Makelele's unfinished business
As Pierre Corneille put it: "In souls nobly born, valour does not depend upon age." The great French dramatist was talking about youngsters hitting their stride ahead of time, and football certainly has its fair share of those. What takes real effort, however, is not reaching the summit but staying there. And despite putting his body through 16 years of the professional game, Chelsea and France midfielder Claude Makelele just seems to improve with age.
Given his 35 years and fabulous club record, it is tempting to place Makelele among the generation of players who powered Les Bleus to glory at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO 2000. However, while his peers enjoyed those famous triumphs, Makelele was far from view, and only forced his way into the side after the champagne had all been consumed.
Unsurprisingly, he admits to regrets. "It's frustrating, but it wasn't the right moment," says the former Nantes man. "There wasn't room for everyone. The team was perfectly balanced, so why change when there isn't a problem?" At the time, the French midfield was the preserve of Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit, Christian Karembeu and a promising youngster making a real name for himself at Arsenal: Patrick Vieira. "Despite everything, I think I had the ability to fit into that side. I reckon I've got my fair share of responsibilities now. I may not be a world champion, but I'd say I fit into the team as if I was."
What undoubtedly made the pill even harder to swallow was the fact that the Zaire-born holding player won the first of his 66 caps as far back as 1995, in a goalless draw with Norway. Aged 22, Makelele had just celebrated winning Ligue 1 with Nantes alongside players such as Reynald Pedros, Patrice Loko and Japhet N'Doram, but was unable to earn himself a regular place in the national line-up. Frustratingly, the next five years yielded merely two further appearances.
While Les Bleus were collecting trophies, Makelele went about building his career in the same way he approaches matches: quietly, never drawing attention to himself. Following his excellent spell at Nantes, he experienced a tough season at Marseille and opted to try his luck in Spain with Celta Vigo.
Maké soon became El Monstruo (The Monster) in Galicia, one of the best defensive midfielders operating in La Liga. His performances went largely unnoticed back home, but Real Madrid had been paying close attention and were keen to sign a player to shore up their defence while their impressive array of attacking stars poured forward. Sharing the pitch with Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Raul, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, he bolstered his medal collection by winning the UEFA Champions League in 2002 and the Spanish championship in 2001 and 2003.
The tireless ball-winner remained in the shadows, though, his efforts never properly appreciated at a club teeming with those marquee names. Makelele responded by asking for a renegotiated contract that reflected his true value to the side, and when Madrid refused Chelsea wasted no time in offering him improved terms.
"Precision is the most important thing for the position I play in," explains the man himself. "You have to be physical, quick and have good technique. If you lose the ball, it can have irreversible consequences. ."
Real soon recognised the truth of those words. After the Frenchman left in 2003, Los Merengues spent four long years toiling away without a trophy - an eternity for such a huge club. Meanwhile, Chelsea raced to two Premier League titles and established themselves as one of the most fearsome outfits in Europe.
Makelele's exploits in the Spanish and English capitals rightly earned him another chance with the national set-up. After being recalled during the 2000-01 campaign, he quickly laid claim to a regular place in the starting XI, but that long-awaited personal breakthrough coincided with a desperately lean period for Les Bleus.
France's disastrous 2002 FIFA World Cup bid was soon followed by an uninspiring EURO 2004 effort, leaving a bitter taste in Makelele's mouth that led him to withdraw from the international stage along with Zidane and Lilian Thuram. "When I decided to stop, I thought the next generation was ready," says the Kinshasa native. "But it turned out that we still needed the older players for the important games. In that sort of situation, you need experienced players."
Precisely that sort of situation was not long in coming, with Raymond Domenech's men soon struggling to get to grips with their 2006 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign. Les Bleus seemed incapable of winning when it mattered and, facing the very real danger of missing out on the global showcase, they needed to find a solution fast.
What the country's fans never dared dream, however, was that it would come from their departed heroes, but in 2005 the French were left contemplating a miracle when the retired trio announced their comebacks. "We faced the challenge of getting the team qualified," says Makelele. "The conditions were far from easy but we pulled it off. We were the eldest and we succeeded in uniting everyone around us."
They almost went all the way too, only to stumble at the last hurdle against Italy in the Final. For their busy midfield dynamo, another chance to lift a trophy with his adopted homeland had gone.
Ending on a high
Many expected the disappointment of missing out on the world title in Berlin to push Makelele into international retirement for good, but the two-time champion in both Spain and England stayed on board to help France reach EURO 2008. "I'll be going to Switzerland and Austria to win, because I've never won anything with Les Bleus and I want to end my international career on a high," he announced the day after their qualification was assured. "That will be my last great thrill, because playing for France has become the highlight of my sporting life, no matter how late it happened."
At 35, the Chelsea veteran knows he will have to conserve energy to make an impression in the summer, but with Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard also competing for midfield berths he has every chance of giving his legs a rest. "I have an agreement with my coach," he says. "He knows how I have to limit my games. We've got a full squad. ."
Fortunately for the Blues - and perhaps unfortunately for Les Bleus - opportunities to take a breather risk being limited before the EURO gets under way, with the Londoners still in the hunt for Premier League honours and in the last four of the Champions League. The latter is a competition surely dear to Makelele's heart as well, as he is the only player to have reached the semi-finals eight times. The Frenchman graced the final quartet once with Nantes (1995-96), three times with Madrid (2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03) and is about to make his fourth appearance for Chelsea (2003-04, 2004-05, 2006-07 and 2007-08).
Few would bet against him adding to that tally either. "I don't feel the years creeping up on me and I train every day as if I'm a young man of 20," he says, eager to dismiss talk of calling it a day. "As long as I'm enjoying myself, why think about stopping?"