Carlos Roa: To the end of the world and back again

Carlos Roa was Argentina’s goalkeeper at the 1998 World Cup. He was considered the best goalkeeper in Spain the following season. In 1999 ESM considered him the best goalkeeper in Europe. That’s enough for a career retrospective right there, but he also beat malaria, testicular cancer, and retired from football in 2000 because he believed the world would end soon. Carlos Roa is as interesting as they come.

Roa was born in Santa Fe but began his professional career in Avellaneda with legendary Argentinian side Racing Club. The teenager was an understudy to one of the greatest Argentinian goalkeepers ever (arguably the greatest, but that’s asking for trouble) in Ubaldo Fillol, debuting in 1988 and eventually playing over 100 games for the club. During this time he contracted malaria while on tour in the Congo, this first of a few career threatening instances that were to follow. He fully recovered, however, and moved to CA Lanus in 1994.

Lanus are in no way as big a club as Racing, what with the Avellaneda club’s standing as one of the big five in Argentina, but Roa helped the small side lift their first ever major trophy in 1996. The Copa CONMEBOL was effectively an equivalent to the European UEFA Cup. While the competition only ran from 1992 to 1999, Lanus’ victory was an enormous one for a club of their stature, and that would be a trait that Roa took with him to Mallorca a year later.

Roa’s career looks relatively normal up to this point, malaria aside (admittedly a large aside), but it was right at this point that things started to take several turns. That’s not to say things were about to slide downhill, pretty far from it in fact, but events certainly cease to be considered “normal”. Although it was already obvious by now that Roa wasn’t an ordinary footballer; His nickname, for instance, was Lechuga (Lettuce) because he was a vegetarian.

Mallorca had just achieved promotion back to La Liga after five seasons in the Segunda Division. They appointed Argentinian manager Hector Cuper to lead them in this first season back – Roa’s coach at Lanus. Cuper, who would go on to make a career out of nearly achieving incredible success but not quite, brought his goalkeeper with him.

That first season at Mallorca was a fantastic one that surpassed any expectations that anybody could possibly have had. Mallorca stormed up the league table immediately, eventually finishing in 5th – a hell of a feat for a newly promoted side in any league – and setting a new best-placed finish for the club. That wasn’t all, however, as Mallorca also reached the Copa del Rey final for the very first time in their history. Cuper got his customary runners-up medal as the team were defeated by Barcelona on penalties after going down to nine men, but it didn’t detract from what was an amazing season for the team. In fact, Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona did the double that year, meaning Mallorca would enter the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup as the losing finalists – their first venture into Europe.

It was a great season individually for Roa, too, and his performances saw him named Argentina’s number one for the upcoming World Cup in France.

Roa’s image has been seen millions and millions of times from that World Cup. Photos and videos viewed all over the world ever since have had Roa’s face right there, in the action, a part of unforgettable moments. Unfortunately, that’s because Roa conceded two of the most famous World Cup goals arguably ever, and certainly of that tournament.

First came Michael Owen’s legendary solo goal that announced the teenager onto the World stage.

Second came the stunning skill from Dennis Bergkamp for his last-minute winner to put The Netherlands into the World Cup semi-finals.

Summing up Roa’s tournament with those two goals is incredibly harsh, but it’s still quite incredible for him to have been right there for two iconic World Cup moments – even if they were both against him.

A much fairer evaluation of his tournament would be to say that Roa didn’t concede a goal in the group stages, with an Alan Shearer penalty being the first time his goal was breached. He then went on to save two penalties in the shootout against England to put Argentina into the quarter-finals. He couldn’t exactly have done much about any of the four goals he conceded in France, and he was actually one of the more memorable goalkeepers at a tournament full of class. Just being in the mix with Taffarel, Barthez, van der Sar, Schmeichel, Chilavert, Seaman, and Pagliuca shows his ability.

Roa returned to Mallorca for the 98/99 season with his stock at an all time high. He had made a real name for himself over the previous twelve months and Mallorca were on the up. If 1998 was a great year for Roa and Mallorca, 1999 was a sensational one.

