“I’LL BE PELÉ,” says one kid on Botafogo Beach as the two teams decide which idols they’ll be emulating in today’s kickabout. “I’m being Rivaldo,” another confirms to his team-mate Dunga, while Garrincha and Ronaldo bicker over which one is Garrincha and which one is Ronaldo. Dida stands in the background, still upset at having to go in goal.
“I’m Roberto Carlos,” the youngest one pipes up. He rarely used to be allowed to play with his brother and his brother’s friends, but ever since that day he was first given a chance to show his maddening footwork they now insist that he joins their team every time as he is something special. In fact, Marcelo Vieira da Silva is so talented that one day he will really play the role of the legendary Brazil left-back.
He just doesn’t know yet that on 14 November 2006, Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón will present him to the fans of the biggest club in the world as “the substitute of Roberto Carlos”, having sent €6.5 million the way of Fluminense for the privilege, trumping a deal previously agreed with Monchi’s Sevilla. “Roberto Carlos will be here for another year, which is what we all want, and he is happy. But Marcelo is here for whenever he decides to leave.”
For most football fans, joining Real Madrid is exciting enough, but for Marcelo that move to the Spanish capital would be especially thrilling as he’d be afforded the chance to learn from the man he idolised growing up in Rio de Janeiro. Whenever he played with his friends on the street or on the beach, he demanded that he play the role of the man who made Brazil’s number 6 shirt his own, a role he studied for by watching as many Real Madrid and Brazil matches as he possibly could.
With the legendary left-back set to stay in the Spanish capital for at least the remainder of the 2006-07 season, the club’s intention would be to send Marcelo to the Real Madrid Castilla team, where he could ease into the footballing style of this new continent by playing against second tier opposition. However, first team coach Fabio Capello would have none of it.
Instead, Marcelo was to remain with the senior squad, meaning he’d work up close and personal with the man he had the monumental task of one day replacing. “Even though I didn’t play much and was often left off the squad list, I learned a lot from that time,” the player would later say of his Italian coach’s decision to make him an apprentice in the Galáctico-laden squad.
“He had this mix of timidness and self-confidence,” Capello’s physical trainer Massimo Neri would later recall of that transition period. “He was quick, technically good and had great athleticism. I remember that he was polite and respectful and that in his first month he spoke little, but he listened a lot.”
A poor training ground tackle from David Beckham would accelerate the new arrival’s rise to the line-up, with the Englishman injuring Roberto Carlos in the first week of January. Capello wouldn’t be ready to play Marcelo from the start just yet, so Sergio Ramos would be the man to start at left-back, with the Brazilian enjoying a debut run-out for the final half hour.
A further two appearances from the bench would follow before Roberto Carlos’ return against Getafe at the beginning of March. With Marcelo replacing Gonzalo Higuaín in the 88th minute of that encounter, fans at the Bernabéu would witness history that evening: the only minutes ever in which Marcelo and Roberto Carlos would share a football pitch in an official match.
Read | Ronaldo: in touching distance of being the greatest
That’s because the teenager would only feature twice more that season as Real Madrid marched towards the La Liga title – the one nicknamed the Liga de las Remontadas, or the League of Comebacks – but never again alongside his hero given that the confetti which followed that extraordinary win against Real Mallorca was the last of Roberto Carlos’ Real Madrid career. The defender had decided to move on to Fenerbahçe. They wouldn’t cross paths in the Brazil national team either, with the 1998 World Cup winner retiring after the 2006 tournament, just months before Marcelo’s debut against Wales the following September.
Although the newly-acquired Gabriel Heinze and Royston Drenthe would take care of left-back duties for new coach Bernd Schuster during the first month of the 2007-08 season, the position was to be Marcelo’s; he was the chosen one to take on the task of replacing the irreplaceable Roberto Carlos. It would be a daunting challenge, but it’s one the little boy on Botafogo Beach had dreamed of.
Although Roberto Carlos stood at a mere five foot six inches, his shadow sprawled the whole length of the Bernabéu pitch when the sunset hit the right spot in the Madrid evening. Even after he’d departed for Turkey, The Bullet Man’s shadow and legacy still drooped over Marcelo whenever he lined up on the left flank of that towering Colosseum and it weighed heavy on the young man’s shoulders, with the occasional whistles and boos of the home crowd adding even more psychological strain.
