‘I think Brazil will win this year,’: World Cup winning captain Cafu backs his nation for success


Wherever you turn in Brazil, it’s not long before you see Cafu staring back at you. One moment, he’s on TV selling insurance. The next, he’s the face of adverts for cars and lubricant oil. Switch channels and there he is flogging milk and crackers.

On the eve of the World Cup, his face is everywhere. When the World Cup trophy arrived in Brazil for a tour of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, it was Cafu who paraded it in front of supporters. He’s one of the World Cup ambassadors in Qatar.

Brazilians cling to the image of Cafu, on top of the podium 20 years ago, the World Cup trophy hoisted into the sky. They cling to what he represents. He represents triumph, a Brazil that wins. Cafu is the last Brazilian to lift the World Cup, the last South American. The only player to feature in three consecutive World Cup finals.

He represents a Brazil team of which they can be proud. For many, the lasting image of the current generation is the 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the semi-finals on home soil at the Mineirao in 2014. Eight years on, the trauma of Belo Horizonte has soaked into daily life.

‘Every day, a new 7-1’ became a common turn of phrase, a retort to something that goes wrong.

Two decades have passed since Brazil’s last triumph under Cafu, the world bewitched by the wizardry of Ronaldo and Rivaldo. And, at last, there’s a feeling that this could be their moment again. Tournament favourites, a squad bursting at the seams with world-class talent in all departments.

‘I think Brazil will win this year,’ says Cafu. ‘This is the strongest group of players since 2002 and the team don’t rely too much on Neymar, like in the past. Brazil are strong in all areas: defence, midfield and attack.

‘Twenty years without winning a World Cup or even without a final appearance is too much for Brazil. I believe this will end in Qatar.

‘Brazil are ahead of every other team. But I think Argentina are very strong as well. They are playing well and Lionel Messi is a genius. France have the same team that won four years ago. These are the three favourites.’

Neymar remains the poster boy of the Brazil side but, this time, there’s a cavalry of household names, many of whom play — or have played — in the Premier League: Ederson, Alisson, Thiago Silva, Fabinho, Casemiro, Raphinha, Anthony, Richarlison, Lucas Paqueta, Fred, Bruno Guimaraes, Alex Telles, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli.

Those in Brazil say this is a different Neymar too. No longer the immature boy who rolled around at the lightest of touches, a source of mocking and memes instead of marvel and magic.

‘There’s an image about Neymar that I think is false,’ says Cafu. ‘He’s not the same player who fell over easily, trying to get a foul or for his opponent to be yellow carded. He’s more mature and he’s playing really well. Neymar is one of the best in the world and could be the very best. He has the talent to be.’

For those who like to dream, if Brazil and England win their respective groups in Qatar, the two could meet in the final at the Lusail Stadium on December 18. Brazil, who have Cameroon, Denmark, and Serbia in their group, may have to get through an almighty semi-final with Argentina beforehand.

‘England have the talent,’ says Cafu. ‘They have very good players. Harry Kane, for example, is a top centre-forward. The World Cup is a very particular tournament. It depends which team you’re going to face, that specific moment, how you feel on the day of the match. That’s why it is so hard to win it. But England have a very good team and they have a lot of potential in it.’

So much potential, in fact, that Cafu forecast England to be eliminated at the hands of host nation Qatar in the round of 16 in his official World Cup ambassador predictions. If England and Brazil do meet, it will be the first time they have met at a World Cup since 2002 when, en route to Brazil’s triumph, they knocked out Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side in the quarter-finals in Shizuoka.

‘That 2002 England squad was very, very strong and our match against them was the toughest in that World Cup,’ says Cafu.

‘I read once Michael Owen saying that the English players thought that the winner of the match would go and win the World Cup. That’s how we felt as well.’

Owen gave England the lead on 23 minutes in typical predatory fashion, pouncing on defender Lucio’s heavy touch and slotting the ball home, only for Ronaldinho to dance his way through the midfield and play in Rivaldo to level on the stroke of half-time.

‘Equalising at the end of the first half made all the difference, says Cafu. ‘I thought England would grow in confidence if they started the second half with the advantage.’

Everyone knows what happened next. Brazil win a free-kick on the right 40 yards out and Ronaldinho spots David Seaman off his line and lobs the ball over the desperate, scrambling keeper.

A piece of Brazilian magic out of nowhere. Well, not quite.

‘About Ronaldinho’s goal,’ says Cafu. ‘Every time I see him, I joke that I should be credited with an assist. I warned him about Seaman. I knew he would be out of position. Sure, Ronaldinho had the skill, the genius to do that, but before taking the free-kick I told him to pay attention to Seaman.’

And how did he know that? Well, seven years earlier Cafu had been part of the Real Zaragoza team that beat Arsenal in the 1995 Cup- Winners Cup final.

Cafu did not play that day but was in the stands to watch as Zaragoza won in dramatic fashion via a 120th-minute winner that came from the right, 40 yards out and over the head of — you guessed it — David Seaman.

‘That was still in my mind,’ says Cafu. ‘Nayim scored in the last minute of overtime and caught Seaman off position. That was in my head during that match against England and I warned Ronaldinho about it. That’s why I felt part of that goal.’

Nine days later Brazil beat Germany 2-0 in the final courtesy of two Ronaldo goals. Cafu lifted the World Cup in Yokohama as cannons shot confetti all around him.

‘Nothing compares to the feeling of winning the World Cup,’ says Cafu. ‘It’s immortality. It’s something that I remember every single day of my life.’

This tournament could well be the one, after two decades of longing, that another Brazilian captain lives forever.


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