On Soccer: An Oxymoron No More: The Great Brazilian Goalkeeper

With the sort of sigh that suggests he has been through this before, Alisson Becker listens to the stereotype being trotted out.

It runs like this: Brazil does not produce world-class goalkeepers, because Brazil does not generally need world-class goalkeepers. And yet here is Alisson: not only a Brazilian, and a goalkeeper, but coming off the back of a season in which his performances have caused many to decide that he is among the finest exponents of his position on the planet.

Bashfully, he accepts the praise, but it is the framing that bothers him. It might be a truism in Europe that Brazilian goalkeepers are a little unreliable, prone to over-complication and susceptible to intimidation, but that is not how Brazilian goalkeepers see themselves. “It is from a long time ago, that idea,” Alisson said, gently, slightly pityingly.

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As supporting evidence, the 25-year-old Alisson could point to the season he has just enjoyed. In the process of helping Roma to the semifinals of the Champions League, he attracted covetous glances from Liverpool, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Should any of them want to bid for him this summer, Roma has made clear that the opening offer should be no less than $105 million.

That price will only increase should he carry his form into the World Cup. Alisson is Brazil’s first choice in Russia as it attempts to be crowned world champion for a sixth time. After a 1-1 tie with Switzerland in its opener, Brazil will play Costa Rica on Friday.

The identity of his deputy lends even more weight to his argument. Brazil’s backup is Ederson Moraes, a Premier League champion in his first season at Manchester City, and currently the most expensive goalkeeper in history. At first glance, this looks like a sudden, unexpected golden age for Brazilian goalkeepers. Alisson, needless to say, does not quite see it that way.

It is hard to pinpoint, precisely, when the stereotype — that Brazil does not produce goalkeepers, largely because it does not need goalkeepers, that its outfield players are so good that only the waifs and strays are needed to play in goal — first took hold.

The best guess is 1970. That year, Brazil won the World Cup with what is widely accepted to be the greatest national team of all time: the team of Pelé and Carlos Alberto, of Jairzinho and Rivelino.

And the team of Felix, the man described by Bob Wilson — the amiable former Arsenal and Scotland goalkeeper — as “the most incompetent goalkeeper ever to win a World Cup medal,” a player “lucky to play in a side which, if he let in three goals, had the talent to go up the other end and score four.”

That is not a view that many subscribed to in Brazil. Though there were calls throughout the tournament for Felix to be dropped, veterans of that squad never understood the criticism.

Carlos Alberto, the 1970 captain, always said that his team “would not have won the World Cup” had Felix not kept a clean sheet in a group game against England. Jairzinho, too, highlighted two crucial early saves in the final against Italy. “He was a man of stature,” he said.

In the intervening years, the Felix dichotomy has grown wider and wider, encompassing more and more goalkeepers. Praised in their homeland for their athleticism and their prowess, they are regularly derided as error-prone and unreliable in Europe, or simply never given the chance to cross the Atlantic at all.

There is a lingering resentment among many Brazilian goalkeepers that they are overlooked by the swarms of European scouts who scour the country looking for talent. Like Alisson, they do not just believe that the stereotype is untrue; they are somewhat mystified as to how it gained credence in the first place.

The goalkeepers Alisson selects to prove his point exemplify that cognitive dissonance. “Taffarel was the first to do a good job in Europe,” he said of Felix’s heir as the goalkeeper in the Brazil team that won the 1994 World Cup. “After that, all of Europe knew more Brazilian goalkeepers, people like Júlio César and Dida.”

Few Europeans would name either of the latter two — most famous for their times at Internazionale and Milan — as among the best goalkeepers of the last 20 years, but in terms of achievement, only the very best, Iker Casillas, Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer, surpass them.

Both won the Champions League. Dida was in the Brazil squad that claimed the 2002 World Cup, too. At home, he is “a national idol,” Alisson has said. In Europe, he was seen as Milan’s weak link, further emphatic proof that the one position on the field where no team needs a Brazilian is in goal.

The last 12 months, though, have done much to expose the flaws in that thinking. Manchester City’s decision last summer to pay $47 million for Ederson raised eyebrows; he had, after all, only spent one full season as the first choice goalkeeper at Benfica. Almost a year later, it is hard to believe that he is not an automatic selection for Tite, Brazil’s current manager, given how impressive he has been in England.

