Maxwell: the most decorated club footballer in history

Maxwell: the most decorated club footballer in history

“He’s the best guy in the world,” claims Zlatan Ibrahimović. “He’s a great person, with a big heart,” Unai Emery says. “He’s just a classy man,” Zoumana Camara puts it. Ask anyone in the world of football to describe Maxwell – full name Maxwell Scherrer Cabelino Andrade – and they’ll usually talk of how kind a human being he is, way before they mention his talents as a sportsman. The recently-retired Brazilian left-back is the most decorated club footballer of all time, yet he is still best known for his character. That is quite the compliment, but it also says something about his career.

Maxwell’s legacy is a curious one. That he has won 37 titles in his 35 years on this planet is fascinating. That he barely registers as one of football’s all-time greats is even more so. Pay a visit to Maxwell’s Wikipedia page and the website even has to state that he is a footballer in brackets. Not only is Maxwell not the most famous footballer, he isn’t even the most famous Maxwell.

Looking at the clubs where he racked up his medal haul, it’s clear that he played for some of the biggest in the world before hanging up his boots at the end of the 2016/17 season and, more importantly, he always seemed to find his way to the best team in each league he played in.

For many, Maxwell is little more than a glory hunter in footballer form, from joining Holland’s biggest club Ajax at the beginning of the century to moving to Inter just as they kicked off their five-in-a-row era to jumping ship to Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona to taking part in Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatar-funded project. That viewpoint, however, discredits what Maxwell brought to the table for each of those teams, both on the pitch and off it. It’s assumed that Maxwell won so much because he played for Ajax, Inter, Barcelona and PSG. But maybe, just maybe, Ajax, Inter, Barcelona and PSG won so much because of Maxwell.

Before he began his trophy hoovering of Europe, Maxwell plied his trade for Cruzeiro in his native Brazil. He was born in Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, in Espírito Santo, a state which cannot boast the same footballing traditions as other parts of the country, but he then moved to Cruzeiro’s academy in Belo Horizonte as a teenager. At the age of 18, he enjoyed his first taste of glory as Cruzeiro won the 2000 Copa do Brasil, although it should be noted that a young Maxwell didn’t play a minute of the tournament. Instead, he watched on as the team which had claimed the Copa Libertadores just two years previously marched towards the title, seeing off São Paulo in the two-legged final.

While he may not have got on the pitch much for the Cruzeiro senior side, his performances at youth level were impressive enough to catch the eye of Ajax, who scouted him at a tournament just as he was turning 20, bringing him to Amsterdam for the equivalent of €3 million. It was in the Eredivisie that Maxwell first held down a regular position in a starting lineup, something he had been unable to do in Belo Horizonte given the experience ahead of him in the pecking order. 

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After making his debut in August 2001, in a 1-1 league draw against Roda, he took his first Champions League steps three days later, being thrust into the spotlight as his side aimed to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit in a qualifier against Celtic. Although the Dutch team won 1-0, it wasn’t enough and they had to settle for UEFA Cup football that season. Maxwell, though, had performed well on his first European night, which was all the more impressive given how daunting Celtic Park can be when that Champions League music plays.

Throughout the rest of that season, he was able to win the job as a starter over the older and more experienced Tim de Cler and he ended up playing 31 times, earning the eighth-most minutes as Ajax won the league for the first time in four years as part of the domestic double. He even clocked up more minutes than other stars such as Mido, Johnny Heitinga, Steven Pienaar and Zlatan Ibrahimović.

The latter, already a player of limitless promise, became one of Maxwell’s best friends in football, and in life in general. While one member of this odd couple was a striker from Scandinavia and the other a defender from South America, they were the same age, with Maxwell just five weeks older than the forward. Maxwell, though, could have passed as Ibrahimović’s father, as he was light years ahead of his friend when it came to maturity and to understanding how to fend for oneself.

“Maxwell came to Ajax at the same time as me, so he picked me up at the airport and I got to know him a little bit more,” Ibrahimović later recalled in an interview with Ligue 1’s official website. “After two weeks I called Maxwell and I said ‘I have problems’ and he was like ‘OK’. If you want to have a teddy bear you have Maxwell and I called him and I said ‘listen, I don’t have food at home, I need help’. He said ‘come to my place’ and he put me on the floor with a mattress to sleep. I was sleeping in his house for two weeks. I was hanging with him, eating food and driving to training together. Then, after one month, the first salary came and it became easier for me.”

That story demonstrates just how wise and how independent Maxwell was at the tender age of 20, even in a foreign land and with his own footballing development to focus on. Over the years he would become famous for the way he avuncularly looked out for his fellow teammates behind the scenes, as if he were a player liaison officer. This early interaction with Ibrahimović in 2001 offers an early glimpse at this low-key, but crucial, ability. The fact that Maxwell’s wife helped Julian Draxler to find an apartment in Paris 16 years later shows that the left-back never lost that capacity to sense when a teammate needed a helping hand.

Back during those early days in Holland, Maxwell was far more than Ibrahimović’s keeper. In fact, he initially enjoyed more on-field success at the Amsterdam ArenA than his Swedish friend. In 2002/03, Ajax won the Johan Cruyff Shield – the Dutch Super Cup – but they conceded their league and cup crowns. On an individual level, though, this was Maxwell’s true breakout year, as his game time increased further, so much so that he made the joint-most appearances of the entire squad.

If he had been a passenger during that 2000 Cruzeiro cup triumph, he was certainly no longer just along for the ride; at Ajax, he was one of the cornerstones of the team. In 2003/04, the league title was wrested back into red and white hands and Maxwell was voted the Dutch Footballer of the Year, just the fifth foreign player to ever claim the honour. Often playing from a more advanced position on the left wing, rather than at left-back, he showed he was a skilful and urgent dribbler, scoring two goals and providing six assists that Eredivisie season. His impact from his flank was major, as he helped his friend Zlatan to score 13 times that year, enough for the Swede to attract attention from other top clubs and to earn a move to Juventus.

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There was also significant interest in Maxwell’s talents, but he stayed put in the Netherlands for another two seasons, winning another domestic cup and claiming the Johan Cruyff Shield again, two trophies that give the Brazilian an edge over Ibrahimović in the medals count. The pair were, though, eventually reunited in Milan, with the Swede moving from Juventus to Inter in the summer of 2006.

Maxwell had su