Why Is Rogerio Ceni The Exception?

Goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni scored his 123rd goal in Sao Paulo’s 2-1 win over Bahia in the Brasileiro.

“It’s not even football. It’s striking a ball. It’s two things: physics because you have to hit the ball properly and psychology because you have to know where to put it. And you have to remain calm. But many more people could do it, if only, like me, they had the courage [to try].”

That quote stuck with me ever since I heard it nine years ago. It came from a footballer known for his prowess at taking free kicks. And it struck me because it wasn’t anodyne crap — aka what many professional athletes feel the need to serve up — nor did it promote the idea that there’s an “art” or “magic” in taking free kicks, a mystical notion that we in the media are often guilty of promoting.

It was rational and introspective, self-effacing and debunking conventional wisdom, all at the same time.

Rogerio Ceni has scored 123 goals while also being a goalkeeper. Why is he the exception?

Here’s the twist. The guy I was talking to on a sunny November afternoon back in 2005, was — and still is — a goalkeeper: Rogerio Ceni. And on Monday, he won his 590th game for Sao Paulo, the most any player has ever notched with one club and eclipsing the mark set by Ryan Giggs with Manchester United.

OK; it’s a somewhat contrived, hokey record. But it’s not entirely insignificant either, because it shows that he not only played for a long time, he did it on teams that win frequently. Like Giggs. And the fact that he was chosen to captain his side on no fewer than 868 occasions speaks volumes about the respect he commanded in the dressing room from an early age.

But, of course, the number the stands out with Rogerio is 123.

That’s the number of goals he has scored in his career, all of them with Sao Paulo. This one was his most recent and it marked the 60th time he had beaten his opposite number from a free kick: almost all his other goals came from the spot as he’s also Sao Paulo’s penalty taker.

He’s forty-one and has said that this season — his twenty-third at the club — will be his last. That means we won’t get to see much more of him. Somewhere between nine and 13 games in fact, depending how far Sao Paulo advance in the Copa Sudamericana. That has left folks wondering about how far he can go. Can he lap the guy who is second on the all-time list of goal-scoring keepers, the legendary Jose-Luis Chilavert, who is on 62?

Feats like this are such a rarity that Wikipedia keeps its own list of any keeper who has scored even a single goal.

You wonder to what degree he’s an outlier, a freak of nature, and to what degree his assertion is correct: many more guys could do what he does if they had the guts to try it.

After all, there are others who have tried — and with some success — including Chilavert and Rene Higuita. If scoring from dead balls really is something you can learn, you’d think keepers would have a distinct edge over their outfield colleagues. For a start, they presumably “get” the psychological part and are better suited to outwitting their opposite numbers.

Other goalies, like Jose Luis Chilavert, have also scored plenty of goals but none come close to Ceni.

Then there’s the role of repetition. The best free-kick takers tend to practice outside of training sessions, because they’re usually also an integral part of team drills and you’re not going to have your entire squad standing around while your number ten practices his free kicks. That’s why those who train free kicks tend to do so after sessions, usually with a keeper from the youth team between the sticks and those barriers meant to simulate a wall.

But keepers train differently, of course. At most clubs, a huge chunk of their session is separate and specific, with the goalkeeping coach. When they do join in team drills, apart from a few occasions, they’re often there as stand-ins. What if some of that time were allocated to perfecting free kicks?

The counterargument to keepers taking set-pieces is a familiar one. If the shot is parried back into play, then they’re out of position and they need to leg it up the pitch. You can’t take a chance on conceding an empty-net goal.

I can see that argument. But in 25 years of watching more football than is healthy for me, I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen such an occurrence. And that includes late-game, keeper-up-in-the-penalty-box-for-the-corner situations, which are obviously far more risky than a guy hitting a free kick from 25 yards out. Indeed, it wouldn’t take much for some defensive adjustments to reduce the risk of conceding in such situations to something close to nil.

When Rogerio was telling me all this all those years ago, it struck me as a classic “nature vs. nurture” argument. He told me that he discovered his knack for hitting dead balls as a young “reverse” keeper at Sao Paulo when he and the starter, Zetti, would compete in their own version of the “crossbar challenge,” repeatedly hitting the woodwork from outside the box.

Rogerio excelled at it and when he put up a wall, he found that he could do it just as consistently. It was then just a short step from intentionally hitting the woodwork to calibrating his shot a few inches lower and into the target. He obviously had a knack for getting the physics right — though he said it’s something you could learn — and the rest was figuring out what choices the keeper would make: psychology.

(With hindsight, it’s perhaps not entirely coincidental that the conversation turned to psychology. Even when I met him, he was balding at just 32 years old and, in fact, looked like a more athletic, younger version of Frasier Crane.)

Ceni’s legacy and skill make it curious why the next generation of goalkeepers aren’t following suit.

You wonder if perhaps the lack of free-kick taking keepers in Europe is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keepers at youth level aren’t trained or encouraged to do it so when they turn pro; it’s never an issue. At most you get the odd penalty-taking keeper, like Vincent Enyeama or Hans-Jorg Butt. And, even then, it’s not something most managers want to see.

It’s easy to write this off as a gimmick or a sideshow but Rogerio is anything but that. If he was, he would not have won three Brazilian league titles, a Copa Libertadores, a Copa Sudamericana and the FIFA Club World Cup while also being named “Goalkeeper of the Year” in Brazil on six different occasions. Not to mention his career with the Selecao. He only has 16 caps to his name — though he was a reserve on the side that won the 2002 World Cup — but that is largely because of a dispute with the Brazilian FA, whom he once described to me as “a mafia.”

“It’s not a big deal,” he told me, back in 2005, about his lack of an international career. “Besides, they were good enough to win the World Cup without me. What do they need me for?”

Rogerio’s place in the record books is secure. The fact that he is not a household name outside of South America — except on YouTube where, if you like, you can see his first 100 goals all in one sitting — is down to his quarrels with the Brazilian FA and his decision to stay loyal to Sao Paulo rather than try his hand on the bigger European stage.

Clearly, he’s not bothered by that. You ask yourself, though, if football will continue to see him as a weird, unique outlier. Or whether some will start to see him as a trailblazer, whose feats could be emulated.

Gabriele Marcotti

A London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer, he is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN FC TV and read him here twice a week.

William Hill

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William Hill