60 Players for 60 Years: The Third Six

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of Brazil’s first World Cup triumph in 1958, Canary and Blue is releasing “60 Players for 60 Years” – a tribute to the players, managers, and personalities who have most contributed to Brazil’s collection of continental and global trophies. The final list will include ten figures from each decade since 1958, with special attention given to the way their contributions have influenced Brazilian footballing history. Each month in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup will see the release of six players, one from each decade, with each decade’s most influential player being announced right before the start of this summer’s tournament. This article is the release of the “third six.” The first six and a full introduction to the series can be found here. The second six can be found here.

Several positions across the football pitch have classic Brazilian archetypes – the pacy winger, the elusive Number 10 – but perhaps the greatest of all is the forward thinking fullback. Though many countries have employed attacking right and left-backs over the years, no country has churned out as many great fullbacks as Brazil. From Nilton Santos to Carlos Alberto to Junior to Dani Alves, a staple of most every great Seleção side is the inclusion of outside backs who rush forward with the ball, combining the creativity of a number 10, the pace of a number 7, and the defensive acumen of a center back. In his fantastic article for the Blizzard, Rob Sweeney argues that Brazil was central to the evolution of the attacking fullback, and history struggles to disprove him.

Superb outside back play contributed to many of Brazil’s most sumptuous World Cup goals. Perhaps the Seleção’s greatest goal was scored by right back Carlos Alberto when he rushed past the Italian defense in the 1970 Final to finish off a mesmerizing passing move by the canary and blue. The goal is etched into World Cup history, as synonymous with Brazilian performance in the competition as the winner’s trophy. In 1982, it was Junior galloping ahead of the Argentinian defense to score Brazil’s third that illustrated that squad’s cohesion – its ability to play positionless football.

To capture all of Brazil’s great fullbacks in a single edition of “60 Players for 60 Years” would be impossible, so this is the first of two articles which will focus on those defending players who love nothing more than to attack.

1958-1968: The Roots of Dominance

With a win in the 1958 World Cup, Brazil captured their first world title, and buried the demons that had haunted them since their loss in 1950. 1958 was the beginning of a footballing arc that would run through 1970 and include three World Cup titles, as well as place Brazil at the top of the footballing world. The decade includes Brazil’s only World Cup trophy on European soil, and wins at consecutive World Cups in 1958 and 1962 make the Seleção one of only two nations to have won back to back titles. For many fans of the canary and blue, this decade represents the golden years, where Brazil breezed past opponents playing football that was decades ahead of its time. Their training, tactics, management, and style were precursors for football. For most scholars, 1958 and 1962 mark the beginning of modern football.

Djalma Pereira Dias dos Santos a.k.a Djalma Santos a.k.a Muralha

For many great players, magisterial performances at their position offer commentators the opportunity to name them inventors of their respective roles. For Djalma Santos, it was the truth. He began his career as a midfielder, but as footballing tactics evolved during the 1950s and 1960s and teams began to use four defenders, he moved to right back. It was a move that would come to define Brazilian footballing history, and given he was playing right back when the position was invented, it is not hyperbole to say he is the father to all Brazilian right backs. Djalma Santos was the first in a storied line of right sided defenders that would don the canary and blue.

He played from 1948 to 1970 and featured in over 1,000 matches, never receiving a red card. He played in four consecutive World Cups, winning two of them. He is one of only three players to be named in three consecutive teams of the tournament at the World Cup. But for Djalma, the statistics tell only part of the story. It is watching his play that inspires, that will help readers realize and understand his contribution to his position. He was a brilliant technician with the ball at his feet, and had prowess both as a free kick and penalty taker. He possessed great tackling, marking, and stamina. He would join the attack and often played easy one-twos over more flashy passes. Watching Djalma reveals a player who couples the grace of a “chalk on the boots fullback” and the intelligence of a “spare midfielder fullback.” His all-around talent was critical to the success of Brazil during the 1958 and 1962 World Cup.

