998 and 2006 tournaments but missed out on the victorious 2002 campaign. How much does that still bother you?
A lot, no doubt about it. It came out of nowhere, it’s the most frustrating point of my career. In 2002 I was playing my best football since coming to Europe. Leverkusen had a great season, challenging for the Bundesliga title and reaching the finals of the German Cup and the Champions League. Unfortunately we didn’t win any of the three, but we still made history that year. The club had never experienced anything like that before. I was in top form and I ended up missing out on A Seleção [for Japan/Korea 2002] on the basis of two matches. Even though the national team had been going through turbulent times and coaching changes, every coach had kept selecting me. The last was Felipão [Scolari], who called me up along with (full-back) Serginho and (central defender) Juan for the last two games of the qualifying phase. The first was at altitude in La Paz and we played poorly [in a 3-1 defeat]. And though we won the next game against Venezuela, we ended up missing the cut. I was almost certain I’d get into that squad, but the coach opted for other players instead.
When you compare Brazil’s campaigns at the 1998 and 2006 FIFA World Cups, what are the main differences?
In 1998 we started out among the favourites, along with two or three other sides. I think we had a great World Cup and we were only denied by another very strong national team. I learnt a lot there, playing alongside experienced players like Dunga, Leonardo, Bebeto and Rivaldo. They all had a great tournament and we only ended up missing out because France grew very strong on home soil – they [France] were great in the Final. At that tournament we had a squad which was more focused, which wasn’t the case in 2006. Then it seemed like the level of commitment was lacking, with two or three players even turning up overweight. There was that open-air market [in Weggis, Switzerland] in front of our training ground, which had samba dancing and Brazilian products. We never had a period of separation, with just the players and the coaches. That made it difficult to focus, and expectation levels were very high. Nowadays everybody picks out Spain as title contenders in every tournament, and at that time people did the same with Brazil, who were the Copa America and Confederations Cup holders. But our team weren’t focused enough.
One final question: on three occasions your teams had their hopes dashed by a side featuring Zinedine Zidane – at the FIFA World Cups in 1998 and 2006, as well as the 2002 UEFA Champions League final between Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid. Does mentioning his name bring back painful memories?
Well, Zidane won those battles but it’s not painful to think about him. It’s just one of those things when you come up against truly great players. When you go toe-to-toe with them and don’t win the title of course there are some feelings of frustration. But when you’re competing in the same era as Zidane, a player of that quality and technique, it’s frustrating but also quite rewarding too.