Cafu: ‘There’s no greater feeling in football than lifting that trophy’

Cafu has just recorded a video message for some children in the north east of Brazil. “I can see myself in these children,” he says. “I’m a poor boy who faced a lot of adversity to be here, talking to you, with three consecutive World Cup finals and two titles.” He is in the city of Maceió, preparing to take a three-hour bus trip into the arid countryside as part of his involvement in the Cafuzinhos do Sertão social action project.

“When I go there, I play with them barefoot, so they can see that we are all equal. When I first thought of this project, I wanted to do it in a place where nobody goes. There’s a high percentage of malnutrition and I feel like it’s our main goal to give them hope, to make these children believe they can achieve more.”

The Cafuzinhos do Sertão project – which effectively translates as “Little Cafus of the outback” – provides children with footballs, boots, food and a chance to meet the former Brazil captain. Poverty is a huge problem in Brazil and he says it’s a shock to see these children suffering, as he once was.

“It’s much harder to achieve goals when society doesn’t give you opportunities,” he says. “I would wake up at 4am, eat something and take the bus at 5am to get to training for 9am. Sometimes I would play worse than the other boys because they had a full night to sleep and lived close to the training ground. So I see myself in these children, because unfortunately life only gives two options for poor people: you can go to a bad way or try to persevere. The second option involves a lot of fighting. What people don’t understand is that footballers try to achieve success not because it is their goal to have fame, but to help their family and friends get out of poverty.”

Twenty years on from captaining Brazil to glory at the World Cup in 2002, Cafu is trying to inspire people by telling the story of his life. He has launched an autobiography series, A saga Cafu, in which he recounts the story of his early playing days, winning his first titles, being called up the Brazil squad, winning the World Cup, and playing in Spain and Italy.

Cafu has won it all – leagues, cups and two Copa Libertadores titles with São Paulo, Serie A titles with Roma and Milan, the Champions League with Milan, and two Copa América titles with Brazil, among many more trophies – but he will always be remembered for the World Cups. He won his first World Cup at USA 1994, when he was still playing for São Paulo. He was the Brazil captain by the time he won his second in 2002 alongside Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos.

In many ways that Brazil team picked itself, which cannot be said of the current crop. “The problem is that people don’t know the starters of Brazil,” says Cafu. “It’s a World Cup year and we cannot be sure of who will go to Qatar, unfortunately. It’s very different from the feeling in 2002, when everybody knew who would start and who had the most chance to be subbed in during a game. The fans knew our story and where we played. The fans felt close to the squads. There’s a distance between fans and the national squad and it’s been growing since 2010.”

Would he say that Alisson and Neymar are the only players guaranteed a starting spot in Qatar? “I don’t think so,” replies Cafu. “Can we be sure Alisson will start the games when Ederson is playing like he is? Or that Weverton won’t be able to get the position after his titles with Palmeiras? The only secured player is Neymar, because he is the best. Then we have other guys pursuing a spot, such as Vinicius Junior.”

“Vini is the future of Brazilian football. He is the young player with the most possibilities. He was already promising but this year has shown that he can achieve more. It’s too early to put him in the top three players of the world, but we can imagine him getting there.

“He is a professional, humble boy and needed someone to explain to him how he could improve. Carlo Ancelotti was there to do it and now we see what Vini can do. Rodrygo is also having good minutes and providing, and Real Madrid is working like a good engine.”

Nonetheless, Cafu also recognises that the trend for players such as Vini Jr and Rodrygo to leave so early in their careers is not good for Brazilian football. Real Madrid signed Vinicius Junior for €46m when he was just 16 years old and they paid €45m for Rodrygo when he was just 17. With players leaving so early, fans cannot build an emotional connection with them.

“Teams like Flamengo, Palmeiras and Atlético Mineiro should be the example for Brazilian clubs,” says Cafu. “They changed the way things are done and brought a lot of professionalism to our league, which is good. They can invest, they are always on the verge of winning titles and they can bring big time players. However, Brazil still has the problem of selling its young players too soon. When I played, we would win titles in our country, get in the national squad and then move to Europe. Now, it’s the other way around: they go to Europe, try to get into the national squad and then come back to Brazil at the end of their careers. That’s why sometimes it’s hard to have a starting lineup.”

Although the Brazil team that Cafu captained at the 2002 World Cup also had its struggles in qualifying, with fans doubting the players, but the players came together at the right time under Luiz Felipe Scolari. That triumph remains the fondest memory of Cafu’s career.

“The night before the final, we were playing golf in the corridors,” he remembers, laughing. “We were talking and having some fun. I was the captain of the team and I felt that it was the moment to blow off some steam. I said to Felipão: ‘Let the boys enjoy themselves, because tomorrow we’ll play a great game.’ He believed in us and saw we could win that title. He sat with us for a few hours, then went to his room. The next day, we got on the field and won the World Cup. There’s no greater feeling in football than lifting that trophy. I guarantee you that. It still gives me the chills to talk about this. It’s vivid in my mind.”