Carlos Alberto: One of Soccer's Greatest (1944-2016)

By Paul Gardner

Carlos Alberto, one of the sport’s true greats, dead at 72. Unexpected, almost unbelievable. For me, a personal loss, for I learned so much from Carlos, talking with him, watching him play during his years with the Cosmos.

The first I ever heard of him was in 1970, when that marvelous Brazil team was winning the World Cup. Different days. Every single member of Brazil’s 22-man squad played for a Brazilian club. The Europeans with all their money had not yet taken over.

The Brazilians captivated everyone with their dazzling, gymnastic, artistic soccer. Wonderful to watch, the Beautiful Game in action. It climaxed with a crushing 4-1 triumph over Italy in the final. The fourth goal is the one we all remember -- a majestic crescendo of a buildup and the ball reached Pele, who paused for a long second or two, then rolled it softly into the path of fullback Carlos Alberto, racing forward on the right wing. A perfect pass -- Carlos didn’t have to break stride before he smashed the ball low into the Italian net.

No doubt, that is the memory most people have of Carlos Alberto, the goal and his joyous celebration. Most of my own memories came some seven or eight years later, during the four seasons that he spent with the Cosmos.

The story below is about those years. I wrote it in 1982, when Carlos was on the verge of his retirement. I’ve shortened it, but have, I think left in the important bits, the bits that tell how he affected me at the time, the bits that at least hint at the special qualities of this superb soccer player.

Obviously, it wasn’t written as an obituary, and it is certainly not intended as such here. I hope it can be read as an appreciation.

* * * * * * * * * *

Carlos the Great

By Paul Gardner (New York Sunday News Magazine, June 27, 1982)

NEW YORK -- Sometimes he took the train, sometimes the bus, sometimes he pocketed the fare and just walked. At age 15, office boy Carlos Alberto worked his way around Rio de Janeiro collecting rents from his boss’s properties. He got to see a lot of the city, but not nearly enough of the one place where he wanted to be: the Fluminense Soccer Club. That also happened to be the one place where he was forbidden to go by his father, who did not want a pro soccer player for a son.

So Carlos Alberto told a few little lies. With the hopelessly transparent cunning of the young, he fed the traditional office boy excuses to his boss -- he felt sick, there was an illness in the family -- and he began to spend an evening a week training with the Fluminense juniors. Looking back at those evenings of 23 years ago when the shouts and laughter of a score of happy young boys echoed thinly in the empty stands, Carlos grins and shakes his head at the innocence of it all. An innocence that didn’t last too long.

One evening it seemed to Carlos that the stand was suddenly crowded. With one man. “I looked up and I saw my father, just standing there, all alone. I looked away quickly. I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want him to be there. For a few minutes I kept looking, secretly. Then he was gone.”

It was a puzzled and slightly worried Carlos who went on to night school and then home late to an already sleeping family. Quietly, more quietly than usual, Carlos went to bed, to dream his dreams of soccer glory, to be surrounded by backslapping and cheering teammates ... until the backslapping grew too rough to bear and the cheering became a single angry shout of Vagabundo! Vagabundo!

Suddenly, violently, awake, Carlos scrambled out of bed to stand facing his furious father who, belt in hand, was yelling that Carlos was not going to waste his life playing soccer: Vagabundo!

“My father was an auto mechanic, we were a poor family, and they wanted me to study, maybe I would become a lawyer or a doctor. But I knew what I wanted. It was very early in the morning but I got the whole family up, my mother, my sister and my brother, all around the table, and I told them that I was going to be a soccer player. We argued and shouted, my mother cried, but my father at last said OK. But I had to agree to keep going to night school.”

In the end, the night school didn’t matter too much. If Hollywood ever feels like making a soccer movie, it has in Carlos Alberto’s career a script that would surely inspire a mountain of guck-filled platitudes from the publicity types. Rags to riches, brilliant, distinguished, stellar, trophy-laden, Carlos’s career has been all of them. But not one of those terms, nor even all of them together, conveys the excitement Carlos brought to the normally unspectacular position of right fullback, and later that of sweeper, the sheer quality of his career.

It included 10 years as a teammate of Pele on the great Santos club of the 1960s, and reached its climax with the captaincy of the Brazilian national team that won the World Cup in 1970. There were four club captains on that team -- and the one who got the job was the youngest. Carlos Alberto was 25.