He was not just replacing any old left-back, but he was replacing the one most considered the best to have ever played the game. Roberto Carlos had won four Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, two Copa Américas and a Word Cup, while individually he had been recognised as the Defender of the Year twice and even finished as runner-up to Ronaldo in the 2002 Ballon d’Or voting. That was one of only three times during his 11-year Real Madrid career that a defender even finished on the podium – Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro being the others – and made him just the second full-back after Giacinto Facchetti to ever finish in the top two.
Although Roberto Carlos had arrived before Florentino Pérez assumed the presidency and commenced his policy of signing superstars, the Brazilian was still considered a Galáctico and rightly so. His mazy runs forward, powerful crosses into the box, intricate offloads into the feet of the playmakers, crunching tackling ability and positional understanding made him a complete left-back. Then there were his famous free-kicks, which clocked in at over 100 miles per hour as his plump 24-inch-diameter thighs powered the ball into top corners, bottom corners and sometimes straight down the middle through terrified goalkeepers.
“Roberto Carlos can cover the entire left wing all on his own,” former coach Vicente del Bosque said of the player, a feat made possible by the fact the Brazilian was reportedly able to run the 100 metres in 10.6 seconds, a time that would have qualified him for the heats at the 2016 Olympics.
With a legacy like that to live up to, Marcelo’s early struggles to even take care of his own section of the left flank were all the more apparent and difficult for the home fans to comprehend. Marcelo joked in an interview with El País at the time that his beard made him look older than he really was, a gentle reminder that not only was he not Roberto Carlos, but that he hadn’t even celebrated his 20th birthday yet.
The youngster certainly noticed the early disgruntlement but did not let it bother him or take the smile off his face. The fans in the terraces may not have been convinced that Marcelo could fill Roberto Carlos’ epochal footsteps, but the legend himself advised his apprentice over various dinners in the Spanish capital and insisted that the novice was on the right track.
It’s no secret that hard work pays off in the meritocracy that is football and Marcelo soon made the position his own, winning over his coach and the fan base. By the end of that 2007-08 campaign, he was finally starting to grow into the role and started 11 of the final 16 matches of that league season, in which Los Blancos retained their title.
Like a mutant chess piece which takes two steps backwards and five diagonally forwards, he did remain positionally undisciplined and was often drawn to the ball like a toddler to something shiny, but he had a little help from his friends. “Sometimes I go in search of the ball and I go, I go and … I forget to come back,” he told El País. “Sometimes I run in one direction and get myself into bother, but Heinze and Cannavaro keep me right so that I’m not out of position.” It was unsurprising, then, when he explained that he prefers theatre to cinema because of its unpredictability and the opportunity it affords to go off-script.
Read | Remembering Florentino Pérez’s Pavones, the players Real Madrid forgot
He was very much a work in progress, but 2008-09 coach Juande Ramos wasn’t keen to develop a left-back of the future, especially when he wasn’t sure if he’d be around to enjoy the benefits of it. Instead, he wanted immediate results and decided that Marcelo was prepared enough to play on the left wing, but not ready to be fully trusted at the back. “At first it surprised me to be put on the left wing, but I loved it because I have always looked to go forward and create goals,” he said to EFE of the positional shift, one which helped him score his first goals for the club – and produce his first celebratory backflips. “Left-back is my natural position, but I enjoy playing left wing too.”
Manuel Pellegrini then took over for the 2009-10 campaign under Real Madrid’s ‘new season, new coach’ hiring and firing policy and he took the time to work with the player on his defensive duties, even if he still occasionally played him higher up the pitch. The fact that only Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká conjured up more assists that season than Marcelo did was statistical proof of his increasing impact from the left-hand side.
However, a behind-the-scenes development at the Bernabéu threatened to derail the player’s progress. Inter and Bayern Munich would square off in the Spanish capital in the 2010 Champions League final – the former lifting the trophy – but one man stayed behind in Madrid as the champions flew back to Milan and he would remain for the next three seasons. That man was José Mourinho and he was intent on bringing Fábio Coentrão with him to challenge Marcelo for a starting berth.
Who scored for Real Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final? If this was a question in the TV quiz show Pointless, where contestants try to come up with the answer least frequently given by those surveyed beforehand, then the winning name would be Marcelo.
