This game has the ability to both grant and refuse perspective. As we all get swept up in the alternate reality that is professional football, it can be easy to begin twisting the meaning of words and figures and to forget their true value. It can, for example, feel a little odd to cast a player not every fan perhaps will remember with love or even just fondness as a cult hero when he played for one of the most popular clubs in the world, because when you play for one of the most popular clubs in the world, even if only one in ten fans appreciate you, it’s still fifty million people who really really, really like you. Yet cult hero is the only way to describe Lucas Leiva.
Sometime around 2011, nearly half way through his Liverpool career, Lucas finally began to garner something like mainstream support among Reds fans, a first for him since arriving at Anfield. He had been maligned up until that point, mostly for the simple crime of not being Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, or Javier Mascherano. The former Gremio attacking midfielder didn’t possess the thunderous shot, the omniscient vision, or the devastating sliding tackles of his teammates. Thus, he was branded useless by some, or, if he played in their stead—as he did a full 120 times in three years under Rafa Benítez—a saboteur. When things didn’t work, for many Lucas was the reason why.
Then, Rafa was sacked. The dominant midfield triumvirate departed for Real Madrid, Barcelona, and the treatment table. In their place was calamity. New signings arrived and things went from bad to worse. David N’Gog. Paul Konchesky. Christian Poulsen. With leadership elsewhere at the club seeming either malignant or inept, Lucas Leiva stepped up; he provided stability. Kenny Dalglish yielded inspiration, and ultimately, salvation, and as the dust settled on the most tumultuous season in Liverpool’s recent history, Lucas had emerged as one of the club’s most important players, earning widespread plaudits and taking the fans’ Player of the Year trophy.
The next season, he was dominant. No longer merely a specialist providing a service only fans of players like Claude Makelele could appreciate, Lucas was moving faster, covering more space, marking tighter, intercepting quicker, tackling harder, and passing better. Fans gleefully recall his utter superiority over Yaya Toure at Anfield, the way he negated and outclassed a player then considered by many to be the premier defensive midfielder in England. But he also ran the pitch against Manchester United. He was dominant against Arsenal at the Emirates. He was the best player on the pitch against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, twice.
That second Chelsea display would mark the crescendo of Lucas’ career. A seemingly benign clash of knees—barely a whisper in the cacophony of collisions he had suffered that season—saw the Brazilian limp off the pitch. He would not return until the following season. The Reds—on CL qualifying pace at the time—averaged barely a point per game after the injury to their influential anchor as they limped to a disappointing mid-table finish.
Transfer talk and injuries became the dominant topics in subsequent years. A series of muscle injuries, undoubtedly connected to the damage in his knee and the extended layoff that followed, disqualified Lucas for selection, and when he took the pitch, he was clearly not the same. The game intelligence and understanding was there, but the ability to ruthlessly pull the trigger had diminished. Every six months an Italian club would be linked with the Brazilian, and every six months he remained, prepared to fight an increasingly tougher fight for his place in the side.
With his footballing impact subsiding, Lucas took on a different position, that of the surrogate father. Always a sympathetic and likeable character, the transition was smooth, and Lucas’ role in integrating new South American players to the club and city holds the kind of intangible value that is too oft forgotten when appraising player’s worth. His delightful antics in club-directed media has further endeared him to his supporters, and, combined with his reduced first team minutes, softened the stance of his remaining detractors.
So here we are now, at an ending. One of those Italian transfer rumours has finally, ultimately come true. Lucas is moving to his grandmother’s country, and early signs are that Lazio fans seem intent on making his stay in the eternal city a pleasant one. It is likely the best solution for a player who was dropping down the depth chart at Liverpool but still wishes to contribute on a weekly basis at the top level. It is, objectively, a good thing for all parties; the right thing. That still isn’t enough to make anything other than sad.
Ten years. 346 apperances. 24,318 minutes. 7 goals. 21 assists. The tackles. The board games. That display against City. The utter disgust at a referee’s decision. The white ice creams. That dive into the crowd at Villa. The unluckees. The determination. That first goal. The loyalty. The manifestation of the club ethos. That speech. And all of that is why we like him.
In fact we fucking love him.
You’ll Never Walk Alone, Lucas Pezzini Leiva.