On Marcelo’s left thigh, just above the knee and hidden until he hitches up his shorts, there is a tattoo. A picture of the European Cup is inked into his skin. Below it are four numbers, four years, four moments when history was made: 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018. There is just about room for one more, which might come in handy because on Saturday night Real Madrid’s captain plays his last game for the club, and it is another European Cup final. One last date to be done.
Not that he’s feeling pressure. Oh, wait, yes he is. On Tuesday afternoon, when it was put to Marcelo that he’s a guy who never seems to get nervous, he back: “Eh? What? Who told you that?” Then he cracked up, giggling again — but this is serious, and so is he. There are always demands, and always pressure, he said, and having experienced those finals — having won four Champions League titles — doesn’t change that. “That has no weight at all in a final like this,” he insisted. “Every final we have had to almost die on the pitch and this will not be any different. We have to leave our soul out there.”
If he gets on the pitch, that is. Marcelo started against Espanyol a fortnight ago, leading out the team that had just won LaLiga, and came on against Real Betis on the final weekend, but that was more reward than requirement: a chance to say goodbye to the Santiago Bernabeu, which stood and handed him an ovation when he was introduced and the captain’s armband was slipped over his arm for what was likely to have been the last time.
Espanyol was only his fifth start in LaLiga this season. He has played just 99 minutes in the Champions League, spread across three substitute appearances. Nor is it only this season: in the past three seasons his league appearances read: 15, 16, 12. When Marcelo turned 34 in May, Isco put a message on social media wishing him a happy birthday alongside a photo of the two of them on the pitch together. It was hard to find a picture of when we played, Isco joked.
Santi Solari, Zinedine Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti: all of them concluded that Marcelo was no longer first choice, or even second sometimes. It has been a while now, the list of candidates given a chance ahead of him at left-back growing: Sergio Reguilon, Miguel Gutierrez, Ferland Mendy. When there have been absences, others have been deployed there instead of him: David Alaba, Nacho, even Eduardo Camavinga. Marcelo’s contribution has declined, the confidence in him too.
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At times, in truth, it has been easy to sort of forget that Marcelo was still there, maybe even to wonder how he was still there. There has been a vulnerability with him there that is borne out by the stats. Soon, he won’t be. He might even have gone sooner, but this way his career closes here, in another final.
Or does it? Because if everyone else thinks the end has come, Marcelo resists that. It hasn’t always been easy to manage his decline: in a season in which Ancelotti has talked about having no dressing room problems at all, Marcelo has been as close to one as anyone else. He mostly accepts his role even as he wants more, but it has not been simple to assimilate and he resists calls for time. It is worth noting that one of his Champions League appearances was against Chelsea. He came on at 3-0 down and Madrid out; it finished 3-2, with Madrid through.
His contract is coming to an end, no offer to renew, but he would rather stay: even on a smaller salary, a peripheral part, maybe even a partly pastoral one, although he wants to play. This week he was talking about sitting on his sofa at home one day in the future and watching these kids play, thinking: they’re good. Thinking, too, about his role in helping them get there.
Just not yet. He has put his departure on hold, or tried to. He has felt that the club are bringing his time to a close when he’s not willing to walk away and, put bluntly, he’s not happy about it. During the Betis game there was a nice moment when Joaquin ran at him; looking at the photo, it could have come at any time since 2007. After that game, though, there was no formal farewell, not least because he resists the idea that it is a farewell at all. Asked this week what would happen next, he replied: “Do you know what’s going to happen tomorrow?
“Me neither. So…”
“Do you have an idea of what you want?”
“Yes. I have a clear idea. I have a clear idea.”
“That you want to stay?”
“I have said 50,000 times, but you’ll find out.”
Whatever happens, the final comes first. It is his fifth.
In the first of them, Marcelo didn’t start — Ancelotti had decided that Fabio Coentrao was the better option — but he did come on after an hour and score. “An explosion of pleasure,” he called it. “I don’t know, it’s something that’s impossible to explain. A film plays in your head from when you were little, all in five seconds. It’s madness.” In the other three he played every minute, scoring in the shootout in Milan in 2016. The only player who didn’t join training at the start of the week, he will be fit, but it is possible, maybe even likely, that he doesn’t play a minute in Paris.
Which might make it a bit weird to dedicate him these lines, but if this is to be the end, it is a moment that should be marked. We’re talking about the best left-back in Real Madrid’s history.
Now, some of you might well be putting a foot through the screen at the suggestion. Some of you might be screaming: No, we’re not. This, after all, is the club that had Roberto Carlos. And you might even be right. But the fact that it is even possible to make the case makes the case. To even be considered alongside Roberto Carlos, the player he had the enormous task of replacing and somehow succeeded in doing so, speaks to Marcelo’s impact. And go back to his leg:
Four European Cups.
That’s more than Roberto Carlos. Marcelo has played more games than Roberto Carlos, too: 546 to 527. Karim Benzema is the only foreign-born player ever to make more appearances for Madrid. This is Marcelo’s 16th season, and you aren’t just given those. (Even if the past couple of seasons might sometimes have felt a little like that to his critics.) “I live the moment and this is one of them: to play so many years at the best club in the world,” he says. There have been 38 goals, 103 assists and loads of winners’ medals.
Win on Saturday and Paco Gento will be the only player anywhere in the world to have won more European Cups. When it comes to major trophies, Marcelo had already overtaken Gento — there was a fun moment not long ago, a glimpse of Marcelo’s pride, when he and a radio reporter argued about whether the pair were actually level or if he was in front. The club and the radio reporter, unlike others, had included The Small Club World Cup from 1956. Marcelo’s irritation made it very clear how much he cares about history, his legacy.
Win on Saturday and there will no longer be any debate. In any case, he has won 24 trophies, including six league titles and four European Cups. No one in Madrid’s history has more. If this is to be the end, it is a moment that should be marked.
Nor is it just the numbers, although they help to make a case, which outline a legacy. It is about the way he played. The technique and the temperament, too. The sense that this was something to be enjoyed — even though this is a serious business where fun is seen as suspicious. Like you’re not supposed to smile, or enjoy it. Marcelo challenged that, he didn’t conform, and that is to be celebrated. It is not even as if he was the classic attacking full-back, flying up the outside. His game was about coming inside, the touch on the ball, the five-a-side player in him. It was fun and different.
Players like him are subjected to scrutiny that the steady full-back never faces, as if attacking, being creative, is a crime. A liability, is the line. And there are moments, it is true, easily outlined and seized upon, taken down and used in evidence against him.
There’s a lovely line from early in his career when he was admitted: “I go, I go, I go and sometimes I forget to come back.” But you make a choice, and for more than a decade at the most demanding club of all, he was the right choice. You don’t achieve what Marcelo has achieved if you’re not an exceptional footballer, a man who changes games for the better, again and again, if you’re not serious, competitive too. If you can’t defend. Above all, if you can’t playand Marcelo played. You don’t make it to games like this, the biggest of them all. Marcelo is about to play his fifth.
Ancelotti this season has talked about the value of defenders who are pessimists, who expect the worst. Marcelo was always an optimist. Just look at the space he left on his leg.