Copa America 2016: Casemiro could lead Brazil to glory
Cristiano Ronaldo ran. This was his moment. He, according to himself, envisaged it. Shirts off, body flexed. A fitness freak’s delight, a Cristiano fan’s dream. As the limelight fell on him for scoring the Champions League winning penalty, one man celebrated while trying to get a piece of the Portuguese.
That man was Carlos Henrique Casemiro.
When he was signed from Sao Paulo in 2013, many fans were cynical about the ‘absurd’ signing. 3 years later, however, the absurd signing became the pillar on which Real Madrid’s 11th Champions League glory stood.
People will laud Cristiano Ronaldo for the goals, Gareth Bale for the blazing runs, Luka Modric for his flawless passing and Keylor Navas for his acrobatic saves, but only a handful would admire the work done by the Brazilian.
He can’t score like the Portuguese, he is nowhere near as elegant as Benzema or quick as the Welshman, his passing is average at best and doesn’t compare to Croat’s exquisite range—but he can do something that no-one else could.
The next Makalele?
Claude Makelele was an important player in Real Madrid’s first Galactico era, contrary to what Florentino Perez believed at that point. While the likes Zidane and Raul got most of the limelight for their flashy displays, it was Makelele who sat in front of the defense and covered every inch of grass to guard the backline by winning back possession.
He wasn’t as good looking as David Beckham, neither was he as flamboyant as Luis Figo – he was the antithesis of a Galactico, yet he was their most important player. So when he was sold and David Beckham was brought in, Zidane a Real Madrid player then, exclaimed that they had sold the engine of a Bentley in order to get the car painted with gold.
And, as it turned out, he was right. It took Real Madrid 12 more years to win their next Champions League title. In the 3 years that Makelele played for the club, the Blancos won a staggering 7 titles which included 2 La Ligas and a Champions League. In the next 14 years, they could amount only 10 more.
What made Makelele such an important player was his ability to win back possession and avert danger even before it arose. He could sense the next move of a player by just absorbing the situation around him—which is why his defensive positioning was considered the best during those years.
With a lot of practice, one can improve his passing, finishing, dribbling and tackling. However, no amount of hard work can teach a defensive player where he should be on the pitch at any given time—that’s just based on pure instinct.
And it is this instinct that Casemiro possesses in abundance.
Casemiro's importance to Real
The turning point of Real Madrid’s season was their win against Barcelona. In that game, Lionel Messi was suffocated for 90 minutes by the Brazilian’s hassling presence. He gave the Argentine no time and space on the ball as the Ballon d’Or holder had one of those rare games where he couldn’t stamp his authority,
It wasn’t only Messi, however, for anyone who got in his marking zone—be it Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta or Ivan Rakitic—got halted by the wall of Casemiro. In the end, Real Madrid won the game 2-1 and that’s when their season began to take a turn for the better.
The Clasico made Zidane fully aware of his importance. Since then, the Brazilian has never found himself on the fringes. Indeed, the Galacticos, under Zinedine Zidane, lost and drew a game each with the Brazilian in the starting line-up – winning all of the rest.
So, what does the Brazilian – majority of whose passes are either backwards or sideways -do that makes him such an important player?
The eccentric English manager, Ian Holloway, was once criticized for using defensive players in midfield. Not one to sit back and quietly take in unjustified criticism, he retorted: "It’s all very well having a great pianist playing but it’s no good if you haven’t got anyone to get the piano on the stage in the first place, otherwise the pianist would be standing there with no bloody piano to play.”
The essence of this quote depicts the importance of Casemiro. Real Madrid have way too many fine piano players, ranging from Toni Kroos to Karim Benzema. In fact, each and every player in the squad -apart from the defenders and goalkeepers – are great with the ball at their feet.
However, someone needs to get that ball to their feet in the first place – and that is what Casemiro specializes in.
While Cristiano Ronaldo stole most of the limelight in the final of the Champions League against Atletico, Casemiro quietly went about doing his job, playing his heart out. His heatmap is an art in itself; a depiction of selflessness and passion.
His willingness to do the ‘dirty work’ for his team-mates—and doing it incredibly well while at it—makes him the most important player from a tactical viewpoint.
In last year’s Copa America, despite coming off the back of a great season with Porto, Brazil coach Dunga made the mistake of not playing him—something that backfired at him. This year, he goes with an enhanced reputation, and the Brazil coach—a great holding midfielder himself during his time as a player—would have to be a fool to avoid him this time around.
Brazil go to the tournament as favourites. However, with injury to Douglas Costa, and Neymar opting to play in the Olympics instead, their attack might be depleted, but they still have the most balanced side in the tournament.
And Casemiro’s presence at the base of their midfield is just what is needed to lead them to glory.