If you look in any successful team, past or present there is one thing you will always see. A spine of key players throughout the field who are ever present and produce solid performances, week after week, leading their team to league titles, Champions Leagues and World Cups.
Take the Chelsea team under Mourinho – Cech, Terry, Makelele, Lampard and Drogba. All players ever present and vital to the team’s success. Or the Real side of Sanchez, Helguera, Makelele, Figo, Ronaldo – actually in that side any of the attacking players could be considered part of the spine they were that good – but for all the plaudits the forwards get or all the recognition afforded to great defenders of those teams, one player goes unnoticed throughout. It is that of Claude Makelele, who played as a defensive midfielder.
Claude Makelele stood at 5 foot 7 inches tall, yet was ferocious and efficient enough on the field to have a position named after him during the Mourinho years at Chelsea. So what makes Makelele so special and why now has it become essential to have someone in the ‘makelele role’ in the modern game?
The Frenchman himself offers insight into this, saying that ‘You need to know what your role is, and one of the keys to the role is to keep the balance of the team right.’
Playing at both Chelsea and Real Madrid who possessed a wealth of attacking talent during the time Makelele was there meant that his role in the team was crucial. He had to be there to slip in at the back should a player go forward or to cover and protect the back four when the other midfielders were moving forward.
This is something Makelele did to such an effect that when contract time came around at the Santiago Bernabeau, galacticos such as Figo and Zidane told him to seek improved terms on parity with themselves. Perez refused and Maka was sold to Chelsea. Three things happened after this. Real suffered a sharp decline in form and looked a shell of the side they once were, Chelsea’s team became one of the very best in the world (although this may have also had something to do with a certain Special One) and Zidane questioned ‘why put another layer of gold on the Bentley when you are losing the engine?’
It is this remark that is the most revealing of all. Where ever Makelele has played, he has always done his job with minimal fuss, creating little attention for himself, yet literally becomes the engine of the team he plays for. The players around Makelele notice this, and appreciate that by doing his job well they are then allowed to push forward without worrying about holes left in the team for the opposition to exploit.
It is certainly a role that before Maka came along got little recognition, but the Frenchman revolutionised the role and demonstrated just how wrong Perez was when he called him ‘average’ and stated he would not be missed. How wide of the mark Mr Perez was – the entire culture of Real Madrid fell even further towards an outlandish galacticos approach and the team were worse off for it – to the tune of no major trophy for the three seasons after Maka had left.
The man Makelele credited with instilling a winning mentality at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho, made the remark that Real were ‘unbalanced’ and missing players who were understated, low profile and offend nobody – the epitome of what Makelele was throughout his entire career. The very example of a player, who went about their business quietly, got his point across without being obvious and was vital to the team’s success.
It speaks volumes that Real went through a lengthy period without success exactly when Maka was such an essential component to Chelsea’s, and Los Blancos tried to rectify this by signing Mohammadu Diarra in 2006, who was pivotal to winning the league title in 2007-2008. When Real questioned if they should off load Diarra, player power at the Bernabeau was for once a positive thing, as Guti, Raul and Ramos made it very clear that a repeat of selling Makelele was not about to happen and that although the holding midfielder may not be a ‘galactico’ he was certainly required – naturally once they had spoken Diarra was not sold.
In the modern game where players court controversy and attention on both the front pages and back, Makelele was a refreshing contrast, going about his business as quietly off the field as he did on it. He may have been quiet but the value and love for which his team mates held for Makelele is perhaps more significant than anything else.
All football fans will remember the joy on both the Chelsea player’s and manager’s face when after missing one of the worst penalty’s ever taken against Charlton, Makelele scored the rebound with his shin and got an elusive goal for himself. More than that however, those Chelsea players will remember how important Makelele was to their team, how well he did the simple things and just how heavily he contributed to their subsequent success.
Although there may be much to be said for the shirt sales of a ‘galactico’ such as David Beckham, there is so much more to be said about the role played by Makelele and more than that, the way he played it.