There is always something fascinating about seeing people a few notches below their usual standards, like watching Barcelona in the Europa League or Joe Biden’s cameo in the TV comedy Parks and Recreation. The Queen opened a motorway service station near Bolton in 1970, and it was essential viewing. And so, the chance to watch Roberto Carlos, one of the best left-backs football has had, play Sunday League in Shrewsbury was too good to miss.
Unlike the Queen, Carlos is not wearing gloves, although he would have been forgiven if he were. Conditions in Shrewsbury are exactly as you would expect in early March, the sun negated by a freezing wind that blows across a terrible pitch, which one onlooker describes as “one of the best in Shropshire”. Roberto Carlos belongs at the Bernabéu, or at the very least in glossy adverts and electro-drenched YouTube compilations, not at the Hanwood Village Hall Recreation Centre.
How did Roberto Carlos come to be in Shrewsbury? Bull in the Barne United, named after a local pub, won a Dream Transfer raffle in January, and Roberto Carlos was enlisted by eBay, with the raffle proceeds going to the charity Football Beyond Borders.
And so, Roberto Carlos pulls into the car park and shuffles into an expectant dressing room. “You’re late, Bobby – it’s your turn to do the kit next week,” Bull in the Barne’s manager and goalkeeper, Ed Speller, doesn’t say, although he really should.
Speller, instead, is delighted with his new recruit. “It’s amazing,” he says. “When I found out that I won, I just started screaming: ‘No way!’ around the office. I just couldn’t believe it. I sent a message to the lads, and they went crazy. We need a left-back but I think he might be in centre mid today. I guess he could play anywhere. I’m just looking forward to getting back to the pub with him later.”
Roberto Carlos is not the only unfamiliar sight to the usual few who follow Bull in the Barne United. Namely there is a TV camera crew, with Chris Kamara in tow. The Shrewsbury town crier has turned up in all his garb with his wife to whip the 150-strong crowd into a frenzy before the game. A local farmer, presumably up from Hereford, nearly causes a health and safety issue by standing on top of his digger to get a better view over the fence.
There are wonderfully reassuring Sunday League vibes, too. The pitch is, inevitably, sloped, with one corner so muddy it is almost unplayable. The referee lets every bad challenge go, and the officials running the line arrive midway through the first half. Bull in the Barne spend most of their warm-up peppering Speller in goal. Roberto Carlos takes two free-kicks; the first is shanked 10 yards wide, the second curls gently over a makeshift wall and nestles in he corner of the net. It is a wonderful glimpse of the old magic.
“I started playing on pitches like this in Brazil,” he says. “But I feel like I’ve learned a lot being here. It’s great to meet the boys as well. When I first started in Garça when I was 12, I played in a team with my dad and it was just like this. This is nothing new to me.”
That said, the Greenhous Shrewsbury and District Sunday League Division One remains something of an unknown quantity and the chance, however small, of being nutmegged by a Harlescott Rangers winger is not exactly great for the brand. The 48-year-old starts on the bench, and things go badly for Bull. Two-nil down after 35 minutes, they bring on the Brazilian and he promptly loses the ball twice. “Play it simple, Roberto,” comes a heckle from the sideline. Half-time comes, and Roberto Carlos does not emerge from the dressing room. There is concern. The Brazilian’s leg is playing up, caused by a motorbike accident in Madrid recently. “Talk quietly about that, please,” he says with a smile.
Harlescott race to a 4-1 lead, before Roberto Carlos re-emerges on the sideline. Bull are seemingly buoyed by his presence in the dugout, as substitutes jostle for selfies, and roar back to 4-2 before earning a late penalty. There is only one man for it. Roberto Carlos comes on, tucks the ball into the corner for 4-3 and subs himself off again immediately, all in the space of 40 seconds. Bull can’t force an equaliser but the crowd got what they came for: a Roberto Carlos set piece.
“Tactically, my teammates were not the same that I’m used to but they worked hard,” he insists afterwards. “I’m delighted to come and make debut for an English team. I nearly joined Chelsea in 2007 and Aston Villa in 1995, but it didn’t work out.”
You might say it worked out OK. Rather than a move to Birmingham, Roberto Carlos would sign for Roy Hodgson at Internazionale, then Real Madrid where he would win numerous La Liga and Champions League titles, adding to his World Cup winner’s medal in 2002. Playing for Bull in the Barne United, he says, means he has now “completed football”.
“My teammate Ronaldo Nazário would have been helpful today,” he jokes. “He started at a club called São Cristóvão, similar to this. When you are a king, you never lose your majesty.”