The Cult: Roberto Carlos
A tyrant of the left flank, Roberto Carlos also possessed an ability to defy gravity with his free-kicks. The Brazilian icon is our latest inductee to The Cult.
Ilustración de Dan Evans
Our latest inductee to The Cult is a Brazilian football legend whose ability to bend a free-kick defied physics and made him a superstar. You can read previous entries here.
Cult Grade: The Left-Wing Tyrant
"I congratulate you on your work at Inter Milan, but I still want you to explain to me why you decided to sell Roberto Carlos." This question was posed live on television to Roy Hodgson – then boss of the Nerazzurri – by the Italian journalist Maurizio Mosca. Hodgson did not respond; the Englishman simply removed his headphones and bid farewell to the room with a tilt of his head.
Mosca had touched a nerve, reminding Hodgson of a decision that had done considerable damage to his reputation in Milan. In 1996, he had decided that Carlos did not feature in his plans and sold him to Real Madrid. Unknowingly, Roy had kick-started a legend.
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Roberto Carlos da Silva Rocha was born in Garça, São Paulo, in 1973. Soon, he took his first steps into the world of football, beginning life as a forward before moving further from the opposition goal and closer to his own. Notionally, at lest.
The story of his arrival among the elite is curious: in 1992, Carlos switched from the modest União São João to join Atlético Mineiro and participate in their European tour. Because most 'Galo' starters were competing in the Copa America, the reserves were given more playing time. Carlos did not play the first matches in Italy but, prophetically, did get game time in Spain.
In 1993 he made the leap to SE Palmeiras, where he won two league titles. His excellent performance earned him his ticket to Europe: Middlesbrough were interested, but the Brazilian eventually headed for the more glamarous city of Milan. His potential was immediately clear: on the first day of the 1995-96 season, Carlos scored from a free-kick against Vicenza.
After a disappointing season for the Nerazzurri – they finished seventh and qualified for the UEFA Cup only after Juventus won the Champions League – Hodgson decided that changes were required. He had seen Carlos as a winger, but the player was more comfortable bombing forward from left-back. He decided to let the Brazilian go.
Point of Entry: High
In the summer of 1996, Carlos joined Fabio Capello's Real Madrid. He took the number three shirt, the same as Paolo Maldini. At the time, few could have predicted that both players would be considered the best in their position over the next decade, albeit with completely different styles.
The Bernabeu fell in love with Carlos from the beginning. With Capello, the Brazilian won a competitive league title against the Barcelona of Ronaldo and Figo. His greatest achievement, however, was enchanting the fans with his quality and his joy. This was the essence of Roberto Carlos: unlimited exuberance and charisma.
He performed incredible work in Madrid: from the left side, the Brazilian was able to influence any match and affect a rival like no other defender. He attacked, created chances and always returned in time to protect his goal. Perhaps no other player has embodied the ideal of a complete Brazilian wingback in the way he did. Only his contemporary Cafú could be said to have approached his level.
Added to this, Carlos was not only dominant in terms of physical and technical skills: he was also brilliant. Playing full-back, the Brazilian did many things that most wingers couldn't even imagine. The 'impossible goal' he scored against Tenerife in the 97-98 Copa del Rey is prime evidence: the curl of the ball is, quite simply, from another planet.
One of the best examples of his personality on the pitch came during the Intercontinental Cup in 2000. Although Madrid failed to win back-to-back titles, losing the final against Juan Roman Riquelme's Boca Juniors, Carlos was the standout player of the match.
That day, Madrid conceded two unexpected goals in the first few minutes, leaving the team shellshocked. But Carlos was not discouraged and took care of the team almost entirely by himself: in a few minutes he shot several times, forced Boca to close ranks and ended up scoring an excellent goal.
Madrid failed to complete the comeback that night, but it was clear that Roberto Carlos was more than good enough to change the course of such a decisive match on his own. This was the extent of the Brazilian's presence on a football pitch.
The Moment: 3 June 1997, Stade de Gerland, France
As well as his many trophies with Real Madrid – among them three Champions Leagues, four La Liga titles and two Intercontinental Cups – Carlos became a symbol of the Brazilian national team. Wearing the number six shirt, he was a fixture with the Selecao for more than a decade. Alongside the likes of Ronaldo and Rivaldo, he was a key member of the squad that reached the World Cup final in 1998 and clinched the trophy in 2002.
Carlos represented an entire philosophy with Brazil. Although the team of the '90s and 2000s never shone as bright as the 1970 or 1982 sides, the players nevertheless embodied a joy that resonated with millions of football fans – especially children – across the globe. Lethal wing attacks from Carlos and Cafú had a lot to do with this.
But if there is a moment that best captures him, it is that free-kick at Le Tournoi de France in 1997. Featuring Brazil, Italy, England and the hosting French, this was a pre-World Cup warm-up that took place a year before the main event. In the first match against France, Carlos produced his best-known strike.
The 'smart bomb', the remote-control shot with devilish flair, has remained in the memory of all who saw it. Few actions better capture the Brazilian: endless power, accuracy and, of course, a little touch of magic to bring it all together.
"Roberto Carlos is a player worth having in any team because of his ability to hit free-kicks. But, beside being one of the best shooters of all time, he is also one of the best full-backs ever." –– Ronaldinho, Brazilian footballer and admirer of Roberto Carlos