Djalma began his club career at Portuguesa, where he would make over 400 appearances and win two Rio-Sao Paulo tournaments. It was his play with the famed Palmeiras sides of the 1960’s, however, that would allow him to truly shine in club football. He would win three Paulistas and three Taça Brasil titles during his time with the Verdão. The team was known as A Academia, thanks to its more academic, cultured style of play, and it featured the likes of Vava and Ademir da Guia. Their victories in the Paulista are made more impressive when realizing Pele’s famed Santos sides stood in their way during each campaign.

For the Seleção, Djalma formed an outstanding partnership with Nilton Santos (unrelated) that would come to define the Brazilian sides that won back-to-back World Cups in 1958 and 1962. Before he would lift the trophies during those World Cups, however, he would feature in the Battle of Berne in 1954. During the match between Brazil and Hungary, a fight broke out in the 71st minute that saw three players sent off, with the police eventually clearing the pitch. Djalma allegedly attempted to chase down and slap a Hungarian player, but failed. The Battle was capped off by a post match locker room fight by the two teams. Somehow, Djalma’s record of never being sent off managed to remain in tact.

His career defining moment arrived four years later in the 1958 final against Sweden. From Djalma: “That win over Sweden was the highpoint of my career. There we were taking on the hosts in their own back yard and with their king looking on from the stands.” Djalma played in only a single match during the 1958 tournament, the final, where he neutralized the left side of Sweden’s attack. He played so well in that single match that he was named to the team of the tournament. He went on to play and in the 1962 tournament as well, where he effortlessly paired with Garrincha, providing him with a defensive platform and passing outlet for his outstanding play.

During the 1966 World Cup he was controversially chosen over Carlos Alberto. Brazil crashed out of the tournament in the group stage and Djalma sat in their final match against Portugal. He would finally be replaced by Carlos Alberto in the 1970 World Cup, thus beginning the Brazilian right back lineage.

-Sean Makarin

1969-1978: The Rise of the Beautiful Game

Pre-1960’s, South America was known for producing players with unquestionable individual skill, but by the late 1960’s a more cooperative style of football was being introduced around the world, with Brazil at the forefront. Brazil reached their peak at the 1970 World Cup, and in the final against Italy in Mexico City, the world watched as the Seleção introduced the perfect blend of individual and team play. Their final goal is considered by many journalists the greatest in World Cup history. Nine Brazilians touch the ball in the build-up, making quick passes, but the goal is still set up by Clodoaldo dribbling four Italian players in his own half, before releasing the ball upfield. The ball finally made its way to Pele, who found a sprinting Carlos Alberto on the right wing to smash it home. This was peak Brazil. 1974 and 1978 were largely a let down for fans of the Seleção, but fans will ultimately remember the dominance of 1970, and the way it forever changed modern football.

Carlos Alberto Torres a.k.a O Capitão do Tri a.k.a Capita a.k.a The Captain

It is all in a nickname for Carlos Alberto Torres –The Captain. Carlos Alberto’s career spanned the disappointment of 1966 to the triumph of the 1970’s and the early global rise of football. He started his career with Fluminense and captained their youth team. He moved to Santos and captained Santos after Zito retired in 1967. In total, he played on teams that won 20 club titles and a World Cup. He captained the 1970 World Cup Team at the age of 25, and finished off that tournament with the greatest goal in World Cup history.

As a player, and as the captain, he was a commanding presence, possessing the confidence to be assertive with players like Pele. Indeed, his presence was so commanding he was chosen as the Seleção captain for the 1970 team that featured Pele, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Gerson, Tostão, and Clodoaldo. He claims to have worked with Gerson and Clodoaldo to determine the best combination of attack and defense in the Semifinal match against Uruguay. From Alberto: “Gerson came to me as the captain and asked if he could change positions with Clodoaldo. Clodoaldo played more defensively, Gerson was higher up the field. So Gerson dropped deeper and Gerson and Clodoaldo had license to roam forward.”

Carlos Alberto is a forefather of the attacking wide back. He possessed a mix of hard tackling defending, ball control, passing, and attacking prowess. He builds on the legacy of Djalma Santos, and is the forefather to Roberto Carlos and Dani Alves. His other, less known nickname, was “The Enforcer.” His football philosophy was simple: when your team has the ball, you attack with six to seven players; and defend when your team does not have the ball. Ultimately, he cared more about build-up play than goals. He was a great player, and it’s been stated that he may not have been Brazil’s greatest right back, but he was its greatest captain.

