Swashbuckling Marcelo set for surprise swansong with boyhood club Fluminense

Former Real Madrid defender out to capture fifth Club World Cup crown with his hometown team

Fluminense's Marcelo, centre, celebrates after their Club World Cup semi-final victory against Al Ahly FC in Jeddah on Monday, December 18. AP
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More than once or twice in the cut-and-thrust of the first Club World Cup semi-final, Al Ahly's Percy Tau had the better of his marker. But then again, to call Marcelo Vieira, one of the great full-backs of his generation, a "marker" is to use the term loosely. To call him a "full-back" is also to impose a false restriction.

The 35-year-old has always been far more than that. During Fluminense’s 2-0 win over Al Ahly, Marcelo produced a classic show reel of what still makes him so watchable.

Much of it was concentrated into his duel with Tau, the industrious winger who targeted the spaces Marcelo leaves behind him, but whose duties extended to policing the Brazilian’s favourite territory, midfield and onwards.

Al Ahly might have taken the lead when they capitalised on an error from Marcelo high up the field ten minutes before half-time. Tau, with Marcelo AWOL, had earlier sprinted into a position of menace from his right flank, snuffed out only by an excellent covering tackle from Felipe Melo.

Melo is even more the veteran than Marcelo, a robust 40, but it is the task of every centre-back who covers the lanes inside Marcelo’s wing to be vigilant, knowing that area may not always be under full patrol.

Over the best part of 18 years, coaches and colleagues of Marcelo have accepted you must take some rough with the smooth, acknowledging that the gains from Marcelo’s adventurousness far outweigh the losses. Over 80 minutes of Monday’s semi-final in Jeddah, Marcelo versus Tau had been compelling viewing for its ebb and flow, its risk and reward. On their duel the contest would swing.

With 19 minutes remaining before the final whistle, the semi was goalless, but Marcelo still had jet engines in his boots and his winger’s instincts were sharp. A dart into the Al Ahly penalty area drew an awkward challenge from Tau and Fluminense had a penalty. Jhon Arias converted. "Flu" scored their second goal in the 90th minute, once Marcelo had been given a rest, substituted to ensure he is in the best possible shape for Friday’s final.

It will be his fifth final in the Fifa competition, four of which he won in the colours of Real Madrid. Their wisdom in spotting Marcelo’s potential when he was a diligent teenager with a non-conformist streak and in his first Fluminense spell would be rewarded through almost 550 appearances. But back in early 2007, before he grew his hair long and was a fresh-faced new arrival in Madrid, there was scepticism about how he could possibly replace the club’s legendary left-back Roberto Carlos.

By the time Marcelo left Madrid, in 2022, lifting his fifth Champions League trophy as club captain, he had eclipsed Roberto Carlos in many respects. He was just as attacking a full-back but he thought not in straight, lightning fast lines; he could run a game from midfield, too, at ease in the middle of the pitch.

He was in many respects the kind of full-back Pep Guardiola – the City manager who for many years, while managing Barcelona, contested epic clasicos with Marcelo’s Madrid – likes to cultivate in his teams.

After Fluminense’s victory over Al Ahly, Marcelo’s head coach Fernando Diniz praised him for “making the difference”. Marcelo spoke of a decisive moment true to character. “I was trying to do something different,” he said of his face-off with Tau. “In my whole career, I’ve always tried to do something unexpected. The game was tight at that stage.”

A younger, showier player might have attempted a nutmeg on Tau. “No, that wasn’t my idea,” Marcelo told the broadcaster Globo. “I just thought of dribbling at him and getting into the penalty area to create a chance. I managed to get in front of him and the penalty was given. It was spontaneous.”

The celebrations at the end were vivid, Marcelo conspicuous in them. These are his bonus years, and more bountiful than he dared dream. After he said goodbye to 15 and half years at Real Madrid in 2022, leaving as the most decorated player in the club’s history, Marcelo had a brief spell at Olympiacos.

He then returned to Fluminense, where his senior career started, barely suspecting that within a year he would help them to the first Copa Libertadores triumph in their history, and with that, arrive at another Club World Cup.

Unlike in his Madrid era, Marcelo will not go into this final with the same sense of entitlement, the presumption of victory. But he will feature large in his opponent’s tactical plan. Yes, he’ll leave spaces that can be exploited. But you let him roam unguarded at your peril.

Updated: December 20, 2023, 10:01 AM