As Brazil celebrated on the pitch after the Final of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, Cafu went further than the rest, clambering onto the podium to hold the Trophy aloft. After all, it was a moment of special significance for the vastly experienced right-back.
For those watching in the stadium or at home, it would be hard to believe that the same player, the captain of the side that had just won Brazil’s fifth World Cup, had struggled so much at the beginning of his career, being rejected by one club after another as a teenager. “I think I heard the word 'no' nine times,” he told FIFA.com.
In an exclusive interview, the legendary marauding defender - a genuine authority on A Seleção and the FIFA World Cup - talked about the challenges he faced when starting out and his dramatic rise to stardom. Nor did he hesitate when asked about this year's competition hosts: “Brazil are the team to beat.”
FIFA.com: The story of your career makes fascinating reading. You had a number of unsuccessful trials, but once you got your chance at Sao Paulo, did you think you would achieve so much, so quickly? That you would even play in the 1994 World Cup Final?
Cafu: No. I never imagined that I would go so far, so quickly. I imagined playing for Sao Paulo, where I was at the time. But after that everything happened so quickly. The beginning of a career is hard for many players, often because of the ordinary day-to-day problems that football and life bring. I was rejected a lot in the early days – I think I heard the word 'no' nine times – and I began to think that maybe I wasn’t going to make it as a professional, let alone play for the national team.
But then suddenly I had a good game in a friendly against Sao Paulo, the same club that had rejected me a number of times, and this time I made it through the selection process. I needed to wait two weeks for my trial, which seemed to drag on forever. All I wanted was a chance. So when my opportunity came, I grabbed it with both hands. After I signed pro forms in 1991, I went on to be chosen for a Paulista state championship select XI, then for Brazil at youth level, then for the full squad, and then finally I became a World Cup winner.
Do you remember a particular moment, a day when you felt things were turning around? That you had made it?
When I signed my first contract with Sao Paulo I still wasn’t sure that I was going to have a successful career. Even after you turn professional the competition is so intense, and as I was a bit older than some of the other players, I thought that it would be harder for me. But when I cemented a first-team place and won my first trophy, I realised that I could afford to be a little more ambitious. I started to think about playing for Brazil. And when I achieved that, I focused on making sure I went to the World Cup. And once that happens, the only thing you think about is lifting the Trophy. So it was a whole series of triumphs, a really happy time, during which I earned a record number of international caps, became captain of my country, and won the World Cup twice.
You started the 1994 World Cup Final on the bench. How did you feel when you realised you were going to come on? How was the news broken to you?
Jorginho was playing well and having a good World Cup, and I was being eased in gradually during the games. I was playing for ten minutes here or 20 minutes there. In the Final, just 15 minutes into the game, Jorginho put his hand on his thigh. Parreira saw it and told me: ‘Cafu, get warmed up’. ‘What, me?’ I asked. He told me that Jorginho had felt a twinge and that I needed to get ready. He asked if I was ready and I said that I’d been ready for a long time, and that I didn’t even need to warm up. I came on and thankfully we managed to beat Italy and become world champions.
Turning to the 1994 and 2002 World Cup-winning squads, it is often said that the dressing-room atmosphere was as important as the level of on-pitch talent. Is this really true?
For a team, especially at the World Cup, which is a short competition, if there is no sense of togetherness, then you won’t win it. Nobody wins the World Cup alone. Not even Pele, [Diego] Maradona or Lothar Matthaus could win it alone. It’s simply not true. There is always a team behind the stars, supporting them. Everybody needs to be focused, and if they’re not, then it won’t work, you won’t win it. In both 1994 and 2002 we were focused on one thing only: winning the World Cup. Of course you need talent. We had plenty of that. But if the talented players had just played for themselves, then Brazil wouldn’t have become champions.
How does this type of chemistry in a squad work? Does it come from the coach or from a number of factors?
It’s a number of factors. The coach is one of them, of course. But to win the World Cup a number of things need to come together. It’s not about a single episode or detail. A detail, or a lapse in concentration, can make a difference in the Final, but to get there you need to be completely prepared.
You spent time at the national team’s training sessions in Brasilia before the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. What was it like to spend time with the players? Did you feel that the mood, the sense of focus, was different?
I had the chance to talk to the players on the pitch. It was even said that I gave a speech, but it wasn’t like that. It was just a few words to try and inspire them and the coaching staff. I have plenty of experience and I thought I might be able to pass something on to the lads. I think it went down well. It seemed to get through to the players, and Brazil went on to win the Confederations Cup in great style.
Results hadn't been great for Brazil before the tournament, to the extent that there had been a change of coach. But in the opening game against Japan, Neymar scored a great goal early on and everything fell into place - including a real bond with the supporters. Did this surprise you at all?
Not at all. I know what players are capable of and I know what Brazil can do. Especially playing at home with the fans behind them. Everything went right against Japan. Neymar scored with his left foot at a perfect time and the team clicked. In the final, Fred scored even after falling over. But that kind of thing only happens if you believe in yourself. Brazil had belief and that’s what happened. So it wasn’t a surprise to me. Brazil have to be respected, especially at home.
It will be a year from the final of Brazil 2013 until the start of the World Cup. Do you think anything will change during this time, or will the Confederations Cup atmosphere resurface once Brazil take the field?
I think the atmosphere will be the same as it was during the final. An atmosphere in which Brazil became champions, winners - beating Spain 3-0. Of course, the World Cup is a different, more difficult competition, but Brazil are the team to beat.