Claude Makélélé is arguably one of the players who best customised their roles in world football to the extent that the defensive midfield duty is termed as the ‘Makelele role.’
He won big at club level and some regarded him the most important Galactico. He played in France’s golden era. But did you know he never won a trophy with his country?
Having left DR Congo with his family, aged four, Makélélé grew to enjoy football in Brest, like many sons of African immigrants. He begun his professional career with the dominant Nantes side that won the 1994-95 French league and reached the 1995-96 Champions League semifinal, had a season at Marseille, before arriving at La Liga through Celta Vigo in 1998.
Here, Makélélé redefined the role of a midfield spoiler. Goals weren’t his thing but in Celta’s fruitful season, when they nearly qualified for Europe, Makélélé scored the winner in the first leg as Celta beat Real Madrid twice. Several clubs wanted him. Celta tried to stave off the suitors.
But the player was sure he wanted to go. And his move to Valencia was blocked, he refused to play. Then Real snapped him.
Teammates say Makélélé was the most important addition to the Galacticos, the backbone of a Real Madrid side that dominated Spanish and European football.
As such, after three seasons, Makélélé demanded more recognition in form of a better wage.
Real president Florentino Perez tried to belittle the player “who wasn’t a header of the ball and rarely passed the ball more than three metres. He wanted half of what Zidane is earning and that was not possible.”
But Makélélé was determined: He wanted more or out.
In this player-president cold war, Perez quipped that Real would not miss a player who lacked talent.
But even the very players Perez deemed special knew their boss was wrong. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” Zidane jibed at Makélélé’s departure to Chelsea and David Beckham’s arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2003.
Steve McManaman called Makélélé “the most important and yet least appreciated midfielder at Real.”
Legendary defender Fernando Hierro added: “he’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him.”
Proving his worth
With Makélélé doing his ceaseless dirty work in the middle of the pack and allowing the silky likes of Zidane and Luis Figo roam with flair, Real Madrid won seven titles in three seasons, including two La Liga trophies and the Champions League. Post-Makélélé, they struggled, enduring three seasons without a trophy.
In the 2002-03 season, Makélélé’s last in Madrid, Real scored 86 goals, conceded 42 to stave off Real Sociedad’s surprise quest, and won the league on 78 points.
The following season, they scored 72, conceded 54 and finished fourth in the league. Rafa Benitez’s Valencia took the league before beating Real in the Copa del Rey final. Real finished trophyless.
In 2004-05, in 52 games Real Madrid scored 93, conceded 46 as they surrendered the league challenge to Frank Rijkaard’s revamped Barcelona by four points.
The following season Real Madrid maintained second place in the league but fell a distant 12 points behind champions Barcelona, who also won the Champions League.
Meanwhile, Makélélé did not have to change his style to steady the Chelsea ship, as the Blues won their first league title in 50 years, on 95 points, 75 goals, conceding just 15. In 2005-06, Makelele scooped a second Premier League title with Chelsea.
When he joined PSG (2008-2011) his powers had obviously waned but he continued doing his thing, averaging over 30 games per season until he was 38.
Missing international honours
Makélélé’s debut with France came July 22, 1995, in a goalless draw against Norway. He, alongside Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord, played for France at the 1996 Summer Olympics, as they lost in the quarterfinals. But Makélélé and Wiltord did not make France’s 1998 Fifa World Cup winning squad.
However, Wiltord was among the stars as France won the Euro 2000, but Makelele was again overlooked by Aimé Étienne Jacquet’s replacement Roger Lemerre.
Conversely, his major tournament debut was the 2002 World Cup, which marked the end of France’s golden generation. Makélélé started the team’s final Group A match, which Denmark won 2-0 as France bowed out with just a point and no goal to their name, becoming the first defending world champions to fail the group hurdle.
At Euro 2004, Makélélé and company had a chance to make amends. The midfielder started most of France’s four matches as Les Bleus led Group B that also had England, Croatia and Switzerland. But they lost the quarterfinals to eventual surprise champions Greece 1-0.
With another major trophy missed, Makélélé retired from international football at 31.
But nearly a year later, in 2005, he alongside Zidane and Lilian Thuram reversed their retirement to help France qualify for the 2006 World Cup. They sealed the deal. And in Germany, Makélélé replicated his tireless brilliance as a midfield spoiler that had won Chelsea back-to-back league titles to aid France’s quest for another World Cup.
En route, they knocked out Spain, world champions Brazil and Euro 2004 finalists Portugal.
Sharing defensive roles with Patrick Vieira in midfield strengthened France, who conceded just three times in seven games, enjoying four clean-sheets, a tally only second to eventual world champions Italy.
It was the closest Makélélé had come to winning a major trophy with France, ruined in part by Zidane, the tournament’s best player, who turned villain in the final, head-butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi in extra time. France – and Makélélé – lost in the shootout.
Again, Makélélé pulled off the national jersey. But returned to help France in the road to Euro 2008.
At the tournament, Raymond Domenech’s side depleted of Zidane, and others, were the opposite of their 2006 solid self, conceding six goals and scoring just once in three Group C matches.
Italy were none the better. But when the two limping giants met in the decider, with just a point apiece, Makélélé and company, ended up second time unlucky, losing 2-0 and dropping out in the group.
Makélélé retired, again, this time for good.
On the pitch, Makélélé was not a hothead like Roy Keane or Vieira. But he always knew when and how to fight for his rights. And justice fell in his favour.