It was not so very long ago that Brazilian goalkeepers were regarded with mistrust by major European clubs, who frequently drew on the South American country’s seemingly inexhaustible reserves of talented outfield players while overlooking its custodians.
With the arrival and subsequent success of the likes of Taffarel, Dida and Julio Cesar on the Old Continent, however, all that has changed. No longer are the keepers of Brazil viewed with suspicion on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed, so common a sight have they become in Europe that even a performer as adept as Porto captain Helton attracts little in the way of headlines. About to complete his seventh season with Os Dragões, the ex-Vasco da Gama No1 has nonetheless established himself as a firm favourite with the Portuguese club’s fans.
“It’s something you have to work at, and I’ve worked very hard to get this far,” the amiable Helton told FIFA.com on the eve of his side’s UEFA Europa League final against Braga in Dublin. “I think I’ve made a positive impression over these last seven years, and I hope it opens the way for more youngsters to come to Europe in the future.”
It has been far from an ordinary season for Helton and his Porto team-mates. Having recently lifted the domestic league title after going the entire season undefeated, becoming only the second side in the country’s history to achieve the feat, Os Dragões are now gunning for a treble, with tonight's showdown with Braga being followed by a Portuguese Cup final defeat of Vitoria de Guimaraes on Sunday.
Remarkably, the all-conquering class of 2010/11 is largely unchanged from the team that finished third in the league last season, some eight points adrift from champions and eternal foes Benfica. So why the big turnaround?
“We knew we had a strong squad and we’ve stuck faithfully to the instructions Andre Villas-Boas has given us, staying humble at the same time,” answered Helton, pointing to the influence of Porto’s young coach, who, at 33, is just a few months his senior. “He’s a great guy. He’s a friend more than a coach and he treats all the players the same.”
Spearheading Villas-Boas’s adventurous formation are the formidable duo of Colombian Radamel Falcao Garcia and Helton’s fellow countryman Hulk, with the likes of Joao Moutinho, Cristian Rodriguez and Fredy Guarin providing very able support. The northerners have been in irresistible form all season, scoring 73 goals in their 30 league games and hitting an unlikely 43 in their 16 Europa League outings.
For all their attacking firepower, Porto have also been indebted to Helton’s contribution at the other end, which has provided a solid base for the team to build on. “Well, that’s what I’m there for, aren’t I?” he said with a smile. “But the fact is we all have an awful lot of confidence in each other, even when it comes to defending. A lot of the time you’ll see Hulk and Falcao dropping back to pick people up. That’s why everything’s worked out so well.”
That attention to defensive detail has certainly paid off. The newly crowned Portuguese champions boasted far and away the tightest rearguard in the league, letting in only 16 goals - the same number they have conceded in reaching the Europa League final.
Topping the table with 84 points, Villas-Boas’s side finished 21 points ahead of runners-up Benfica and a massive 38 clear of fourth-placed Braga, which has made them hot favourites for their date in the Irish capital. Helton, however, does not see it that way:
“I can understand why people would say that, but it’s not true," said the man celebrating his birthday today. "Football can be very unpredictable, especially when there’s a trophy at stake in a one-off game. Braga are a team with a very solid base. They’ve moulded well since last season and they’ve made history. You don’t reach a final just like that, and I think this shows just how much quality they have.”
While Helton’s performances in the Porto goal have raised his profile considerably, he has yet to become a familiar face in the Brazil team. The first-choice keeper in their ill-fated campaign at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Sydney 2000, he has made only sporadic appearances for his country since then, the last of them at the Copa America 2007, when Dunga made him understudy to Doni in the five-time world champions' run to the continental title. Yet though success in the Europa League could be the stepping stone to another opportunity with the national team, especially after years of sustained excellence at Porto, Helton will not be sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring.
“Listen, it would be a great achievement as part of my career with Porto, and to get recognition from A Seleção would be a reflection on the work I’ve done with my club, but it’s up to the coach to make the choice,” he said. “If the chance comes around, I’d welcome it, but I’m not losing any sleep over it, anything but. I have a lot of respect for anyone’s who’s been in the Brazil team.”
With Porto gunning for a treble, it is just as well Helton has been getting plenty of sleep lately. After all, the celebrations could last for days if he helps them pull it off.