If, in some bizarro world, someone had the capability to create a Frankenstein’s footballer, there would be one body part on which there could be no argument. With earnest apologies to Stuart Pearce, Roberto Carlos’ thighs would form an integral part of this footballing freak. Honestly, look at them. The bottom half of Carlos is like the female subject of a Paul Cezanne painting.
During the 2002 World Cup, the Guardian calculated that Carlos’ thighs measured 24 inches in diameter, the same size as Muhammad Ali’s at his peak. Whereas Ali was 6ft 3in and 15 stone, Carlos was 5ft 6in and weighed five stones fewer. Try those out for thighs.
Carlos put the size of his upper legs down to spending his childhood pulling heavy farm machinery and constant use of a bicycle, the family’s only vehicle. “The left one is 58cm and the right one is 60cm, and I don’t work at these,” the Brazilian said in 2005. “I have to buy very, very big trousers but, no, I don’t have to order them specially.” That might be football’s greatest ever clarification.
Were it any other part of any other player, this fascination would seem strange. Yet Carlos’ thighs were not just unusual or captivating (although both are true); they defined him as a player. Carlos’ combination of pace, power and stamina was perhaps cumulatively greater than any other player of his generation.
The stamina is easily detailed. Despite making his international debut in 1992, Carlos is still playing now, albeit as player-manager of Delhi Dynamos. He has amassed 820 club appearances plus another 125 for Brazil over a 25-year period.
Those would be impressive numbers for any professional, but take Carlos close to the level of superhuman considering his style. With phenomenal pace – he was reportedly able to run the 100m in 10.6 seconds – and immense physical strength, Carlos was the definitive all-action footballer of the 1990s and 2000s. He could shoot, tackle and run in equal measure, and do all three better than most of his peers.
If that suggests a distinctly un-Brazilian footballer, there was plenty of flair to match the fight. “I wouldn’t say that Brazilians are irresponsible but we do enjoy ourselves playing football, we play for fun,” Carlos says. “That, allied to the innate technical quality we have, makes us different. Brazilians are allowed to play with the ball – even defenders.”
Although Carlos cites former Brazilian full-back Junior as a role model, in an interview with FourFourTwo in 2005 he revealed his true footballing idol. “Maradona,” Carlos said. “He was spectacular, he was football the way it’s supposed to be, so much fun to watch.” It’s a surprising choice for a Brazilian, and even more so for a full-back.
Yet Carlos was a defender in starting position alone. Labelling him as a left-back is like saying that Luciano Pavarotti can hold a tune. Carlos was the standard bearer for a new era of full-back play, arguably the most attacking defender in the history of the game.
Carlos also offered the blueprint for full-backs who were relied upon for their attacking threat as much as their defensive capabilities, although he slightly suffers for that reputation. The demand for full-backs to offer help in the opposition half has become an excuse for defensive weakness; Carlos does not deserve to be tarred with that brush.
The argument over the greatest full-back – as with any other position – is virtually meaningless. Different types of players over different eras render such a call impossible. Yet there should be no doubting Carlos’ greatness. “He continues to be the best player in his position,” said Jose Mourinho in 2006, who tried and failed to sign him for Chelsea. At that time Carlos was 33; Chelsea signed Ashley Cole instead.
Beginning his career with Uniao Sao Joao and Atletico Mineiro, Carlos joined Palmeiras in 1993. By 1995, and two league titles later, he was on the radar of several European clubs. Both Birmingham and Middlesbrough came close to his signature, before Roy Hodgson’s Internazionale came calling. His season in Italy was far from enjoyable.
“It was a disaster,” Carlos says. “I need to play with freedom, and Hodgson didn’t let me cross the halfway line.” Instead he was asked to play as a winger, which again didn’t please the Brazilian. “I prefer to have space ahead of me to run into rather than be a winger already up there. I didn’t like the system or where Hodgson wanted me to play in it.” Inter’s loss was Real Madrid’s gain, and £4m the bargain fee.
It was in Madrid where Carlos’ attributes became truly honed. There is no doubt that he was a Galactico left-back for a Galactico team, but without any of the negative connotations.
Carlos won four league titles, three Spanish Cups and three Champions League titles with Real, and no player born outside Spain has made more appearances for the club. Valeri Karpin and Dani Alves are the only two foreign players with more La Liga appearances. Considering the upheaval in Real Madrid’s squad over his spell, Carlos’ longevity is remarkable. When Marca asked its readers to select the club’s greatest-ever foreign team, Carlos received almost three times as many votes as any other defender. Add in a World Cup and two Copa America titles.
Carlos also scored 67 goals for Madrid, a startling number that indicates both his endurance and attacking prowess. That’s more than Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, and at least 30 more than Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Robinho.
Some gain fame for scoring many different types of goal; Carlos merely perfected one type. Known as el hombre bala in Madrid (‘the bullet man’), observing the power he could generate in his shot actually makes you laugh. If this were a computer game, you would cry foul at the lack of realism. His free-kicks were reportedly recorded at 105 mph. Who’d be a goalkeeper?
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Carlos without reflecting on that goal, the set-piece strike against France at Le Tournoi which came to define an entire style of taking free-kicks. Perhaps the most ludicrous reaction came from the BBC, who asked physicists to define whether the goal was physically possible (I know).
“We have shown that the path of a sphere when it spins is a spiral,” lead researcher Christophe Clanet from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris told BBC News. “On a real soccer pitch, we will see something close to this ideal spiral, but gravity will modify it. But if you shoot strongly enough, like Carlos did, you can minimise the effect of gravity.” Football 0-1 Science.
Carlos had a slightly less academic explanation: “The truth is that I just fix the position of the target in my mind, close my eyes and try to hit it as hard as possible.” Football 1-1 Science.
There is little doubt that Carlos’ career dwindled after leaving Real Madrid, with spells at Fenerbache, Corinthians, Anzhi Makhachkala and Delhi Dynamos chronologically decreasing in length and success. It is reflective of his dependency to the game, a desperation to hold on to his one true love. “He is addicted to football,” former Real Madrid coach Vincente del Bosque says. “The ball is like a drug to him. He is mad about the game, and shows it everything about the way he plays it.”
There is a danger of underestimating both Carlos’ ability and his impact on the current game, the unsung Galactico overshadowed by the the glittery attacking names. He is at least a nomination for the best purchase in Real Madrid’s history. That Le Tournoi goal created an unfair (and inaccurate) reputation as a free-kick specialist. Carlos was so much more.
It might sound oxymoronic, but Carlos was so good you almost failed to notice how good he was. He was at least recognised by his peers; Giacinto Facchetti (1965) is the only other full-back to finish in the Ballon D’Or’s top two.
Most of all, Carlos was a natural phenomenon, talented enough to be trusted with the entire left flank for (great) club and (great) country. “There is no merit in his talent as a player,” said Figo.. “He’s a guy who has been born with everything – his legs, his power, his speed. There is no question of his having to work at his game. It is a question of nature. But he is, of course, the best player there is in his position and very happily indeed he is in our team.”
We will end with a quote from Del Bosque, far less veiled with his praise. “He is unique, irreplaceable, a complete footballer,” the Spain coach said. “If he set his mind to it he could be a striker and be the top scorer in the league. He is two players in one. As simple as that. As amazing as that.”