The marauding brilliance of the free-spirited Lúcio

The marauding brilliance of the free-spirited Lúcio

Persistence has been the key to success for many top-level footballers, but few does it apply to quite so comprehensively than the unassuming and grounded Brazilian whose unwavering dedication led to glory. As a youngster, he refused to skip training sessions after long school days preceded by his paper rounds. Brought up in the small town of Planaltina, Lucimar Ferreira da Silva set his alarm for 5am every weekday morning to start his 16-hour day.

Thirty years and 750 professional appearances later, that regimented upbringing has unquestionably paid off for one of the most decorated footballers of the modern era. Lúcio successfully merged the renowned self-belief and flair so typically linked to his compatriots with concentration, discipline and an insatiable work ethic.

This was a player who followed tactical instructions to the letter but also one who led his teammates, marshalling his fellow defenders and seemingly reading the game as if he were watching it’s replay – rarely out of place and often bailing out those in trouble.

Famed for carrying the ball out from the back and into midfield, Lúcio was perhaps the last true libero of the modern game. In a style made famous by Franz Beckenbauer, the Brazilian’s apparently effortless elegance striding into midfield and building his side’s attack was endlessly admirable in its self-confidence and fluidity. Teammates called him O Cavalo (The Horse) as a compliment to his galloping, bullish and frequent surging runs forward.

This often brought plenty of criticism to the languid defender with various pundits and commentators in his native Brazil questioning his judgement, believing his rugged and often heroic defensive work could not successfully be combined with adventurous forward play. His ambition also ended his spell at Bayern Munich in 2009 when Louis van Gaal decided his nature of bombing forward left his side too exposed and simply carried too much risk.

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Twelve months later, Lúcio’s new club, Inter Milan – whom he had joined in a deal worth a meagre £5 million – completed a historic treble by defeating Van Gaal’s Bayern in the Champions League showpiece. Before the German side’s players embarked on their thankless walk to collect their runners-up medals, they went to their former teammate to congratulate him on an imperious display. The Dutch coach did too, with the defender later admitting “he said some really nice things”.

Despite his achievements, critics were never far away and nowhere were they as scathing as in his home country. Captain for the 2010 World Cup, mere weeks after the Champions League showpiece, many highlighted his lapse in concentration which had let Michael Owen give England the lead in a knockout match eight years earlier. That he had been at the heart of arguably the best-drilled defence in European football for upwards of a decade made little headway.

In many ways, he was a peerless warrior at the heart of defence; physically imposing, often unbeatable in the air, relentlessly marking opponents, always in the right place and ensuring others were too. The Nerazzurri’s treble in 2010 was arguably his finest campaign – the Champions League success in particular saw him successfully shut out Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Barcelona’s Zlatan Ibrahimović, among others.

Lúcio’s first two seasons in Milan saw six trophies won under three different managers whilst his final campaign, as a 34-year-old, saw him make more interceptions than any other player in Serie A. Despite his advancing years, the powerful centre-back did not let his physical condition diminish as he participated in a remarkable 99 club matches across two seasons.

Starting his career as a target-man striker, coaches swiftly decided his qualities would be better suited to those of a defender. The first major move of his career came about in bizarre circumstances, when at 19 he was signed by Internacional after forming part of the Guará defence that had fallen to 7-0 defeat in their Copa do Brasil clash.

Lúcio’s stock rose sharply in his three seasons with the Porto Alegre club, winning his first international call up as a 22-year-old for his side’s participation in the Olympics Games. His strong club performances also saw named in the 2000 Bola de Prata side – the best individual players in the Campeonato Brasileiro – alongside Ronaldinho, Romário, Juan Pablo Sorín and Juninho Pernambucano, among other stars.

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A move to European football was inevitable for the highly-rated star and the following year saw him join Bayer Leverkusen, who were building a squad which they hoped would bring them a first ever Bundesliga title. His first full campaign promised to bring a remarkable treble to Die Werkself – five points clear of Borussia Dortmund in the title race with three games remaining alongside both a German and European cup final lying in wait.

Cruelly, their entire season fell apart and they ended trophyless after losing four of those five matches; missing out on the title by a solitary point and going down 2-1 to Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Glasgow. The Hampden Park final will forever be remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s iconic volley, but Lúcio’s impressive individual performance and thumping heading which brought the German side level saw his star continue to shine.

The international scene quickly alleviated the hurt felt by the centre half as he played every minute in Brazil’s World Cup triumph in Japan and South Korea – a feat matched only by goalkeeper Marcos and wing-back Cafu. His mistake against England ultimately did not prove costly and Luiz Felipe Scolari demonstrated his man-management acumen by publicly praising Lúcio and noting his presence as essential.

Bayer’s greatest ever side slowly split up and two years later Lúcio followed the path taken by teammates Michael Ballack and Roberto to join Bayern Munich. It was in Bavaria where he won his first league title; he would go on to win a further two at the club, totalling eight trophies in five seasons.

After eight years as a professional without any team honours, he was to receive a windfall – the 2005 Bundesliga was the first of 18 across a six-year period, and he amassed over 400 appearances in that timeframe. The defensive lynchpin of the best team in Germany and then the best in Italy, he was also leading Brazil upon another period of international success.

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The earlier World Cup triumph was followed by the 2005 Confederations Cup and the World Cup in Germany the following year saw the defender set a FIFA record by playing 386 consecutive minutes without committing a foul. Quarter-final elimination by France was a painful pill to swallow but manager Dunga swiftly installed him as team captain in its aftermath.

In many ways, the captain mirrored his manager, other than their substantial difference in height. Both were given their chance by Internacional, both made their name in German football, both were known for their understated yet influential on-pitch presence, and both led their country to success.

The duo led Brazil to more glory with victories in the 2007 Copa América and the Confederations Cup two years later, with Lúcio’s last gasp header defeating the United States in a pulsating final. The phasing out of star attacking talent saw a more functional Seleção fail to replicate their triumphs at the 2010 World Cup, which led to Dunga’s dismissal and the defender’s influence finally begin to waver.

Lúcio’s 100th and final international appearance came in September 2011 – 98 official caps were complemented by two appearances against club sides Lausanne and Sevilla, winning four titles across 11 years.

In 2012 Juventus signed the 33-year-old from their Italian rivals but the marriage never took off, with the defender returning to Brazil only six months and four appearances later. He spent a season each at São Paulo and Palmeiras before moving to FC Goa in 2015 to finalise his playing career in the Indian Super League.

Constantly referencing his Christian faith as the backbone to his playing career, fans of Brazil, Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Inter may wish they could turn the clock back and relive their trophy-laden years with the ever-calming, ever-present Lúcio – the last libero in the modern era – at their defensive heart.

By Colin Millar @Millar_Colin

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