It is an awe-inspiring career. Two World Cup winners’ medals, and a runners-up medal from 1998. The most capped Brazil international of all time, with 142. The man who has been on the winning side in World Cup finals tournament games more times than any other player in history. Two Copa America titles in the late 1990s; two Copa Libertadores titles with Sao Paulo; the South American footballer of the year in 1994. Then there is the European chapter: a Serie A title with Roma in 2001 and then another with Milan three years later. He was in the Milan squad that won the Champions League in 2007.
This is Cafu, one of the most successful footballers of all time, a polite, quiet, humble man who is still recovering from jet lag in his hotel in west London when we meet. He will turn 44 this week and has been retired six years now, but he still looks capable of setting off on one of those lung-busting runs down the right wing that were his trademark. Sir Alex Ferguson once suggested that the great Brazil right-back, his nation’s captain when they won the World Cup in 2002, had “two hearts”.
Ferguson might have been on to something there, metaphorically speaking, when one considers the journey that it took from a poor childhood in Sao Paulo to that stage in Yokohama when Cafu became the 17th team captain in history to raise aloft the World Cup trophy. I struggle for a more elegant way to ask the obvious question, and give up. What is it like to be presented with that glittering 6kg trophy and hold it above your head?
“It’s impossible to put into words,” Cafu says at first, his assistant Ana interpreting for us. Then he pauses and tries. “When you see that trophy coming towards you in the hands of the officials... the gold becomes more gold, becomes more shiny than you ever thought. You feel the best in the world. I have no other way to put it into words...”
In the country that produces more elite footballers than any other, Cafu is still football royalty. He has no doubt about his country’s capacity to stage the tournament, although he acknowledges there will be “problems”. He knows better than most the frustrations of being poor in Brazil – that was how his life started – but he turns the question of Brazil’s problems around immediately.
“There are problems but it is not just Brazil. England have theirs. The next World Cup in Russia will have problems. Qatar has problems. Everyone has one eye on Brazil and the stadiums, which are almost ready, and the airports, which are almost ready. Things won’t be absolutely ready, but it is also how this news is spread abroad.
“I am absolutely sure that whoever comes to Brazil will be mesmerised with the country… and the World Cup itself.”
Read more: England can win it, says Cafu
He points to the city of Curitiba, south of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, praised for the way in which it has got its act together. “It didn’t have any infrastructure investment for 20 years. It might not be completely ready, but little things like the taxi drivers there starting to learn English and Spanish... It is learning how to welcome foreigners for the first time.”
Can Brazil win it? “It’s a huge, huge pressure. People keep recalling 1950 when we didn’t win [the last time Brazil staged the tournament], although the team didn’t do that bad. It’s going to be tough for the Brazil players but these boys are ready to handle it.” Yes, but can they win it? “There is no doubt about that,” he shoots back.
Before Cafu went up to receive the World Cup in 2002, after the 2-0 win over Germany in the final in Japan, he scribbled on his yellow national team shirt in black marker pen: “100% Jardim Irene”. Jardim Irene is the poor neighbourhood in Sao Paulo from which he comes, born into a family of five boys and two girls. His mother, Celio, was a maid in a wealthy household. His father, Cleusa, worked for the local authority.
Cafu was born on 7 June, 1970. It was the day England played Brazil in the Mexico World Cup finals, remembered as an epic in the history of the English game, although probably afforded less prominence in Brazil’s more successful football history. “My father always remembered the day,” Cafu jokes, “because he missed watching the game on television.”
It is in Jardim Irene that Cafu’s foundation is based, a charitable project that helps around 750 children gain vocational qualifications. The Fundação Cafu is his passion and where much of the income from his key sponsors is channelled.
In Brazil, he says, it is common in working-class families for both parents to have jobs in order to make ends meet and that time between school finishing and parents’ shifts ending is a crucial period. Cafu’s foundation seeks to give children a safe place to play and study.
For all the places his career has taken him, Cafu loves Sao Paulo and his foundation, and Ana confesses to me that it is a bit of a struggle to persuade him to travel outside Brazil. But as an ambassador for the finals there this summer he is obliged to do some travelling and came over to England in May as a guest of Lucas Leiva, travelling to Anfield for Liverpool’s final game of the season.
There is a romanticised notion of the Brazilian footballer as the kid from nowhere, with nothing, who conquers the world with the talent he honed in the streets around his home. As the country changes and becomes home to a bigger middle class, it is not always applicable, but in the case of Cafu the fairy tale is real.
