Reevaluation needed (cont.)
Lúcio, though, is a minor error. He played his club soccer for Internacional of Porto Alegre, hundreds of miles south of my base in Rio, so I'd only seen him a handful of times in person.
Júlio Cesar is a different case altogether. He grew up tending the nets for Flamengo, Rio's biggest club. I watched him every week and was seldom impressed. I labeled him as a fair shot-stopper, but an untidy keeper who was prone to giving rebounds, poor on crosses, didn't dominate his area and made too many silly mistakes. I attributed the praise people heaped on him to local media bias and figured there was no way he would crack the big-time in Europe or with the national team.
Some five years later, Júlio Cesar can point to the Italian championship medals he has won with Inter Milan and to his role, based strictly on merit, as Brazil's undoubted first-choice goalkeeper. In the 0-0 draw against Colombia, with Lúcio snuffing out the danger, Júlio Cesar had little to do. But three days earlier at Venezuela, he played a vital role in Brazil's victory.
Dunga's men struck early, as glorious goals from Kaká and Robinho put them up two after nine minutes. But before the Carnaval began, they could have easily found themselves a goal down. Venezuela's Alejandro Guerra got behind their defense and was bearing down on goal, but the keeper spread himself to block the shot and Ronald Vargas' follow-up. It was a double-save that altered the course of the match.
Brazil cruised to a 4-0 win, but if Venezuela had taken the lead with a packed stadium behind it, the game could have taken a different course. As it was, Júlio Cesar had to be sharp on a number of occasions to ensure that he got through another round without having to pick the ball out of the back of the net.
Even at bad times, Júlio Cesar is proving me wrong. He makes occasional slips, but this happens to all keepers. The big test is how keepers react afterward. He was to blame for Uruguay's goal a year ago, but stood up tall to make important saves and give his side the chance to hit back and win the game. Indeed, it was the '04 Copa América semifinal against the same opponent that began to change my opinion. He blundered for Uruguay's goal, misjudging the speed of the ball. But when it went to a penalty shootout, he was the hero -- just as he was in the final against Argentina, when he produced a top save to prevent his side going down two goals and was decisive once more in the shootout.
When talent and mental strength combine to produce performances at this level, it's wonderful being proven wrong.