The defining moment of Carlos Alberto’s career is also the defining moment of the World Cup – the final goal of the 1970 tournament. It was Brazil’s fourth against Italy, a team he claimed he would have picked as his opponent for the final because “they wouldn’t pose too many problems.” It is a goal that he describes best: “The goal was a little detail, but the kind of play from the defensive line was great. Anybody can score a goal, but in that move nine different players touched the ball before the goal. But I was lucky, because I scored the goal.”

It is defining for Carlos Alberto because time and time again he defers to his teammates. When asked about it, he always credits his teammates because that was the kind of captain he was. It is a defining moment because it epitomizes all of Brazil’s attacking abilities at once. Carlos Alberto, a right back, was always critical of Brazilian teams that did not attack and he wanted a team to attack together. There is no better team attacking movement than the goal against Italy in 1970.

The goal was planned. Going into the match Brazil knew that Italy would man mark Jairzinho. Thus, at times, Jairzinho was to move left and take his man with him. If Jairzinho, and his marker, went left, then Carlos Alberto was to move forward into the space. When Carlos Alberto came forward the defensive line would shift right and cover for him. When you watch the goal, that is exactly what happens.

Carlos Alberto claims Tostão “started the carnival” when he tackles the ball away from the Italians attacking down the left. From there the ball goes from the Brazilian box to the back of the net in only thirty seconds. Along the way, the ball is touched by nine different players: Tostão-Brito-Clodoaldo-Pele-Gerson-Rivelino-Jairzinho-Pele-Alberto. Carlos Alberto claims that when the ball was passed from Clodoaldo to Rivelino, seventeen seconds into the move, he started to slowly move forward. At second twenty-five, Jairzinho plays the ball to Pele, who knew Carlos Alberto was coming. At second twenty-nine, Carlos Alberto strikes the ball with such force that both of his feet are off the ground and the ball is soon in the back of the net.

Referring to the goal, Carlos Alberto said, “we realized how beautiful it was after the game.” When Carlos Alberto passed away in October of 2016, the Brazilian soccer federation declared three days of mourning, and in the match that followed all of the Brazilian players wore an armband saying “eternal captain” while Dani Alves wore number four in his honour. It is these tributes that indicate his profound impact on the history of the Seleção.

-Sean Makarin

1979-1988: The Pain of Expectation

Filled with promise, 1979-1988 would bring disappointment to fans of the Brazilian national team. The 1982 World Cup team featured many of the greatest players in modern footballing history, with Zico, Socrates, Falcão, and Cerezo all playing for the Seleção. Brazil played beautiful football throughout the tournament, but in a match which has since been dubbed the Tragedy of Sarria, the Seleção would lose in heartbreaking fashion to Italy. For many football fans, Brazil’s loss to the Italian catenaccio would come to define the “death of naivety in football,” as the more pragmatic Italians advanced past the attractive style employed by the canary and blue. During 1986, a less inventive Brazil would advance to the quarterfinals, losing to France in penalties. The 1980’s are one of only two decades since 1958 where Brazil have failed to win a World Cup. Despite their lack of silverware, their commitment to joga bonito left a tremendous impact of football fans who grew up during this decade.

Leovegildo Lins da Gama Júnior, a.k.a. Júnior, a.k.a. Capacete

As if the Brazilian squad of 1982 didn’t have enough midfielders, they gained an extra one with the inclusion of Junior at left back. Named as one of the world’s greatest ever footballers by Pele, Junior’s greatest attribute was often his flexibility. He could play in a myriad of positions across the pitch, and over the course of his career tried his hand in a number of spots. As part of the great Seleção team of 1982, he was technically placed as the left sided fullback, but watching the matches, you would be forgiven if you couldn’t tell exactly where he was supposed to be playing.