The post-Décima montages showed every possible angle of Sergio Ramos’ last-minute equaliser, of Gareth Bale’s go-ahead header and of Cristiano Ronaldo ripping his shirt off once he’d converted a late penalty, but Marcelo’s goal, the third, usually enjoys far less screen time.
If Marcelo was ever to become a legendary Real Madrid player, rather than simply a great one, then scoring a goal in the final of their 10th European triumph was a good way to go about it. Not even Roberto Carlos scored in a European final for Los Blancos – although his tally of 16 Champions League goals does write him into the history books as their 15th top European goalscorer, ahead of the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Brazilian Ronaldo.
At the start of the evening, however, it hadn’t looked like Marcelo would get on the pitch, never mind the scoresheet. He had missed the two legs of the Bayern Munich semi-final with injury and had been relegated to the bench by Coentrão for the final, with the Portuguese having played his way into the starting line-up with some solid and secure defensive performances throughout the knockout stages.
Although Mourinho wasn’t able to bring him to Spain in his first summer at the Santiago Bernabéu, Coentrão did arrive in 2011 and he arrived for a whopping €30 million fee, signalling another threat to Marcelo’s starting role. For a player who Ramón Calderón hoped would strive towards the heights set by Roberto Carlos, the conveyer belt of left-back rivals had Marcelo looking over his shoulder as much as he could look ahead at targeting his predecessor’s accomplishments.
Again, though, Marcelo survived, with Coentrão joining the likes of Raúl Bravo, Miguel Torres, Drenthe and Heinze in having lost out to him in the battle for the starting job. “I wasn’t sure at first, but now I love him,” Mourinho later said of the Brazilian he had inherited, a player he used the ninth most during his time in Spain. Coentrão, on the other hand, was the 15th most used under his countryman.
Read | Denílson and the mercurial talent of a lost legend
Carlo Ancelotti may have opted for the Portuguese during that Champions League final, but that was more so because of how well he had filled in during Marcelo’s time on the medical report. Just like Mourinho before him, he generally couldn’t resist playing Marcelo either, who was handed the sixth most minutes under the Italian.
By the time Ancelotti departed in the summer of 2015, the player had become a Real Madrid stalwart and was even promoted to vice-captain ahead of the 2015-16 season. His joie de vivre and relentless enthusiasm had quickly made him a dressing room favourite, even if it was his explosiveness on the pitch that mattered most. His ability to control his whole flank in both the attacking and defensive phases was becoming world renowned, with left-sided forward Cristiano Ronaldo the beneficiary time and time again.
Marcelo’s dominance of the left-back role allowed Ronaldo to neglect defensive duties, while the fact this box-to-box defender could also contribute past the half-way line also allowed the number 7 to drift inside if he needed to. Marcelo may never have followed Roberto Carlos onto the Ballon d’Or podium, but he had a significant role in helping his Portuguese teammate scoop up a few of those individual prizes.
Tactically speaking, he was also vital to Los Blancos’ change in fortunes in the 2015-16 Champions League triumph. The main alteration incoming coach Zinedine Zidane made to stabilise the team was the sacrifice of one attacking midfielder – usually James Rodríguez or Isco – for defensive midfielder Casemiro, but that loss of attacking oomph had to be compensated for by somebody. Marcelo’s advances on the left were the solution and he spent more time on the ball than all players bar Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić over the course of that season.
Moving onto the next round of the Pointless quiz show, when asked to name the five penalty takers – and converters – during Real Madrid’s Undécima Champions League victory, Marcelo would again be the least common of the correct answers. Ronaldo’s tournament-winning strike made all the front pages, captain Sergio Ramos’ spot-kick was similarly headline-grabbing and few can forget the bravery of Lucas Vázquez in taking the first, nor the cool finish from Gareth Bale as he overcame cramp to slot one past Jan Oblak. Yet Marcelo’s left-footed blast just inside the post in the middle of the five is often overlooked.
It helped him to win a second Champions League title, to which he later added a UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup. That took his total number of Real Madrid medals up to 13, the exact same number won by his predecessor. Marcelo had not only established himself as a worthy heir to Roberto Carlos, he now had people wondering if he was perhaps better.
If Roberto Carlos’ status as Real Madrid and Brazil’s best ever left-back is an increasingly precarious one, then the World Cup winner can blame Marcelo’s grandfather Pedro for that. As well as the Croatian flag.