Seven years after that famous final and Alberto’s ultra-famous goal, as his playing days were fading uneventfully away with the Flamengo club in Rio, Carlos Alberto got a call from the Cosmos. And at age 33 he came to New York to play once again with Pele, then in his final year with the Cosmos.

It was sassy enough that Carlos should be prepared to start a new career at an age when most soccer players’ legs are beginning to wobble a bit. It was astonishing too, because Carlos was in the process of turning himself into a sweeper. And it was downright preposterous because the Cosmos already had a sweeper, none other than the great Franz Beckenbauer, who had singlehandedly created the role of the attacking sweeper in modern soccer.

But the Cosmos have never quite managed to do things the way everyone else does. In 1977 coach Eddie Firmani wanted Beckenbauer to play in midfield, where he would get more of the ball. The sweeper would be the 33-year-old Brazilian novice, who immediately looked as though he’d been playing there all his life. If brushes are the tools of a sweeper’s trade, then this was no clumsy broom that Carlos wielded. This was rather the artist’s brush -- at one moment subtle, teasing, and playful, and the next bold, decisive and arrogant.

He was at his best in the penalty area, where defenders and opposing forwards converge around the ball in straining muscular confusion, where all is tangled high-speed desperation. It is the Gordian knot of soccer, and its Alexander is Carlos the Great, who seems to possess some secret, shatteringly simple way of unraveling it. The sight of Carlos Alberto trotting into the melee and swiftly emerging with ball under control -- without seeming to have made any particular effort to get it -- is one that continues to delight Cosmos fans. It is all made to look so ridiculously easy, so laughably easy, that as often as not the response from the crowd is just that -- delighted laughter.

How does he do it? There seems to be nothing exceptional about the body, a slender unmuscular-looking body that bends and twists in a not-quite-elegant way. The movement is sort of feline, not quite pantherine, but quite unmistakably Carlos Albertine. The arms seem a fraction too long, hanging and swinging a bit too loosely. The legs are just ordinary legs -- legs that lope, legs that stroll, but never legs that race. Above them the slim body leans forward, bobbing springily up and down with each step. The stoop means that Carlos Alberto’s face always appears to be tilted upward, the large knowing eyes pushing hungrily forward, catching every move, every nuance of the game.

When you run down Carlos’s basic soccer skills, they don’t exactly dazzle, either. The enigma was set out by another of soccer’s all-time greats, George Best of the San Jose Earthquakes: “You know, Alberto is not a good tackler, he can’t head the ball properly, he’s not fast, he’s not rugged, and he can’t mark man-to-man, so I keep asking myself -- why does he always end up with the bloody ball?”

Does Carlos himself know? He claims to: “I feel the play before the ball comes. I know when a player is going to make a long pass or a short pass by looking at him in his eyes. To look at the ball, that is no good, the ball can’t tell you where it is going to go. I see from his eyes, that is why so often when the pass is made, I put up my foot, and the ball comes to it.”

If there is a clue to the mystery of Carlos’s mastery, then it has to be what the English would call his unflappability. We know it as cool. His Cosmos teammates see it in every game, but it still leaves them gaping. Says Jeff Durgan, the young American stopper on the Cosmos, “I suppose he does push himself sometimes, but I’ve never seen him huffing and puffing. He’s a very calm player. He’s always two steps ahead of everyone else.”

Giorgio Chinaglia remembers the time in 1978 when the entire Cosmos season was riding on Carlos’s shootout attempt at the end of a playoff game against the Minnesota Kicks: “If he misses, we’re finished. The whistle goes, and we see him scoop the ball up with his foot and run forward bouncing it off his thigh. We couldn’t believe it, we all thought he was crazy. And he scored so easily, just lifted the ball over the goalkeeper like it was a little kids’ game. I swear he’d never even practiced that move before.”

Carlos Alberto juggles on the way to a shootout goal. (Photo by Richard Casanas)

For three years sweeper Carlos majestically swept all before him, and all behind him, and all to both sides of him. Until a new coach arrived at the Cosmos in 1980, the internationally famous but dourly disposed West German Hennes Weisweiler. “He didn’t seem a happy man,” says Carlos, “He never looked happy, and all he thought about was defense. Every game, all he said to me and Beckenbauer was ‘Carlos and Franz, you must stay on defense.’”

