Cesar's redemption sparks Brazil
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Minutes before the start of a penalty shootout that could've sent Brazil crashing and burning at home in the 2014 World Cup, the stadium screens and media tribune monitors showed goalkeeper Julio Cesar crying.
"Why the heck is this guy weeping now, for goodness' sake," was one of the shouts overheard in an amazingly partisan section filled by Brazilian journalists. Cesar would later explain that he himself was asking the same questions.
"I am an emotive guy and never wanted to disguise that. My teammates were all hugging me and the crowd was chanting my name. The tears started coming, and I just kept reminding myself that I needed to focus to the shootout," he said after receiving the man of the match award.
Few could blame the keeper for struggling with emotions.
He probably recalled the memories of the saddest moment of his career, the fluffed jump that not only resulted in a goal, but helped Brazil crumble and lose to Netherlands in an infamous South Africa 2010 quarterfinal. In the last four years, a week hadn't gone by without somebody questioning his presence in the side. But Saturday's game offered a chance of redemption Cesar was not willing to miss this time.
Tearful or not, he saved two penalties and put off Gonzalo Jara enough for the Chilean defender to hit the post and miss the kick that sent Brazilians into a frenzy.
At the Estádio Mineirão, Cesar was not only redeemed, he was the redeemer for a side that frankly could as well be ruing their poor overall performance against a valiant Chile. Jorge Sampaoli's side deserved a better fate for having bossed great periods of the action in Belo Horizonte. The crossbar prevented Mauricio Pinilla from scoring a match winner in the dying minutes of extra time, which would have given Chile a stunning win.
But earlier in the second half it was Cesar, no one else, who stopped Chile from taking the lead. Pure reflex kept out Charles Aránguiz's effort after an attack in which La Roja outclassed the Brazilian defence. The team, as Big Phil Scolari had predicted a couple of times in the buildup to the round of 16 match, did more than give Brazil a game.
They fully exploited the Seleção's problems and quite smartly focused on marking Neymar out of the game. Yes, some of the harsh tackles should've been officiated better by English referee Howard Webb, but that doesn't take away from Sampaoli's effective game plan.
Outdone in possession and having to chase the ball, Brazil looked overanxious and left spaces that the Chilean forwards exploited to control the game. It forced Brazil to resort to long balls to Neymar. La Roja's intensity looked daunting, and they seem to be winning every second ball.
But when it came down to penalties, not even Willian's and Hulk's misses were enough to derail the Brazil gravy train. Cesar repeated his heroics of last year's Confederations Cup semifinal against Uruguay, where he kept Diego Forlan's penalty out in a first half and avoided what could be a psychologically huge blow for Brazil.
On Saturday, again Cesar was the hero and received a huge ovation from the crowd, answering quite emphatically the doubts over his selection after having spent the last year playing only a handful of matches for QPR.
"Since 2010 I have heard people talking about me as player and as person. I had to prepare myself psychologically to be here and the support from my teammates and my coach have spurred me on," he said. "Our dream goes on, and I just hope we don't have to go through this again. Not because of me or the players, but because we don't want to give our families a stroke."
As he spoke, Cesar's eyes started watering again. This time, nobody seem to have a problem with it.
When Cesar stood up and left to vacate the news conference table for Scolari, he first saluted the awaiting manager as if he was a soldier. Then he quickly turned to thank a room of applauding journalists.
Brazil's work in this tournament is certainly not done, but the former Inter Milan player delivered in a huge moment for the side. Brazilians will wake up on Sunday knowing that the man they vilified so much since the events of Port Elizabeth four years ago is on course to complete a very rare story of coming back from the dead.
Sixty-four years ago, when Brazil lost a World Cup at home, goalkeeper Barbosa was crucified and died without exorcising his demons. Brazil in 2014 have been a shaky and nervous side, but their goalkeeper saved them in a crucial spot and may push them to bigger and better things.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Fernando_Duarte.