Marcos: The Last of the Old Guard

I first became interested in Brazilian football because of its passion, rawness, and purity. Whenever a player celebrated a goal, it was like he had just slotted the winner in the World Cup final against Argentina in a packed Maracanã. Furthermore, players (and managers) were not afraid to get involved in arguments, punch-ups, or even full-scale brawls. Players were so emotionally invested in the game, and for someone used to the bright, shiny, commercialized Champions League (sponsored by Sony, Ford, MasterCard, Heineken, UniCredit…), this was so refreshing.

However, from fans and pundits alike, I heard constant complaints that Brazilian football was turning into the “futebol moderno” that was associated with the Champions League, and people were clamouring for a return to the football of the 90’s.

It took me a while to properly appreciate this, but now I certainly see what they mean. These days in Brazilian football, money is king. There are cases like that of Lucas Piazon, signed by Chelsea for 7.5 million euros at the age of only 17, despite the fact that he had yet to play a professional match in Brazil. Over at Santos, Neymar has turned in to a national advertising machine, with his face seen on advertisements for everything from mobile phones to tube socks. And this is a trend that is here to stay, as even one of Santos’ youth players, Victor Andrade, is already the subject of a minimum release fee clause of R$125 million (over 50 million euros).

The problem isn’t just that the modern footballer in Brazil is more worried about his own bank account than the fortunes of his team, but that the game’s ‘personalities’ are rapidly disappearing. The typical player of today is dull, lacking in charisma and an opinion of his own. When you compare them to the characters of decades past, it’s plain to see that Brazilian football is a less exciting package.

Marcos, Palmeiras’ iconic goalkeeper and World Cup winner, is a great example of the type of human being that Brazilian football has stopped producing. Opinionated, loyal, hard-working and honest, there is no end to the positive adjectives that one could attribute to the man palmeirenses call São Marcos (Saint Marcos). This week he announced his retirement after 19 years in the game, and the news has attracted countless tributes to an admirable man and player, coupled with plenty of nostalgia of years gone by.

Marcos Roberto Silveira Reis was born in 1973 in Oriente, a small city in the interior of São Paulo state. At 18 years old, Marcos signed his first professional contract as a reserve goalkeeper at Palmeiras, a role he would fill for the next seven years until he got his big break. During the group stages of the Copa Libertadores of 1999 (South America’s answer to the Champions League), Palmeiras’ first choice goalkeeper Velloso (another legend of the club’s history) suffered an injury and the 26 year-old Marcos stepped in to deputise. To say that he gave a decent impression of himself would be an understatement, and Palmeiras went on to win the tournament with Marcos the hero on several occasions. One match stands out in particular, the second leg of their quarter final against fierce rivals Corinthians. With the scores tied on aggregate after 90 minutes, the match went to a penalty shoot-out, where Marcos saved a vital penalty from Corinthians striker Vampeta to put the Verdão in to the next round. Velloso never played again for Palmeiras, as São Marcos became the new idol at the Palestra Italia.

For the next eleven years, Marcos remained the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper for Palmeiras and sanctified himself as one of the greatest heroes in Palmeiras history. This was thanks in part to his consistent knack of bailing the team out of tricky situations, particularly with his spectacular skills at penalty shoot-outs. In 2011, at 37 years of age and entering his 19th year under contract with Palmeiras, Marcos’ long career finally began to catch up with him and he was plagued by injuries. He missed most of the 2011 season due to knee problems, finally allowing reserve goalkeeper Deola to have an extended run in the first team. Marcos managed just 22 starts out of a possible 48 over the course of the season, and although he was always equivocal about the exact date of his retirement, he strongly hinted that 2011 would be his last season in goal for Palmeiras. When discussing that very subject midway through the year, he joked that if he was to continue for another year, Deola would probably commit suicide, obviously sympathising with his team-mate, knowing what it is like to play second fiddle to a club legend for years and years.

Considering that he played his entire career in Brazil, the rest of the world never really got much of a chance to witness the genius of São Marcos between the posts. However, at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, he showed the world what he was capable of as he helped Brazil to their fifth World Cup win.