“Nine times,” he says, needing no interpretation when I ask him to recall the famous story of his many rejections by professional clubs. “I never gave up,” he says. “That is where my family came in. They always supported me. The hardest part of being rejected was coming back home and telling my father that I hadn’t made it. My father never said, ‘OK, give up’. He just said that these were the obstacles I had to get past.
“It was funny, a lot of people who rejected me as a player, later said, ‘Oh, we did it to help you’. I met a coach years later who said, ‘I didn’t take you at that time for your own good’!”
He was finally picked up having played for Itaquaquecetuba against Sao Paulo’s junior side in 1987 but even then, at the age of 16, was paid his bus fare to come and train, about 100 reals a month (equivalent now to £25). It was a precarious existence and it is why he is keen to stress that his foundation does not set out to produce footballers. If, Cafu says, some of the children there become professional footballers that would be a happy coincidence. But there are enough places in Brazil geared to doing that. The key motivation is to give the children workplace qualifications.
At Sao Paulo, Cafu’s career took off. He won two Copa Libertadores titles there and in 1994 was part of the Brazil team that won the World Cup in the United States, coming on in the final against Italy after 22 minutes for the injured Jorginho. “The most important thing was the unity of that team,” he recalls, “because we were massacred by public opinion in Brazil. We got there playing very simple football by Brazilian standards. Just simple football, not too defensive, not too offensive. An equilibrium.”
That summer, at 24, he moved to Real Zaragoza, playing in the same team as Gus Poyet that won the Cup-winners’ Cup against Arsenal, although he did not feature in the final. He would come back to Brazil before finally joining Roma in 1997 and playing the last 11 years of his career in Italy.
In 1998, the Brazil team, including the brilliant young Ronaldo, was a very different proposition, and then came the drama around their star player before the final in Paris. “He [Ronaldo] has this convulsion, a fit. It was only six hours before the match,” Cafu recalls. “Of course that caused great imbalance in the team. He went to hospital and he wasn’t going to play but he came back with his test results saying everything was OK.
“But that’s not the reason we lost the final to France. The fact is that France played better and took advantage of all the opportunities they created. They were more competitive.”
As for 2002, I have a quiz question for Cafu. Can he name the man who played in his right-back position when Brazil faced England in the quarter-finals in Shizuoka? He frowns. “Hmmm, was it [Ashley] Cole?” he asks, although I can tell he knows he’s wrong. It was Danny Mills, I say. “England was one of the most difficult games we had in 2002,” he says by way of reply.
Cafu eventually got his Champions League winners’ medal in 2007, although he was an unused substitute when Carlo Ancelotti’s team beat Liverpool 2-1 in Athens. The game he will never forget is the defeat two years earlier on penalties to Liverpool in Istanbul, in which he played the full 120 minutes.
“You can’t really explain but when we went back to the changing room winning 3-0 at half-time you do relax a bit and then Liverpool came back. Looking back, I applaud them. They believed they could win. They scored the first; they believed they could score the second. And by the time we woke up Liverpool had scored the third. It was a lesson. Before the final whistle the game is never over.”
How often does he think about the day he lifted the World Cup for Brazil? “Every day! Everybody asks me that. I have a trophy room in my home and at the centre is the replica of the World Cup. Everyone always says, ‘What is the feeling like?’ I have spent my life since then trying to explain it.”
He played his fourth World Cup in Germany in 2006 at the age of 36 in a team that struggled. They were beaten by France in the quarter-finals and came home to general derision. “Your career is not only your victories,” he shrugs.
He has three children: Danilo, 24, Wellington, 23, and Michelle, 21, as well as two grandchildren, Jasmine and Gabriel. What does he tell them one day about his career? “That I was a world champion! That I have lifted the World Cup. Just that, really. It makes me happy, and I think they will always be proud of their grandpa.”
Cafu’s collection: a glittering career
Born 7 June 1970, Sao Paulo
* Club career
1990-94 Sao Paulo; 94-95 Real Zaragoza; 95-97 Palmeiras; 97-2003 Roma; 03-08 Milan
* International career
142 caps for Brazil – 17 more than any other player
* Major trophies
2 World Cups 1994, 2002
2 Copas America 1997, 99
1 Brazilian League title 1991
2 Copas Libertadores 1992, 93
2 Intercontin’l Cups 1992, 93
1 Cup-Winners’ Cup 1995
2 Italian League titles 2001, 04
1 Champions League 2007
1 Club World Cup 2007