The team won the Supercopa de Espana, finished a miraculous third in La Liga, and even reached the final of the Cup Winner’s Cup, unfortunately losing to Lazio 2-1 (not that losing to a Lazio side featuring Nesta, Nedved, Salas, and Vieri can really be considered failure). Mallorca’s success was built on their defence; the islanders conceded half the goals of second place Real Madrid. This, obviously, meant accolades followed for Roa.

The goalkeeper won the Zamora trophy for having the best conceded to games ration – the only keeper who conceded less than one a game – and was named in the ESM team of the year as the goalkeeper. Some perspective on that one can be seen by listing the goalkeepers in the years both before and after him: Van der Sar, Peruzzi, and Kahn.

Now earlier we said that this story had turns in it, and right here was another one. Roa was on top of the world; firmly in the argument for who the worlds best are, playing in one of the world’s best leagues with a real up-and-coming team in which he’s a key player. It takes a lot to move your career in a different direction from here, but Roa managed it.

Carlos Roa promptly retired from football because he believed the world was going to end.

Now, as I think we know, he was wrong about that; the world didn’t end and has, in fact, kept going, but Roa is a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church – a church that heavily invests in a second-coming. It’s very probable that being one of the best goalkeepers in the world didn’t carry particularly much weight with a man who thought the end was nigh, and Roa did indeed abandon the football world at the age of 30. He spent much of the next year at a religious retreat in New Mexico preparing for the apocalypse.

In 1999, I decided to devote myself to religion. The reaction I met everywhere was one of incomprehension. As a follower of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, I’d always taken my responsibilities as a Christian very seriously. For example I never ate meat – which is how I got the nickname Lechuga. My wife and I had always been heavily into meditation, and we both understood that it was time to embrace a deeper level of devotion.

I spent a year in a countryside retreat, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, doing a lot of reading and learning how to live a better, more meaningful life. Because it’s such a personal thing, only those very close to you can fully understand the meaning behind the decision.

Carlos Roa

It did eventually dawn on Roa that things probably weren’t ending as soon as he once thought, and he rejoined Mallorca less than a year later. He had returned with a caveat, however. His church recognises Saturday as the Sabbath, and so Roa returned on the agreement that he wouldn’t have to play Saturday games – not an ideal situation for a professional footballer, especially as European football had left Mallorca mostly playing on Saturdays.

But as it turned out, taking a prolonged break from the game had left him at a major disadvantage. Roa struggled to win his place back from compatriot Leo Franco, eventually deciding it would be better to move on. In 2002, just a couple of years since he was linked to the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, Carlos Roa joined Albacete in the Segunda Division.

Things went very well for the team as they were promoted back to La Liga in Roa’s first season. But then tragedy struck: Roa was diagnosed with testicular cancer halfway through the next season.

The following year was a mix of operations, chemotherapy, and rehabilitation. Roa was forced to step away from football four years after his self-imposed exile.

“It’s not something I can describe in detail, because you have to live with it to really understand what it’s like. It was by far the worst experience of my life, but God sent me a sign telling me I was meant to carry on living. I felt as if I’d been born again”

Carlos Roa

He beat the cancer and joined Club Olimpio in the Argentine Primera Division for the 2005-06 season. After 27 top-flight games, Carlos Roa retired from football at the age of 36.

Still very much a member of his church, Roa has since made a career out of coaching. He has gone on to work at several clubs in Argentina, primarily working under former International teammate Matias Almeyda.

His playing career is a fascinating story and one that seems to ask more questions than it answers. Just how good could Carlos Roa have been? He bowed out of the game when he was at the top, only 30-years-old and surely about to enter his prime. On the other hand, few footballers can claim to have led a life anywhere near as interesting, or arguably as meaningful. Here’s a man who became devoutly religious, took a chance on his beliefs, and then held onto them to see him through a terrifying illness. Yes, he was a top goalkeeper, but his life offers an entirely different perspective on exactly what that means.

But no matter how you look at his career, Carlos Roa’s was a hell of a ride.