Weisweiler’s obsession with defense flowered into patent absurdity at the end of the season when the championship game, Soccer Bowl ‘80, saw Beckenbauer playing at sweeper and Carlos Alberto on the bench. Ten minutes from the end Weisweiler told Alberto to enter the game. Alberto refused and later told journalists “I will never play for that man again.”

The Cosmos won the title 2-0, and the simmering feud between Weisweiler ended with Alberto being traded to the California Surf in 1982.

The Alberto-less Cosmos reached Soccer Bowl ’81, where they played a typically cautious Weisweilerian game and lost to the Chicago Sting. Within two months Carlos Alberto had rejoined the Cosmos for the indoor season. Three months later, Weisweiler and the Cosmos announced that they were parting company. Nesuhi Ertegun explained: “Why did we take Carlos back? Two words -- public demand.”

There have been times in his career when Carlos the Great has behaved more like Carlos the Terrible.

In 1978 Carlos was fouled by Chicago’s Rudy Glenn. He spun around and punched and kicked Glenn to the ground. Cosmos coach Julio Mazzei raced onto the field to wrestle Carlos away. “When Carlos is like that, he looks like he’s gonna kill somebody,” says Mazzei. “But then in five minutes he is muttering 'What stupidity.’ You know he’s embarrassed, but he doesn’t apologize. No, not that. He just sits smiling like a little boy who knows he’s done something wrong.”

I know that smile. I saw it in 1980, after a narrow Cosmos victory over the Dallas Tornado. A victory that Carlos had ensured by brutally and quite deliberately kicking Dallas’ key player, Omar Gomez, on the back of the knee, and out of the game. I had spoken to Gomez in the Dallas locker room, a forlorn figure with ice on his knee, genuinely disturbed that Carlos would do such a thing. I put the question to Carlos -- how could he do that? I got the smile, then “Well, you saw ... he was their best player.” The smile again, and an untroubled exit to the showers.

Now I am sitting in Carlos’s midtown Manhattan apartment, coming to the end of a long interview. We have discussed his non-soccer activities -- like his surprising 10-year hobby as an artist. He paints only clowns’ heads. He has sold 20 of the paintings. And for years he has written a soccer column for the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, something that has earned him membership in the sportswriters’ union.

I am waiting to ask again the question I asked him after the Gomez incident. I want to know why we get these violent outbursts, what goes on inside him, what happens when cool turns to cruel? And all I get is the smile and the rich voice, English words bathed in beautiful Brazilian vowel sounds: “I can’t explain it . . . sometimes you get mad ... I get mad if I think someone is damaging my team ... I’ve promised myself: no more, I don’t want any more of that, not now ...”

* * * * * * * * * *

Not now. No, the bitter truth hits home. Not now, not ever. Now there is no time left for Carlos Alberto. Now it is time simply to bid farewell to a wonderful player. Unorthodox for sure, but the most skilled and the most exciting defender I have ever seen.

6 comments about "Carlos Alberto: One of Soccer's Greatest (1944-2016)".
  1. Walt Pericciuoli, October 27, 2016 at 3:24 p.m.

    Excellent Paul. Truly a great one. The article is a fitting tribute to the man. May he Rest in Peace

  2. John Polis, October 27, 2016 at 8:41 p.m.

    Great article, Paul. Thanks for reprinting it. I'm sitting here watching the MLS playoffs tonight -- a game between Montreal and D.C. And then I think to what we watched in the early 80s with the Cosmos. A different time, for sure, but that Cosmos team was certainly one that's never been duplicated. Alberto, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia, Bogicevich, Romero etc. And who could forget 18-year-old Jeff Durgan from Tacoma who found himself playing in front of Carlos Alberto. Good memories.

  3. Kent James, October 27, 2016 at 8:52 p.m.

    A beautifully written piece about a great player, but given PG's crusade against thuggery, Alberto's hatchet job on Gomez cries out for recognition. I guess life is complicated...

  4. feliks fuksman, October 28, 2016 at 9:28 a.m.

    Excellent article about a great player; wonderful memories! Thank you Paul. RIP Carlos.

  5. Bob Ashpole, October 31, 2016 at 11:27 a.m.

    It is appropriate that international soccer's most iconic goal was struck by a Brazilian fullback. RIP Carlos.

  6. Jay Chisolm, October 31, 2016 at 2:38 p.m.

    Indeed a great article Paul. Thanks for the memories. I vividly remember that game and saying "Is he crazy juggling that ball"

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