Born in João Pessoa, Junior began his career at Flamengo. He would play most of his career for the Rubro-Negro, and currently holds the club record for most appearances. As a member of the Mengão’s Golden Generation, he partnered with the likes of Zico, Leandro, Nunes, and Adilio to win the 1980, 1982, and 1983 Campeonato, as well as the 1981 Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup. Junior didn’t score in either final in 1981 but his fingerprints are everywhere as he moves down the wing and plays inside, offering one-twos with his midfield partners to dance around the opposition.

By 1984, having won most every trophy there was to win in Brazil, he moved to Torino and would play in Italy for the next five years. As a condition of his transfer, he requested a move to midfield, determining the position less stressful on the body than outside back. From Junior: “One of the conditions I insisted upon was that I would be allowed to play in midfield, which was my position when I started out in football. I’m not a full-back, I’m a midfielder who ended up playing in defence.”

His match intelligence and ability to see the full pitch translated beautifully, and in 1985 he would win Serie A Player of the Year as Torino finished second in the league. After a disagreement with the manager, “papa Junior” would move to Pescara for a few seasons before returning to Brazil. As if he needed to further his legacy with Flamengo, he would lead them to the Brazilian Cup in 1990 and another Campeonato in 1992. From Junior: “the latter title was probably the trophy that meant the most to me, because it helped me say a fond farewell.”

During his prime, Junior was a stalwart for the Brazilian national team, forming a fullback partnership with club teammate Leandro. He was critical to the style Tele Santana was attempting to deploy, dropping into the midfield to combine with the likes of Socrates, Cerezo, Zico, and Falcao. He was sensational in the group stages, contributing to the positionless football that would define Brazil throughout the tournament.

Against Italy, however, his defensive frailties (and those of the larger squad) were laid to bare. His attacking play was not enough to cover for the fact that he had some responsibility for all three Italian goals. For the first, it was his failure to track Rossi running through the box. For the second, it was miscommunication on a pass from Cerezo. For the third, he held Rossi onside at the goal line to gift Italy their final goal – the one that would put them through to the World Cup semi-final. Junior would play in the 1986 World Cup as well (as a midfielder), but was substituted in extra time during their knock-out round loss against France.

It was his goal against Argentina in the second round of the 1982 World Cup that will likely be most remembered by fans of the Seleção. Capping off a fine first half performance for Brazil, Junior played the ball to Zico near midfield then took off toward goal. Once in the box, he found himself on the end of a pass from Zico that took five Argentinian defenders out of the play. Junior believed he was born a midfielder, and in that moment, it was hard to argue against him, as he calmly slotted the ball past the onrushing Argentinian keeper. It was pure football.

-Chase Haislip

1989-1998: Return to Prominence

Following the crushing disappointment of the 1980s, the Brazilian national team rebounded with one of the most successful 15 year periods in the history of the game. At the heart of this success was the stretch from 1989 to 1998, which saw the Seleção win two Copa America titles, the inaugural Confederations Cup title, and most importantly, the 1994 World Cup. On an individual basis, members of the team also won the first ever Ballon d’Or won by a Brazilian player, three FIFA World Player of the Year awards, and one UEFA Club Footballer of the Year award. Controversy before the start of the 1998 World Cup Final stood in the way of Brazil winning three straight World Cups from 1994-2002. At the heart of this decade were players such as Romário and Bebeto, who danced high up the pitch in one of the world’s deadliest strike partnerships. Legends of the game filled in the ranks year after year, with players such as Cafu, Dunga, Jorginho, and Márcio Santos wearing the shirt during this decade. The success of the squad was also inspirational, giving debuts to future world class players including Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Zé Roberto, and Dida. These players would carry the torch of the 1990s into the new millennium.

Jorge de Amorim Campos – “Jorginho”

When it comes to fullbacks, there is no question that Brazil reigns supreme. Year after year, decade after decade, the flanks of the Brazilian defense are manned by players that can rightfully call themselves one of the best in the world. Even more incredible is the list of players that have played on the right: Djalma Santos, Carlos Alberto, Dani Alves, Maicon, and the Brazilian caps leader, Cafu. All world class players, and all brilliant representatives of the Seleção. However, before Cafu could become the all-time leader in appearances for Brazil, he had to patiently wait to earn his spot from another talented right back, Jorginho.