With the Seleção under the command of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the same man who took Palmeiras to that Libertadores triumph in 1999, Marcos was called up to the squad and handed the number one jersey. In a World Cup blessed with some superb goalkeeping performances (Oliver Kahn and Rüstü Reçber in particular come to mind), Marcos was certainly amongst the best, and without his contribution, I doubt that Brazil would have made it all the way to the trophy. The worldwide audience were confused as to why such a talented goalkeeper was not already transferred to a big European team, and with Palmeiras relegated to Série B and Arsenal desperate to sign a replacement for David Seaman, Marcos seemed destined for the move to North London.

Surprisingly though, citing his family and his love for Palmeiras, Marcos refused the offer from the Gunners, and in that season he helped Palmeiras return to Série A. This of course, only served to increase his idol status amongst palmeirenses, but it also made him a favourite to all Brazilian football fans, admiring his love for his club and how he so easily resisted the lure of all-powerful European football.

There is another theory as to why Marcos is so respected in Brazil, not exclusively with Palmeiras fans, and it is less to do with his ability or loyalty to Brazilian football, but more to do with his character. In Brazil, the players who command the most respect are either those who are supremely talented and successful, or players who have a deep connection with supporters. Marcos would fall into both categories with his World Cup winners’ medal and demi-god status at Palmeiras, but his personality is one that endears himself to the entire population, not just palmeirenses. With every interview he gives, his honesty and sincerity resonates to everyone watching at home. Additionally, his strong work ethic and family values serve to make him one of the most likeable figures in the public eye.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is that after his retirement on Wednesday, Palmeiras’ closest rivals Corinthians and São Paulo both published their own personal tributes to Marcos on their official websites. There has not been a player in Brazil for the last twenty years that could command as much universal respect as São Marcos.

Marcos now leaves Palmeiras’ goalkeeping role in fairly safe hands, as while he was sidelined with injuries, Deola has had the opportunity to develop into a very capable goalkeeper. He is a very impressive shot-stopper, and performs well in desperate situations, but he is a little vulnerable with high balls and crucially, he lacks that ‘saviour’ element that Marcos was so well known for, and is unlikely to be a goalkeeper that goes down as one of the greats in Palmeiras’ history.

When I think of Marcos at Palmeiras, I conjure up images in my mind of successful, championship-winning teams, but unfortunately in recent years Marcos has been the only one at Palmeiras to embody that winning spirit. Last season, when Palmeiras slipped to a historic 6×0 loss to Coritiba in the Copa do Brasil, there was an overwhelming sympathy for Marcos, with many people believing that he was now a winner in amongst a squad of under-achievers.

However, I arrived at this particular conclusion a year before, at the same stage of the same tournament. This time, the opponents were Atlético Goianiense, and after an awful two legs of football, the tie went to a penalty shoot-out. Marcos, always the saviour, defended three of Atlético’s attempts and was on his usual spectacular form. However, his team-mates only managed to score one of their five attempts, and Palmeiras were eliminated. Marcos was left almost speechless in his post-match interview, as even his saintly performance was not enough to carry Palmeiras through.

After finally deciding to hang up his boots, Marcos will be treating himself to a long deserved holiday with his family, away from the constant scandals and drama that seem to be surrounding Palmeiras in recent year. Whenever he was asked if he would return to Palmeiras as a goalkeeping coach, Marcos was always dismissive, saying that he craved time away from the game. However, in the club’s official statement on Wednesday, general manager César Sampaio assured the media that Marcos would be returning to the club after his holidays, but the capacity of his role on return (whether it be as an ambassador, or a directorial role like Sampaio) was not made certain.

What is certain however is that Brazilian football has said farewell to one of the game’s true gentlemen. A hero to palmeirenses and respected by every fan in Brazil, Marcos is a true craque on and off the field. I’d like to take this opportunity to wish him the best of luck in all of his future projects, and I hope that he doesn’t stay on holiday for too long!

Quem não gosta do Marcos, não gosta de futebol.

– He who does not like Marcos, does not like football.

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