More than any of Marcelo’s family members, Pedro Vieira da Silva was the one who encouraged him to pursue a career in football. His mother was a teacher and, unsurprisingly, urged her son to study, study and study some more. Former footballer Pedro, on the other hand, took a slightly different approach. “Yes, you need to study, but also play football,” he told his grandson.
Initially, it was futsal that Marcelo played, but Fluminense saw him dazzling for his team Helénico and they asked if he’d like to make the switch to 11-a-side. Although the youngster wasn’t keen at first and although he had plans to become a fireman like his father, his grandfather persuaded him to give his all to football.
Yet Pedro was more than just talk, as he went out of his way to help Marcelo advance in his young career, even taking on an extra job in order to afford the costly travel to Fluminense’s training ground in Xerém, a rural neighbourhood just outside Rio. The cost for the transport was 13 reais a day, a far from insignificant sum. Pedro paid Marcelo’s way, but on one occasion he had no more than 25 cents in his pocket.
Read | Garrincha: the joy of the people
With Fluminense preparing to select three players to make the youth team, it was perhaps the most inopportune day to miss training so Marcelo and his grandfather decided to test their luck by dropping the 25 cents into the betting machine of the bar they were in. The game was one where you selected the flag of a country and their choice of Croatia flashed up, with the machine spitting out 25 reais. He and his grandfather treated themselves to some burgers and he went to training.
The player made the team and when another stroke of good fortune went his grandfather’s way, Pedro purchased a Volkswagen Beetle in order to drive his son to the training sessions. Marcelo has such fond memories of those car journeys out to northern Rio that he has the Beetle tattooed on his right arm. His gratitude also saw him gift his first Fluminense pay packet of 100 reais to his grandfather, the man who had made it all possible. “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather Pedro, I wouldn’t be a footballer,” the player later told Revista Panenka, explaining that he had been close to giving it all up at the age of 15, when he wanted to enjoy the simple life of a teenage boy, only for Pedro to encourage him to stay the course.
Pedro’s dream of seeing his grandson become a professional footballer, European Cup winner and Brazil international had come true and he would be one of the proudest of the millions of proud Brazilians when, on 12 June 2014, his boy lined up for the opening match of his nation’s home World Cup, just a year after he started all matches of their Confederations Cup triumph.
Marcelo may have had the unfortunate ‘honour’ of scoring the historic tournament’s first goal when his toe was in the wrong place at the wrong time to convert Ivica Olić’s teasing cross into his own net, but nothing could take away from the fact that he was Brazil’s starting left-back – ahead of the other great talent that is Filipe Luís – at a home World Cup. After the joyous afternoon Croatia had given Marcelo and his grandfather over a decade previously, the Eastern European country deserved a little compensation.
O Canarinho went on to turn the match around and to win 3-1 and Marcelo played every minute as they marched to the semi-finals, infamously losing to the Germans in heart-breaking style. For Marcelo, however, his heart had already been broken by the tragic news he’d been given two days previously. Pedro had lost his battle with bone marrow cancer.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari told Marcelo to attend the funeral and to take as much time off as he needed to, but the player instead opted to remain with the squad at their Teresópolis base. The chance to win a World Cup for his grandfather was, as with the betting machine all those years previously, worth taking. It didn’t turn out as planned this time, with the German flag rising to the top, but Marcelo was by now a fully-fledged Brazil international. Pedro died a proud man.
Never in Pedro or the little boy on the beach’s wildest dreams would Marcelo have ended up as a legitimate candidate in the ‘best left-back ever’ debate, but that is exactly what his work ethic, optimism, indomitability and talent made happen.
More importantly, at least for Marcelo, is the fact that he and Roberto Carlos have become friends, ones who take every opportunity to praise the other. “He is the best full-back in the world and has more ability and quality that me,” Roberto Carlos has said of his replacement. “It’d be impossible to surpass Roberto Carlos, as he’s the best,” Marcelo responded.
In the end, to compare the two is perhaps a waste of time that could be better spent appreciating them for their nuances and individual stories. That is exactly what Marcelo hopes fans will do of him, saying: “I want to make history as Marcelo, not just as Roberto Carlos’ replacement.”
He has certainly achieved that.
By Euan McTear @emctear