Making his professional debut as an 18 year old, Jorginho started his career in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro. After a successful first season with local team America, Jorginho made the crosstown move to Flamengo, and flourished during his five seasons with the club. It was during this period that he earned his first call up to the Seleção, playing his first international match in 1987. His success with Flamengo caught the eye of scouts worldwide, and in 1989, Jorginho joined Bayer Leverkusen.

Jorginho would go on to play three seasons for Leverkusen and proved a dominant force each and every campaign. During this time in Germany, Leverkusen played a 3-5-2 formation, which proved to be the perfect fit for Jorginho. He was a player just as dangerous going forward as he was defending. He terrorized teams down the right flank, and during his 100 appearances in all competitions, scored 9 goals and assisted on 23 others. His success at the club level helped launch his career with the national team.

Despite missing out on the 1989 Copa America, Jorginho’s performance in Germany became too good to ignore. He was called up to the 1990 World Cup and started every match. In that tournament, Brazil also deployed a 3-5-2 formation, and Jorginho slid into his role on the right flank effortlessly. Despite Brazil’s round of 16 departure at the hand of Maradona and Argentina, Jorginho was viewed as a bright spot in the squad.

He returned to Germany, and played 2 more seasons with Leverkusen before completing a transfer to Bayern Munich in 1992. Bayern had one of their worst seasons in 91-92, managing to finish just 5 pts above the relegation zone. Bringing Jorginho into the squad helped shore up the defense, and gave Bayern another dangerous option going forward. Jorginho’s contributions help lead Bayern back to the top of the German League in the 1993-1994 season. After the conclusion of the 1995 season, Jorginho transferred to Japanese club Kashima Antlers, leaving the German League with a total tally of 154 matches, 15 goals, and 38 assists – for comparison, famed Bayern Munich right back Philipp Lahm retired with 385 matches, 14 goals, and 49 assists.

For many, winning the German league would be the highlight of their career, let alone their year. For Jorginho, the celebrations of the league title were quickly overshadowed by an even more important success, the 1994 World Cup. Despite the rise of eventual superstar Cafu, Jorginho remained first choice right back. He started every match for the Seleção, and played a vital role as they captured their fourth world title. Despite limping off the field injured in the final, Jorginho was named to the Team of the Tournament. His highlight of the World Cup came in the Semi-Finals, where he provided the inch perfect cross to Romário for the game winning goal vs Sweden.

Jorginho played his last match for Brazil in 1995, seceding responsibility of the right flank to Cafu. Following the 1998 season in Japan, Jorginho returned home to Brazil, bouncing around a couple of teams before retiring in 2002. Jorginho’s lasting legacy is that of the path he trail-blazed in Europe. Though he wasn’t the very first Brazilian to play in Germany, he was by far the most successful of the group. Thanks to his success over the course of the 6 seasons, Jorginho helped create opportunities for Brazilians to come.

-Matthew Hintze

1999-2008: Boom and Bust

Full of peaks and valleys, 1999-2008 would be a roller coaster ride for fans of the Brazilian national team. The peaks included the 2002 World Cup campaign that was full of memorable moments such as Ronaldinho’s quarterfinal free kick goal against England and Ronaldo cementing his place among the greatest strikers in history with his tournament-leading eight goals. Over the course of the decade, Brazil also captured three Copa America titles and a Confederation Cup title. Although there was much to initially celebrate, the valleys began at the 2006 World Cup, when a much-hyped dream team of Brazilian stars failed to live up to their unbeatable expectations. The CBF would hire Dunga in the wake of the 2006 World Cup, setting off a chain of managerial appointments that would serve as the building blocks for disappointment in the next decade.

Marcos Evangelista de Morais, a.k.a. Cafu, ak.a. “Il Pendolino,” a.k.a. “the Express Train.”

One of Brazil’s most iconic footballing images is that of Cafu raising the world cup trophy high above his head as smoke and confetti rise behind him. The successful 2002 campaign was incredibly, Cafu’s third straight World Cup final appearance and arguably the peak of his career. How different football history could’ve been had Cafu not made one change during his time at Sao Paulo’s academy.

