On 20th August 2006, in a match against Cruzeiro, São Paulo goalkeeper Rogério Ceni saved a penalty. A feat worthy of mention in the context of most games of course, but perhaps not much beyond that. A few minutes later however, Ceni was called forward from his sentinel position between the sticks to take on a free-kick at the other end of the park. He scored. Now it all begins to sound a little unusual. Add on top of it that, later in the game, Ceni also took and concerted a penalty to draw his team level with their opponents and it all gets a bit special. Now, consider that the penalty was Ceni’s 64th goal for his club, surpassing by two, the exploits of legendary Paraguayan goalkeeper, José Luis Chilavert and you realise there’s more than a bit of a story relating to the career and exploits of Rogério Ceni – goalkeeper and goal-scorer.
Of course, Brazilian football has, for many years, carried a tradition of excellence in the exploitation of free-kicks around the opposition penalty area. The likes or Pele, Garrincha, Rivellino, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho come to mind without much effort, but here was a goalkeeper whose ability from the dead ball was considered to be so proficient that leaving his net unguarded some 150 yards down the pitch was deemed to be very much a risk worth taking.
Rogério Mücke Ceni was born in Pato Branco in the southern Brazilan state of Paraná in January 1973, and joined São Paulo FC as a raw 17 year-old spending his first half-dozen years at the club primarily as an understudy to the incumbent at the time, Zetti. He made his debut in June 1993 during a Friendly tournament and in the following season played throughout the CONMEBOL Copa tournament. It took until 1997 though, when Zetti moved on to Santos, for Ceni to become the established first choice ‘keeper at the club, but from there, a career developed that assumes the fantasy-like qualities of a Boy’s Own comic book. Here was a real-life Roy of the Rovers footballer who not only scored goals, but did so with his goalkeeping gloves on, too. To illustrate just how extraordinary Ceni’s exploits were, it’s probably worth considering just a few of the highlights he enjoyed during his 25 year career with his one and only club.
July 2005 was a particularly good time for the club, and especially their goalkeeper. As captain of the team, he lifted the Copa Libertadores after São Paolo defeated Atlético Paranaense. It was the third time in the club’s history that they had secured South American football’s premier club trophy, and Ceni’s second. The first had been in 1993 however, when he was very much a background player at the Morumbi Stadium. This one was however well earned. Still in the same month, in a match against Clube Atlético Mineiro, Ceni broke the club appearance record. It was the 618th time he had turned out for the Tricolor, and he wore a shirt with that number on his back to commemorate the event.
Across the period between 2005 and 2007, the goalkeeper scored no less than 47 goals for his club from penalties and free-kicks, including some particularly notable moments. Firstly, in the same year, he netted a penalty in the semi-final of the 2005 FIFA Club World Cup tournament, and then produced an outstanding display in the final against Liverpool to add another trophy to his list. He was also awarded the trophy as the outstanding player in the tournament.
In the following year’s Copa Libertadores competition, he scored from twelve yards against Mexican club, Guadalajara. The goal not only won the match for his club, but astonishingly, made Ceni São Paolo’s all-time leading goalscorer in this most exalted of club competitions on the continent. Whether this says more about the extraordinary abilities of Ceni, or the lack of contribution from the club’s forwards is not really clear, but to have scored so many times from the goalkeeper position is remarkable. To round things off, at the end of the 2007 season, he collected the Brazilian equivalent of the Footballer of the year Award.
An injury in 2009 curtailed his playing time for a while, but upon recovery played his 700th game for the club in October of that year. Less than two years later, he hit the one thousand games mark. In March of 2010, a free-kick from against Corinthians brought up his century of goals for São Paolo. A further injury in early 2012, meant a prolonged absence from action, but after six months on the side lines, he performed his party piece again, scoring with a free-kick to help his club to a 2-0 victory over Bahia in a Copa Sudamericana tie. They went on to lift the trophy.
In December 2013, with the player now reaching the age of 40, not unreasonably taking into account the exploits and maintained standard of play, after long negotiations, São Paolo agreed a new one-year contract. Even in these days of increased player longevity – especially for goalkeepers – it was a big statement of support. It didn’t go unrewarded. In April 2014, during a game against Botafogo, Ceni had reached three landmarks. He had broken Chilavert’s record to become football’s highest scoring goalkeeper, recorded the most number of games played for a single club, and achieved the most appearances as captain. The following season, he broke Ryan Giggs’ record of recording most wins in games for a single club. Ceni was rewriting the record books – at a pace. He also finished that season with seven league goals.
Despite these achievements, time and tide wait for no man, not even for such an extraordinary player, and in November 2014, Ceni announced that he was to retire as recovery from inevitable injuries and the toll of a long career was taking more and more time. Now into his fifth decade, it didn’t seem an unreasonable decision. Despite his age, and potential injury problems though, a further contract was agreed running until the end of 2015. The extension gave Ceni time to break one more record. In March 2015, he scored a free-kick against Linense. It took his total to 60, passing Marcelinho Carioca’s record of 59 free-kicks netted for a single club. Three months later, he scored his 128th goal for São Paolo, taking him into the club’s top ten goal scorers of all time.
Aside from his individual records, the career of Rogério Ceni at São Paolo was packed full of trophies for his club. 1993 saw four fall to the Tricolor, with the Copa Libertadores, the Intercontinental Cup, the Recopa Sudamericana and the Supercopa Libertadores at the Morumbi. The following year, the Recopa Sudamericana was retained and the Copa CONMEBOL added. After only securing the Copa Master de CONMEBOL over the next few years, and then the state championship, the Campeonato Paulista in 1998, the pace was picked up over the turn of the century.
In 2000, São Paolo were again state champions, and two years later they won the Copa Libertadores and Supercampeonato Paulista. After being state champions once more in 2005, they became Brazilian champions for three successive years, winning the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, and then in 2012, once more secured the Copa Sudamericana.
Strangely perhaps, or maybe not so strangely, Ceni’s credentials were largely deemed as surplus to the Seleção on the international stage. With a string of free-kick experts already competing for the honour of netting from dead ball situations, the criterion for section was perhaps more a matter of expertise between the sticks, and despite his acknowledged excellence in that area, others were deemed to be preferable. Across a nine-year career, he collected 16 caps, and although selected for the Brazil World Cup squads in both 2002 and 2006, he only played in two games across the tournaments. Needless to say, perhaps, he was never called forward to take on free-kick or penalty duties.
The curtain finally came down on the extraordinary playing career of Rogério Ceni on 6th December 2015. It almost goes without saying that it will be a very long time – if ever – before his records are surpassed. It’s often difficult for footballers to say goodbye, and even more so after such a long time at a single club. There always seemed to be a possibility that Ceni would return to the Morumbi in some capacity.
It’s an old cliché that says you should never go back; in football, the adage seems to hold particularly true. In December 2016, one year after hanging up his boots, and gloves, Ceni returned to São Paolo as manager of the club. Placing the club in his previously ‘safe hands’ proved to be a poor decision however and with the club eliminated from cup competitions and in the relegation zone of the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, Ceni was dismissed.
Despite his final fall from grace as manager of the club he had served with such distinction, there’s little doubt that the fans of São Paolo will recall Rogério Ceni’s time with the club as anything less than glorious. An outstanding goalkeeper who also contributed a remarkable haul of goals will inevitably become a club legend over time – if not so already. Brazil has produced some of the world’s greatest footballers over the last 75 years or so, many are household names known to many non-football fans. Would it be testing justice too far to suggest there should also be a place for Rogério Ceni in that country’s pantheon of opponents of the ‘beautiful game?