World Cup: Brazilians protecting their protector

Taffarel is the latest in a long line of South American goalkeepers in a different class from their team-mates; Ken Jones considers why the world champions have always had their minds on attack
Click to follow
THE sight of Claudio Taffarel in Brazil's line-up against Scotland at the Stade de France last week was a reminder that their pre-eminence in football has been achieved without ever being able to call upon an outstanding goalkeeper.

At best dependable, the impression hardly one of absolute confidence, Taffarel remains first choice simply because nobody better has emerged in the four years since Brazil achieved their fourth world championship.

This is nothing new for a country that has done more than any other to enrich the game's history. Many great names roll off the tongue but who remembers Gylmar, Felix, Leao and Gallo? "Goalkeeping has always been a problem for us," Jose Werneck says. A distinguished Brazilian columnist and broadcaster who now works in Connecticut for the American cable sports network ESPN, he sees it as a tribute to enduring outfield brilliance. "When people speak about the marvellous team of 1970 they forget that Felix was a big weakness and probably would not have been thought good enough by any of the other leading teams," he says.

From Gylmar (the most accomplished) in 1958 to Taffarel today, Brazil have lived with a difficulty that relates to instinct. Considering it after his appointment to coach Brazil in the 1982 finals, Tele Santana said: "Not many Brazilian boys aspire to be goalkeepers. From generation to generation their heroes have been our great attacking stars and, of course, there is a great thrill in mastering the ball with your feet. It means that our goalkeepers are never likely to be more than competent."

If Brazil's favouritism here sits heavily on Taffarel's shoulders how do you think Felix felt in 1970 when he was made aware that the team's tactics had been designed partly to ensure that he never came under prolonged bombardment?

If, as Brian Clough asserted after signing Peter Shilton for Nottingham Forest, a goalkeeper can be worth 12 points in a season, how have Brazil achieved so much without assistance from anyone remotely in the class of Gordon Banks, Shilton, Lev Yashin (Soviet Union), Sepp Maier (Germany), Dino Zoff (Italy), Pat Jennings, David Seaman or Peter Schmeichel? Referring to Banks's sensational feat of gymnastic brilliance when saving his header in 1970, Pele said: "Our goalkeeper [Felix] wouldn't have got anywhere near it. We had no great faith in him, but teams were so intimidated by the constant threat of our attacks that he never came under pressure."

England's confidence before those finals had a lot to do with Banks's on-going excellence. "Unlike many goalkeepers Gordon never wanted to play another position in practice," Sir Bobby Charlton recalled. "He just loved what he was good at and was so good at it that he gave us the feeling he could not be beaten." What greater loss could England have suffered than that of Banks to illness just hours before a fateful quarter-final against West Germany?

Never mind Alan Shearer or any of the outfield players available to Glenn Hoddle, nobody looks more important than Seaman. Superior to all his rivals in the European Championship finals two years ago, back in top form after some uncharacteristic lapses in Arsenal's championship season, he and Schmeichel stand out among the goalkeepers in these finals. Not for either of them the charismatic eccentricity of Jose Luis Chilavert of Paraguay, who on Friday was only just denied the first ever scoring shot by a goalkeeper in the World Cup finals when his opposite number Zdravko Zdravkov of Bulgaria turned over a stunning free-kick. With 40 goals for club and country Chilavert promises further excitement, but is he fully up to the appointed task?

Italy's goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca is under scrutiny. Beaten twice by the Chilean superstar Marcelo Salas in Bordeaux on Thursday, he was entitled to complain about serious errors in marking but apparently Cesare Maldini was far from pleased with his performance.

After the misery of Italia 90 Jim Leighton may have felt that Andy Goram's defection was a double-edged opportunity. Big Jim needed a break or two when returning to Scotland's team, instead his impetuous lunge helped to bring about Tommy Boyd's decisive own goal.

As Chile's coach, Nelson Acosta, said this week, goalkeeping good and bad will, as ever, have a great influence on proceedings. "In many ways it is the most vital position in the team," he said. "In Salas and Zamorano we have attacking talents to match anyone, but whatever progress we make may well depend on how our goalkeeper [Nelson Tapia] handles a crisis."

At the Parc des Princes in Paris tomorrow night, the spotlight falls on the Leicester City goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Sharpened by his experiences in the Premiership, unquestionably the United States' key player, he begins his World Cup against Germany, the reigning European champions. "Kasey would walk into most of the teams here," Steve Sampson, the US coach, said.

Including Brazil's. Already a World Cup winner, Taffarel probably would not be here if he had been born in another country.