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Black History Month: The Makélélé Role

Claude Makélélé defined the defensive midfielder role and all who come after him will strive to play like he did.

Barcelona v Real Madrid - Liga Photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images

If you were putting a team together, one of the key pieces would be a defensive midfielder. Any manager who was smart would get a defensive midfielder that played with strength, incredible vision, and could be the quarterback of both the defense and the offense. In short, you would need someone like Claude Makélélé.

Claude Makélélé, born in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), moved to the suburbs outside Paris, France when he was 4 years old. His father was an international player for Zaire, but Makélélé’s game was developed on those Parisian streets. He played well enough to sign for U.S. Melun’s academy when he was 15 years old. A year later, he moved to the academy of Stade Brestois.

While it was difficult for him to adapt to life in Brest, Makélélé still played well and caught the eye of Ligue 1 side FC Nantes, who signed him to his first professional contract at 18 years of age. He played at Nantes for 5 seasons, completely dominating in the middle as they won a Ligue 1 title in 1995 and got to the Champions League semifinals the next year.

Makélélé moved to Olympique Marseille for one year before moving to Spain, landing at Celta Vigo. He played there for two seasons before moving to Real Madrid in a move that was delayed by Celta wanting to get more money from Real for Makélélé’s services. Makélélé held out of Celta training until the move was pushed through, and he eventually joined the team that had just come off a Champions League win.

At the Bernabéu, Claude Makélélé made the transition from being a really good player to one of the most indispensable players on the planet. With him in the middle, Real Madrid won 2 La Liga trophies and the 2002 Champions League. He was able to contribute on offense with his crisp passes and his ability to run in space with the ball. He was also a bull on defense, with aggressive tackling, running the defensive shape, and knowing exactly where everyone needed to be on the field. In 2003, Makélélé took his talents to England to join Chelsea, leaving several players at Real to comment that they were losing a key component of the team. It was at Chelsea that his true value took flight.

The “Makélélé Role” was born during his time in the Premier League with Chelsea, as he completely revolutionized how the defensive midfielder should play. He knew exactly what the balance of his team was and where everyone should be on the field. He could anticipate what the opposing team would throw at them and react to it with perfect timing. He knew when to go aggressively into a tackle or when to hold back and throw the opposition off. He had a cerebral approach to the game unlike any other, and it always seemed like the quiet Makélélé was always a couple moves ahead of the rest of the field.

Claude Makélélé played at Chelsea for 5 years, winning 6 trophies for the team, including 2 Premier Leagues. He eventually moved onto Paris Saint-Germain, concluding his club career in Paris in 2011.

Makélélé also made his mark on the French national team. He joined the team in 1995, but had not yet progressed to the point of being a starter by the time the 1998 World Cup came around in France. He also did not make the roster for Euro 2000, and it was the 2002 World Cup where he emerged as a starter in the middle for the French. In 2006, he teamed up with Patrick Vieira to form a dynamite defensive midfield for the 2006 World Cup. France would lose in the final of that tournament to Italy on penalties. He was basically irreplaceable in the middle for the French. Numerous times in his career, he opted to retire from the national team to focus on his club play, only for the national team to convince him to continue playing for them. He retired from the national team in 2008 with 71 caps for his national team.

Of course France wanted to keep calling in Claude Makélélé. When the “Makélélé Role” was created, no player did it better than him. Balance, intelligence, anticipation, passing, strength, possession, discipline, and energy defined his game. Now, it defines the position. He continues to be a major influence on the game, and every defensive midfielder who has come up after him is better served by mimicking his example. He wasn’t the flashiest player nor did he score a lot of goals. But, his teams became champions with him on the field. Makélélé’s role will live on the field, but no one will ever do it quite like him.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.