Born in 1970 (on the same day England played Brazil in the World Cup) as Marcos Evangelista de Morais, Cafu grew up in Jardim Irene, a favela of São Paulo, with five siblings. Despite being surrounded by poverty, Cafu remembers his youth as an opportunity to prepare himself for life’s future challenges. From Cafu: “I learnt a lot from my favela, I learnt respect, education, hard work, and that is why I am here talking to you. If you are born somewhere where there are no conditions for you [to prosper] it doesn’t mean you cannot overcome these difficulties.”

These learned traits helped push Cafu through difficult circumstances and at the age of seven, he had the privilege of attending a football academy where he quickly moved up the junior ranks. Even with this early success, Cafu was initially rejected by many youth squads, but he kept working hard and overcoming obstacles and then his hometown club, Sao Paulo, came calling.

Until this point in his career, Cafu was playing as a right sided midfielder but this all changed at Sao Paulo. Cafu’s manager at Sao Paulo was the famous Telê Santana, and he influenced Cafu to move into the fullback role. This was slightly due to an injury to the club’s first choice right fullback, Zé Teodoro. Cafu fit perfectly into the role and the rest is history. Cafu won back to back Copa Libertadores titles Sao Paulo, and the now defunct World Championship in 1992 and 1993. In 1994, he was named the South American player of the year. His career was just beginning.

Cafu spent a brief stint as a journeyman, playing with clubs such as Real Zaragoza, Juventude, Palmeiras from 1994 – 1997 winning honors along the way such as 1995 Cup Winners Cup before settling down with Roma. At Roma, Cafu helped the club win the Scudetto and the Super Copa Italiana. It was during his tenure with Roma that Cafu earned the nickname that would define him, “Il Pendolino” or “the Express Train.”

In 2003, Cafu joined A.C. Milan with one career objective left on his list – to win the UEFA Champions League title. Milan came close in 2005 when they faced Liverpool FC in Istanbul. The first half ended with Milan leading 3-0. The players indulged in a pre-celebratory mood while in the locker room according to Cafu, after which Liverpool mounted a miraculous comeback in the second half. From Cafu: “It’s true, yes, we scored three great goals against a Liverpool team that was one of the most tactically aware sides I have ever faced – we thought it was our day, and we relaxed. When they scored the first two, we felt the impact. When they netted the third we just couldn’t believe it.”

In 2007, however, Milan and Liverpool faced off again for the final of the Champions League. This time, Cafu and Milan made sure to celebrate only after the final whistle. After so much disappointment two years earlier, Cafu had the pleasure of lifting the trophy after a 2-1 win in Athens.

Cafu appeared for Brazil for the first time as a substitute in a friendly against Spain in September 1990. It would be the beginning of a long and very successful career with the Seleção. Cafu played sparingly in the early nineties and made the 1994 World Cup squad as a substitute. An injury to starter Jorginho in the 22nd minute of the Final gave Cafu the opportunity to present himself to the world. After the victory against Italy in sunny California, Cafu became a regular starter for the national team.

Cafu went on to lead the Seleção to Copa America victories in 1997 and 1999. Together they won the Confederations Cup in 1997 and in 1998 they again reached the World Cup final but lost against host nation France. Cafu was not done though, and in 2002 he captained the squad to their most recent World Cup title against host nation Germany. His captainship in 2002 was determined very shortly before the start of the tournament when regular captain Emerson went down with an injury in a training session. His ability to step into that role speaks to his incredible leadership qualities. He participated in a final and less successful appearance in the 2006 World Cup, when Brazil fell short of high expectations.

Cafu is the most capped male Brazilian footballer of all time, including 20 World Cup matches. He won two world cup titles in 1994 and 2002 and is the only player in history to have played in three straight World Cup finals. The influence of Tele Santana is littered throughout the history of Brazilian football, but it is difficult to imagine a more lasting impact than the one he had on Cafu. A simple change in position resulted in the birth of perhaps Brazil’s greatest ever servant.

