By Liam Twomey
It may only be when he arrives back in England that David Luiz will have time to reflect with an incredulous smile on the fact that, while he has had to travel 12,000 miles in search of glory and the fulfilment of a dream with Chelsea, he needed only to move 20 yards up the pitch to earn respect.
Since the Blues’ cantering 3-1 victory over Mexican champions Monterrey in Thursday’s Club World Cup semi-final in Yokohama, the British footballing media have been falling over themselves to herald the Brazilian’s effortless shift from defence to midfield as a kind of spectacular epiphany, the second miraculous masterstroke of Rafa Benitez, after the ‘resurrection’ of Fernando Torres.
In truth, Luiz showed the same array of qualities and weaknesses which have defined many of his performances in a Chelsea shirt: muscular tackling, dodgy positioning, an impressive array of passing and the occasional lapse in concentration.
He had a good game against a side which almost certainly would not have been able to live with two-thirds of the teams in the Premier League. But with one raking pass through for Eden Hazard early in the first half he became, in the eyes of journalists scrambling around for a profound narrative from a distinctly un-profound contest, a man reborn.
Such a turnaround in perception is remarkable for a footballer who, since his arrival at Stamford Bridge from Benfica in January 2011, has been perhaps the most unfairly maligned foreigner in the Premier League.
References to Sideshow Bob and 10-year-olds on games consoles have been harsh, but understandable. Stereotypes remain the dominant currency among those who cover English football, and Luiz, to put it mildly, is not your stereotypical English centre-back. In fact, with his long, curly flowing locks, relentlessly flamboyant style and laid-back demeanour, he is tailor-made to upset the traditionalists.
On these shores, the defining image remains of a bandaged Terry Butcher barking instructions at his England team-mates, booting away anything and anyone who came near him while seemingly trying to bleed, shout and point his way out of a corner against Sweden in 1989.
Many simply are not ready to reconcile themselves with a defender who looks like a rockstar and occasionally has the temerity to try and beat three men before smashing the ball into the top corner from 30 yards.
Entertainment, we are told, is not meant to be part of a defender’s job description. Yet many of those who claim Luiz lacks the discipline and grit to be a world-class centre-back follow it up with the remarkably misguided contention that this somehow makes him more suited to the holding midfielder role. Tell that to Claude Makelele with a straight face.
The fact is that, wherever he plays, Luiz is a superb footballer – an exasperating one at times, but certainly no irredeemable liability. No liability could have mustered the astonishing defensive resistance he did against Benfica and Bayern Munich in the Champions League last season, in spite of a lingering hamstring injury restricting his movement in Munich.
Thursday’s shift to midfield is testament to his admirable versatility, not some defining moment in which he discovered his true path. His time in Brazil and Portugal is littered with examples of capable displays across the defensive line and in the middle of the park. As a youngster at Vitoria, he began life as a left-winger.
By taking a step no Chelsea manager has done before him, Benitez has given himself another viable option in an area which had been left desperately short-staffed in the wake of Raul Meireles’ summer departure, and the mystifying decision to loan Michael Essien to Real Madrid.
And with Oriol Romeu injured for the long-term and Frank Lampard still regaining full fitness, Luiz the midfielder may well be called on again fairly regularly in the coming weeks – perhaps starting with Sunday’s clash against Corinthians, his boyhood club.
The man himself is characteristically unruffled about where he plays. “All I want to do is help the team, no matter what my position is,” he told Fifa.com. “I love playing for Chelsea. I love playing. And I hope we can take the title.”
If Chelsea do triumph on Sunday, Luiz will forever be able to boast the title of ‘World Champion’. When he returns to England, he may also hope the new-found respect he has acquired lasts just as long.
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