At club level, Cafu won several domestic and international titles while playing in Brazil, Spain and Italy; he is best known for his spells at São Paulo, Roma and Milan, teams with which he made history, although he also played for Real Zaragoza, Juventude and Palmeiras throughout his career. Known for his pace and energetic attacking runs along the right flank, he is regarded as one of the greatest full-backs of all time, one of the best defenders ever to grace the Italian Serie A, and as one of the greatest Brazilian and South American players of his generation. In 1994, he was named South American Footballer of the Year, and in 2004, he was named by Pelé one of the 125 Greatest Living Footballers at a FIFA Awards ceremony.
One of six children, Cafu was raised in the Jardim Irene favela of São Paulo. At the age of seven, he was able to attend a football academy and soon moved up to the junior sides of Nacional-SP, Portuguesa and Itaquaquecetuba. He also played futsal for two years.
In the early 1980s, he was rejected from the youth squads of Corinthians, Palmeiras, Santos, Atlético Mineiro and Portuguesa. It was not until 1988 that he made the youth squad of hometown club São Paulo, and subsequently won the Copa São Paulo youth tournament that year, but he did not play during the next season as São Paulo won the 1989 Campeonato Paulista.
It was during this time, however, that São Paulo youth coach Telê Santana became Cafu's mentor. He suggested that Cafu move from wingback to midfield, a spot into which Cafu made the transition with ease despite never previously playing the position. He had soon anchored onto the first team, as São Paulo won back-to-back Copa Libertadores and World Championships in 1992 and 1993. In 1994, he was named the South American Footballer of the Year. Cafu began the 1995 season with Brazil squad Juventude but finished in Spain with Real Zaragoza, winning the 1995 Cup Winners' Cup with the latter.
After a brief stint back in Brazil with Palmeiras in 1996, Cafu returned to Europe once again the next year, this time with Roma, and won the Scudetto in 2001, followed by the Supercoppa Italiana. It was during his tenure at Roma that Cafu earned the nickname Il Pendolino ("The Express Train" or "The Commuter"). Despite making the Coppa Italia final in 2003 with Roma, he moved to Milan after turning down a move to Japan with Yokohama F. Marinos. With the Rossoneri, he won his second career Scudetto in 2004, followed by his second Supercoppa Italiana, and he played in his first UEFA Champions League final in 2005.
Despite his success with Milan, he continued to hold fond memories of his Roma years, and it was for that reason that on 4 March 2007 – the day after Milan eliminated Celtic in the first knockout round of the 2006–07 UEFA Champions League – he candidly revealed in a UEFA.com chat that he did not want Milan to be drawn against the Giallorossi in the quarter-final round. He got his wish, as Milan were drawn against Bayern Munich. Milan's successful Champions League campaign saw Cafu finally pick up a long-awaited winners' medal, in a rematch of the 2005 final.
Cafu signed a contract extension in May 2007 that would keep him with Milan until the end of the 2007–08 season, during which he won another UEFA Supercup, and his third World Title at Club level and now his first FIFA Club World Cup. On 16 May 2008, it was announced that Cafu and compatriot Serginho would be leaving Milan at the end of the season. In Cafu's last game of his Milan career, and maybe his footballing career, he scored a goal in their 4–1 victory over Udinese. Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani has opened the doors to him to return to work for the club.
He is a member of the A.C. Milan and the A.S. Roma Hall of Fame.
Cafu was accused along with several other Serie A players, including Roma team-mate Fábio Júnior and Gustavo Bartelt, countryman and later Milan teammate Dida, for using forged passport in their attempt to dodge regulations regarding the number of non-European players allowed on Italian club rosters. However, the charge was cleared by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) as Cafu's Italian passport was real and issued by Italian officials, but 13 others – including Dida – were banned. But Cafu faced another controversy that similar to Juan Sebastián Verón, accused that Cafu's wife, Regina used falsified documents to claim Italian nationality through Italian descent. Cafu acquired Italian nationality through marriage. In 2004, Cafu and Roma club president Franco Sensi went to court.
On 12 June 2006, less than 24 hours before Brazil were to begin their 2006 World Cup campaign against Croatia, Rome prosecutor Angelantonio Racanelli called for the imprisonment of Cafu, his wife Regina de Morais and his agent for nine months following the resurfacing of a false-passport scandal. The very next day, however, Cafu, his wife and agent were acquitted of all charges.
Cafu is the most-capped Brazilian men's player of all time with 142, including a record 21 World Cup games. He has won two World Cups in 1994 and 2002, as well as being the only player to participate in three World Cup final matches. Cafu also held the record of winning the most number of matches in World Cups with 15 (along with two games Brazil won on penalties), before being surpassed by Germany's Miroslav Klose in the 2014 World Cup.
He earned his first cap in a friendly against Spain on 12 September 1990, and played sparingly for Brazil in the early 1990s, making the 1994 World Cup roster as a substitute. He appeared in the final against Italy, following an injury to Jorginho in the 22nd minute. After that, Cafu was soon a regular in the starting eleven as Brazil won the Copa América in 1997 and 1999, the 1997 FIFA Confederations Cup, and reached the 1998 World Cup final.
Brazil endured a rocky qualification for the 2002 tournament, during which Cafu came under heavy criticism from coach Wanderley Luxemburgo, who stripped him of the team captaincy after he was sent off in a qualifier against Paraguay. Shortly after that, however, Luxemburgo was out of a job, and replacement Luiz Felipe Scolari made Emerson his new choice for captain. However, Emerson missed the cut after he dislocated his shoulder in training, which allowed Cafu to regain the armband. After Brazil defeated Germany 2–0 in the final match (Cafu's third consecutive World Cup final), he stood on the victory podium during the postmatch celebration and, as he raised the trophy, shouted to his wife, "Regina, eu te amo!" ("Regina, I love you!").
Cafu and Brazil fell short of high expectations placed on the squad four years later in 2006, as Brazil meekly exited in the quarter-finals after a 1–0 defeat by France. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira was criticized for featuring fading veterans, most notably the 36-year-old Cafu and 33-year-old Roberto Carlos, in the starting XI in lieu of younger players. Cafu was one of only a few Brazil players who spoke to the press in the midst of a hailstorm of criticism from Brazilian fans and media alike following the team's return home. He nonetheless expressed interest in participating in the 2010 World Cup; however he did not, as he retired completely from football in 2008.
Cafu was named by Pelé as one of the top 125 greatest living footballers in March 2004.
Regarded as one of the greatest full-backs of all time, one of the best footballers of his generation, and as one of Brazil's best ever players, Cafu was a dynamic, hard-working, offensive-minded, and energetic right-sided wing-back who is mostly remembered for his great pace, stamina, tactical intelligence, distribution, and technical skills, as well as his ability to make overlapping attacking runs down the right flank and provide accurate crosses to teammates in the area. In addition to his footballing ability, he was also known for his discipline, leadership and his characteristically cheerful demeanour. Although he usually played as an attacking right-back, he was also capable of playing as a centre-back, due to his defensive skills, or in more advanced positions, and was often deployed as a right winger. During his time in Italy, he was given the nickname Pendolino, after the country's express trains.