-Jimmy Torrejon

2009-2017: The Arid Years

The failure of the 2006 World Cup squad to deliver on expectations led to a series of reactionary managerial hires that hampered the Seleção’s ability to find consistency between 2009 and 2016. Having been knocked out of the 2010 World Cup at the quarterfinal stage, Brazil headed into the 2014 World Cup on home soil with great expectation. The tournament ended in tragedy, however, as Brazil were defeated 7-1 by Germany in the semi-final, one of the worst defeats by any nation in World Cup history. The bright spot of the decade arrived in the summer of 2016, when a Neymar-led Brazil captured Olympic gold in an emotional final at the Maracana. A recent resurgence under new manager Tite has pushed Brazil back where they belong: among the favorites for the 2018 World Cup.

Marcelo Vieira da Silva Júnior, a.k.a. Marcelo

In the waning moments of extra time of the 2014 Champions League Final, Real Madrid led 2-1 and an otherwise formidable Atletico Madrid defense sagged into their own half. Collecting the ball near midfield, Marcelo skipped past a few Atletico midfielders, then ripped a shot along the ground from just outside the penalty area. Goalkeeper Thibaut Cortios got his hand to it but the power of the shot caused the ball to squeeze underneath him. Madrid had won La Decima. In celebration, Marcelo removed his shirt and held it for the fans to see. Despite not starting the match, he had made his mark.

Football has rarely come easy for Marcelo. From an impoverished background, he began his career at Fluminense and considered quitting the sport at various points, but club directors constantly pushed for him to continue. By the age of 18, he had been named to the Brasileiro Team of the Year, and Real Madrid quickly came calling. Most Madrid supporters immediately announced him the heir to the recently departed Roberto Carlos. It was an unusual level of pressure for a teenager. But over the course of his time at Madrid, Marcelo would prove himself worthy of the comparison.

Marcelo’s first five years in Madrid could best be described as “boom and bust.” The revolving door of managers as Los Blancos meant constant change in tactics, and as such, the attack-minded Marcelo was constantly being moved between fullback and winger. His performances bounced between the utterly sublime and the astonishingly poor, and by the time Jose Mourinho arrived at the club, questions continued to follow Marcelo, despite his finishing at the top of the assist charts as a left winger.

With the arrival of Mourinho in 2010, Marcelo was immediately reinstated as a left back. His play in the 2010-2011 would signal his arrival as one of the world’s best outside backs. He started every league match for Real Madrid, and Diego Maradona named him the third best player in La Liga, behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Despite his fantastic play for Los Blancos, Madrid ended the 2010-2011 season in second place and in the summer of 2011, they purchased Fabio Contreao – a more defensive alternative at left back. Many supporters saw the move as a direct challenge to Marcelo, and a move towards a more defensive set up that would allow Madrid to match Barcelona’s free flowing attacking play with a more steely, defensive tactic. But Marcelo proved to be irreplaceable, and despite sharing time in certain matches, he never relinquished his claim as Madrid’s first choice left back. Los Blancos won La Liga that year, displacing Barcelona for the first time in four seasons.

As Madrid continued to evolve, Marcelo retained his spot at left back and developed even further as a player. He was a major contributor to Madrid’s Champions League titles in 2014, 2016, and 2017, and he continues to hold the starting spot in perhaps the most competitive squad in world football. He is not a traditional galloping left back but rather a more cerebral one, blessed with the ability to play one touch football with Real Madrid’s plethora of pass first midfielders. Under Zidane, Madrid has been more intent on playing a formation with fewer traditional wingers. As such, Marcelo’s role has taken increasing importance. He has met the challenge with scintillating play, to the point where he now can comfortably say he is the best left back in the world.

His play for the national team has seen similar scrutiny, and to this point in his career for the Seleção, defining moments have included his loss in the 2012 Olympic Final, his own goal in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, and his culpability in the Mineirazo. But he continues to persevere, and is the only starter of the 7-1 who looks likely to start come the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. Under Tite, his place in the side has been cemented, and why not, he continues to make his case as the best left back in world football. His partnership with Neymar in the current edition of the Seleção is something to behold, and he will be a critical component to the success or failure of Brazil in Russia.

-Chase Haislip