That he is not is down, purely and simply, to the conviction that Alisson is even better. Taffarel, now working with both as the Brazilian national team’s goalkeeping coach, has described the Alisson as “the Pelé of goalkeepers.” Others have suggested he is just as adept at his chosen position as Lionel Messi is at his.

No less an authority than Buffon himself — who has tracked Alisson’s progress for “two or three years,” dating to his days in Brazil with Internacional of Porto Alegre — has remarked on “the tranquillity with which he manages the games, and how he makes even the most difficult saves look simple.”

Eusebio Di Francesco, Alisson’s coach at Roma, was struck when he arrived at the club at the start of this season by the “calmness” his presence instills in those around him. Others clearly agree: if Alisson moves this summer — something Roma hopes to avoid — it would be for a fee that would dwarf the sum City paid for Ederson last year.

It has been a rapid rise, given that it is not long since Alisson was not even the best goalkeeper in his family. His brother, Muriel, is six years his senior. He was the first of the two to join the Brazilian club Internacional, and it was Muriel who recommended Alisson to the club as a 14-year-old. In Alisson’s first season as a professional, he served as his older brother’s backup. Their relationship did not suffer: they shared a room when the club traveled to away games.

Injuries disrupted Muriel’s progress — he made only a handful of appearances this season for Belenenses, in Portugal — while Alisson, a late bloomer, grew stronger and stronger. “He was always very technical, but he matured slower than his colleagues,” Daniel Pavan, the goalkeeping coach at Internacional, told ESPN Brazil.

The club persevered, reassured by medical assessments that suggested Alisson would fill out — a dim echo of the growth issues faced by Messi early in his career. (It was worth it: at 18, Alisson, tall and handsome, was approached by a modeling agency). As Alisson waited for the right time to move to Europe, though, he found himself very much in the right place.

He had two goalkeeping coaches at Internacional’s academy. One, Marquinhos Lopes, instilled in him the idea that the “difference between a great goalkeeper and an average one is not that the great one does not fail, it’s that the great one learns the lesson from each failure.” It is a piece of advice Alisson recites, verbatim, to this day.

The other, Andre Jardim, was even more influential. Jardim had been spellbound by the Barcelona team that claimed the Champions League under Pep Guardiola in 2009. He noted, particularly, how much that team used its goalkeeper to recycle possession.

Modern soccer, he realized, needed goalkeepers who could use their feet, something that remained comparatively rare in Brazilian domestic games, where defenses traditionally sit deep. Together, they trained Alisson’s footwork relentlessly.

By the time he established himself as Internacional’s undisputed starter, it was second nature. The circumstances were curious: the three goalkeepers ahead of him in the pecking order — including Dida — were all unavailable for a game against Fluminense, the club’s then-coach, Abel Braga, explained.

“In a very difficult situation, Alisson came in, and was spectacular,” he said. “The next game, Dida was available again, but Alisson had shown so much personality, he stayed. We barely lost a game for the rest of the season.”

He has not looked back. Brought into the Brazil squad in 2015, Alisson has been Tite’s first choice since he took charge, despite Ederson’s rise.

“He is exquisite,” Braga said. “He is very quick, good with his feet, a complete goalkeeper.”

That is one area — the array of skills at his disposal — in which Alisson will confess there has been a legitimate shift, where he will accept that he is something of a trailblazer. “Me and Ederson have changed the style a little bit,” he said. “We have changed because football has changed.

“We are both playing for teams — at Manchester City and at Roma — who want to use the goalkeeper in possession. It is the same for the national team now, too. You need to have the quality to play with the ball as well; as a goalkeeper, you play with your feet. That is the job we do.”

That was what lay at the root of the old stereotype, of course: that Brazil’s goalkeeper was really just a frustrated outfield player.

That sounds rather more like an advantage now, half a century after Felix, than it once did. The stereotype has been exposed not by Brazil changing its methods, but by the scales falling from European eyes. Brazil does need goalkeepers, and it does produce goalkeepers. The idea that it doesn’t seems a very long time ago indeed.

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