February 1994 and a skinny kid named Jose Roberto da Silva Junior makes his professional bow for Portuguesa in the Campeonato Paulista. Just 18 months later and Ze Roberto, as he is better known, is playing his first match for Brazil in a friendly against Korea Republic.
Back then, and as a youngster of tremendous ability, Ze Roberto appeared destined for greatness. However, despite having played for some of the world's most reputable clubs and made 77 international appearances, it is only now that he is set to play a leading role for his country on the biggest stage of all. Following his impressive form under coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Bayern Munich man is not going to the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals to make up the numbers - but will arrive in Germany as a pivotal figure in the Brazilian side.
Ze Roberto's transformation from squad player to regular starter for his country is largely due to a positional change. Despite starting out as an attack-minded left-back (due to his diminutive stature), and then operating as a box-to-box midfielder in his early career, Ze Roberto has been more frequently deployed as an offensive midfielder or left winger during periods at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich.
Although blessed with speed and mesmeric dribbling ability, however, competition for attacking places in the Brazil team is perennially fierce. After struggling to establish himself as a midfield creator, he tried usurping Roberto Carlos at left-back but when it came to the crunch, he was limited to one single appearance at France 98 and was then overlooked for the 2002 campaign in Korea/Japan.
When Parreira returned to the helm in 2003, Mario Zagallo was appointed as his number two and this spelt good news for Ze Roberto. It was Zagallo who had handed him his first cap in the mid-90s and he had retained his admiration for a player he believed had all the attributes required to perform in a holding midfield role (the very job Ze Roberto performed on his international debut).
The influence of the 1970 FIFA World Cup-winning coach told. Having made just one appearance for Brazil in 2002, Ze Roberto managed close to double figures the following year. Together, Parreira and Zagallo agreed that his diligent work-rate, intelligent reading of the game and improved marking, coupled with his ability to carry the ball out of defence and initiate counterattacks, made him the ideal candidate to partner the more robust Emerson at the heart of the midfield.
And in the qualifiers for Germany 2006, Ze Roberto vindicated their view, his partnership with Emerson providing a base on which Brazil's more genial talents could express themselves. While the formation of the Brazil team altered during the course of the campaign, Ze Roberto's place in it did not.
An unlikely star
Having found his niche and established himself as a key figure for the Seleção, the Bayern Munich ace can now look forward to helping Brazil in their quest for a record sixth world crown. Four years ago, the triumvirate of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo were predicted to snatch the headlines in Korea/Japan and unquestionably they did. But for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, the star of the show was Kleberson, an inventive midfielder who excelled in performing defensive midfield duties.
With Parreira having settled on a formation that comprises a quartet of predominantly attacking players, as opposed to the three used four years ago, the importance of the midfield anchormen to Brazil's prospects will be even greater. So while Adriano, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo are the players expected to shine at the FIFA World Cup, the contribution of Ze Roberto, a player well accustomed to playing on German soil, could prove every bit as crucial.