Roberto Carlos exclusive interview: Real Madrid? No – I love watching West Brom

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The Brazil legend hopes that the national team can emulate success he helped secure 20 years ago in Qatar this year - David Cannon/Getty Images
The Brazil legend hopes that the national team can emulate success he helped secure 20 years ago in Qatar this year – David Cannon/Getty Images

He is a man who has won World Cups, Copa Americas and was a great of Real Madrid’s galactico era. Yet Roberto Carlos only wants to talk about the English football pyramid.

“Your domestic league is amazing,” says Roberto Carlos, steering conversation to the four or five televised Premier League and Championship matches he now views from the sofa a week.

He admires Arsenal most, but lists West Brom, Fulham and Birmingham City among teams to have featured lately on the big TV at home in Madrid. “I watch everything here,” he tells Telegraph Sport on a Zoom call from the city in which he has remained since those rampaging days at Santiago Bernabeu.

Praise for the English club game is in part to illustrate a cultural shift for his beloved Brazil team, who look finally ready to emulate success he helped secure 20 years ago.

Only Middlesbrough-based magician Juninho played in England when the nation last lifted the World Cup. The current squad has a bumper 12 Premier League players – twice the cohort in 2018 – and Carlos explains how the trend coincides with a demise in his own nation’s domestic game.

Carlos's national squad team-mate Juninho, left, played for Middlesbrough the summer Brazil lifted the World Cup – but other Premier League starters were few and far between - Roberto Candia/AP
Carlos’s national squad team-mate Juninho, left, played for Middlesbrough the summer Brazil lifted the World Cup – but other Premier League starters were few and far between – Roberto Candia/AP

“We have lost our essence: O jogo bonito,” he says, using the phrase first popularised by Pele, and translated as ‘Beautiful Game’. “We used to attack as a team, but we defended much better [than we do now]. We used to have confidence in terms of our positioning.”

This week’s surprise decision by Tite, the national team manager, to pick Gabriel Martinelli ahead of Flamengo’s Gabigol arguably illustrated how confidence in Brazilian clubs has drained.

For the famous 1970 winners, it was unthinkable that even a fringe squad member could be picked from outside their own domestic league. Even by the 1982 and 1986 tournaments, there were still only two European-based players each in the parties that travelled to Spain and Mexico. Yet in Qatar, only third-choice keeper, Weverton, and the Flamengo pair of Pedro and Everton Ribeiro feature in the squad.

“The best Brazilians have been playing outside the country for a long time, of course, and the Premier League has been dominating for a few years now,” acknowledges Joao Castelo-Branco, a Brazilian football specialist for broadcaster ESPN. “But now the Brazilian manager is actively saying that playing there works in your favour.”

Gabriel Martinelli is one of the players that has benefitted from Tite's renewed focus on players in the Premier League - Jacques Feeney/Getty Images
Gabriel Martinelli is one of the players that has benefitted from Tite’s renewed focus on players in the Premier League – Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

There is little doubt, however, that this is Brazil’s finest opportunity for glory since Carlos’s era and that Ronaldo-inspired 2-0 final triumph over Germany in Yokohama.

Should the fresh crop need any extra inspiration, Carlos has recorded a new Sky documentary  - Brazil 2002: The Real Story – which is screened on Nov 13. Needless to say, he enjoyed reliving his defining career moments. “In my recent past, the World Cup in France made me grow as a player in the Brazilian national team,” he says in a quick summary of his fondest times.

“We lost because Zizou [Zinédine Zidane] was really inspired that day. And then, we were the champions against Germany in 2002, which was the greatest experience of my sporting career. In 2006, with a great team, we lost against France but for a footballer, there’s nothing like it.”

Despite struggles for the club game since and subsequent tournament heartaches, Carlos insists the national side has retained its most important ingredient.

Carlos pictured grappling with Franck Ribery at Germany's 2006 World Cup - Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Carlos pictured grappling with Franck Ribery at Germany’s 2006 World Cup – Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

“The Brazil national team, both men’s and women’s, has always maintained a joyful atmosphere,” he explains. The current crop, he adds, are “a really good team”.

“They should understand that’s the only way to keep people happy, enjoying a great World Cup, having fun and bringing great joy to this country; Brazil, a football country. We haven’t won it for a long time, now it’s time to win the trophy. It’s a very special moment for football.”

Carlos, who now works with Fifa in an ambassadorial role, is keen to address the criticism the tournament has faced regarding human rights. He insisted the first Middle East-based tournament will eventually be remembered for football rather than recent protest. “I think Qatar is going to welcome the players and the tourists with open arms, and prove once again that there are no barriers in football,” he added.

In surveying other leading contenders over the coming weeks, England are high on his list. However, he takes issue with the consistent omission of Trent Alexander-Arnold from Gareth Southgate’s starting line-up, despite the Liverpudlian’s defensive frailties.

“He has to be there – because he’s among the best ones,” he says of the player’s attacking qualities.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was singled out for high praise by Carlos - John Powell/Getty Images
Trent Alexander-Arnold was singled out for high praise by Carlos – John Powell/Getty Images

Despite patchy form of late, Carlos goes on to pay him an ultimate compliment. Alexander-Arnold and Kane, he believes, are worthy of pulling on a Brazil shirt.  ”Kane is a good player too. You have a good team, not just in terms of names but in terms of players who have trained well and are ready to play at a World Cup – or to play for the Brazilian national team. I’d say those two [Kane and Alexander-Arnold], but there are more. There’s a lot of quality [in the team]. You have a lot of quality.”

Despite the high esteem in which he now holds English football, Carlos twice turned down the chance to play in the Premier League at either end of his career. Aston Villa had been eager to sign him in 1995 as he first caught the eye playing for Brazil in the unlikely arena of Goodison Park during a 3-0 Umbro Cup win over Japan.

“Ultimately, I was very young, and Palmeiras decided not to sell me at that time,” he said. Instead he headed for Inter Milan. Eleven years later, when he was coming to the end at Real Madrid, he met with Roman Abramovich and Peter Kenyon, then at Chelsea.

“I didn’t leave in the end because of the contract,” he added. But over a 35 minute Zoom call, conducted in Spanish, it is clear this 142-capped 49-year-old has precious few regrets. The face is as fresh as his days as a Galactico, and the enthusiasm for the game burns just as bright too. On only one question does he express any reservation: is this current Brazil squad as good as his glittering generation?

“As soon as they win a World Cup, I’ll tell you.”

Additional reporting: Gerard Couzens

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