Goalkeepers have perennially played decisive roles in the outcome of FIFA World Cups™. Uruguay's Enrique Ballesteros set a precedent for this in the inaugural tournament in 1930, and it is equally impossible to deny that Gianpiero Combi (Italy, 1934), Gordon Banks (England, 1966), Sepp Maier (West Germany, 1974), Ubaldo Fillol (Argentina, 1978), Dino Zoff (Italy, 1982), Fabien Barthez (France, 1998) and Gianluigi Buffon (Italy, 2006) played indispensable roles in their respective sides' subsequent triumphs.
When the subject is Brazil's five titles, however, it is sometimes easy to overlook the contributions of their shot-stoppers. The reason for this is, of course, the unforgettable magic conjured up by their attacking wizards during these campaigns and while Didi, Garrincha, Pele, Jairzinho, Bebeto, Romario, Rivaldo and Ronaldo headlined the Seleção's quintet of successes, four of their five triumphs were also indebted to the displays of their keepers.
Gilmar kept four clean sheets in six games in 1958 and performed admirably when Brazil defended their maiden crown four years later, while Taffarel was one of the heroes of their USA 1994 conquest and, in 2002, Marcos conceded just once in 360 minutes during the knockout phase en route to glory.
Current Brazil coach Dunga is aware of the importance of having a dependable presence between the sticks and, after testing out a few options since his July 2006 appointment - namely PSV Eindhoven's Gomes, Helton of FC Porto and Roma's Doni - he has apparently settled on his first choice: Inter Milan's Julio Cesar.
When the Brazil squad assembled ahead of the kick-off to their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign earlier this month, the 28-year-old was just a face in a sea of superstars. Nobody, however, deserves more credit for his side's four-point return from two outings than he.
Julio Cesar certainly needed to be at his best against Colombia on 14 October and, to his nation's relief, he was, defying the rain-soaked conditions with some assured handling and, crucially, producing two point-blank saves from Wason Renteria that ultimately stole Brazil a 0-0 draw against their dominant hosts.
Against Ecuador in their next match, the final scoreline may have read impressively in Brazil's favour, but it could have been a different story had their No1 not dived bravely at the feet of Cristian Benitez when the Ecuador seemed destined to make it 1-1 in the second half. The rest, as they say, is history, as 85,000-plus fans witnessed Kaka, Ronaldinho and Robinho inspire an emphatic 5-0 victory on the side's return to the Maracana following a seven-year absence.
Playing in front of big crowds at the hallowed Rio de Janeiro stadium is not alien to Julio Cesar, who did so regularly during his seven-year spell at Carioca giants Flamengo. It was a period in which he gained a reputation for saving penalties, something that he has also been able to do on the international stage. When the final of the Copa America 2004 went to a shootout, he saved the very first spot-kick from Argentina's Andres D'Alessandro to set Brazil en route to a 4-2 victory.
Penalty-stopping is, however, just one of Julio Cesar's many talents, and Brazil have not been the only beneficiaries. When Inter Milan recalled him from a loan spell at Chievo in 2005, it was widely assumed that he would act as understudy to the highly-regarded Francesco Toldo. The Duque de Caxias native had other ideas, though, immediately cementing his place in the starting line-up and, thereafter, establishing himself as one of the finest goalkeepers in Europe - a rare achievement for a South American.
Julio Cesar believes his game has come on a long way in Europe:
"I'm a much better keeper now than when I left
Brazil," he said. "Italy is the ideal place for
goalkeepers - it's a great school. Some of the training methods
are different and this has been decisive in my development."
Having won back-to-back Serie A golds, the
Nerazzurri custodian is now out to help his employers
complete a hat-trick, which they look on course to do eight rounds
into the 2007/08 season.
But that is not where his ambitions end. "I want to become first choice for the Seleção," he said at the start of the year. "It's every player's dream to win a World Cup and I'm no different. I want to show the coach that I am the keeper to help Brazil qualify (for South Africa 2010)."
A mere one goal conceded in almost 500 minutes for the five-time world champions in 2007 appears to have left Dunga convinced that Julio Cesar is indeed the man for that particular job.