December 1, 2021

The quiet brilliance of Ricardo Carvalho

Portugal have produced an abundance of flair footballers who have wowed fans of the beautiful game playing for Europe’s biggest clubs over the past two decades. Somewhat overlooked, you can make a strong argument that bar one obvious exception, Ricardo Carvalho was as high an achiever as any of the many lauded Portuguese players who have thrived on football’s biggest stages this millennium.

So how come the plaudits generously showered on the likes of Luís Figo, Nani and Bruno Fernandes are conspicuous by their absence when it comes to Carvalho? Firstly, he plied his trade at the distinctly unsexy position of centre-back. Furthermore, his on-field and off-field persona screamed “low profile”. This combination goes a long way to explaining the relatively muted level of adulation he has garnered, which is entirely unbecoming of his magnificent career.

We are, after all, talking about a key contributor to quite possibly Chelsea’s greatest ever team, a fundamental cog in certainly FC Porto’s greatest ever team, a winner of 7 domestic championships in 3 different countries, and a Champions League and European Championship victor.

Different partners, same result

Great centre-backs are often remembered as one-half of great centre-back partnerships. It is a further testament to Ricardo Carvalho’s extraordinary proficiency that he became the perfect foil to various partners who had vastly different playing styles. The Ricardo Carvalho-Jorge Costa pairing and the Ricardo Carvalho-John Terry partnership are the stuff of legend at the Estádio do Dragão and Stamford Bridge respectively.

At the international level, Carvalho shined intensely for Portugal in successive tournaments alongside Jorge Andrade (Euro 2004), Fernando Meira (World Cup 2006), Pepe (Euro 2008) and Bruno Alves (World Cup 2010). No matter who was alongside him, Carvalho was always able to forge a formidable barrier at the heart of the defence.

With the possible exception of Andrade, in all the above-mentioned partnerships Carvalho was considered the less dominant centre-back, perpetuating a common theme of his career whereby the spotlight is more focused on his teammates. Yet Carvalho’s speed of recovery, sense of anticipation and the elegant efficiency with which he “put out fires” often masked his fellow centre-back’s shortcomings or positional indiscipline. Is it too simplistic to claim that Carvalho’s brains covered for his partner’s brawn? The ever-modest Carvalho himself would probably say his game simply complemented that of the more rudimentary style of central defender alongside him.

Playing style

Unruffled and unperturbed, even when facing the most ferocious, most cunning or most gifted of opposition forwards, watching Carvalho was like watching the task of defending turned into an art form, a player for whom the football pitch appears his natural habitat. At 1.83 cm (6 ft, 0 in) and without the imposing build that defines many central defenders, Carvalho used his football IQ as much as his physical attributes to get to the very top. His anticipation and perfect timing made it almost impossible to surprise him through stealth, speed or strength. It was highly unusual to see him beaten one-on-one, while his concentration levels and positional intelligence meant he was always in the right place.

Yet it would be wrong to say physicality was not a significant part of his game. Carvalho was no slouch. Although rarely out of position, rapid recovery speed was in the tank when needed, his tackling was crisp and his aerial game were so strong (at both ends of the pitch) you would not assume he was shorter than the majority of centre-backs. To top it all, when Carvalho had inevitably blunted another attack, his distribution was as effective as his defending, his accurate and expeditious passes executed with the minimum of fuss.

All the while maintaining an on-pitch elegance completely at odds with the rigours and brutality of elite-level modern football.

The Mourinho factor

Born in the picturesque northern Portuguese city of Amarante in 1978, Carvalho began his career playing for his hometown club, where he caught the eye of FC Porto who signed him in 1996. There was initially little sign of the stellar career that would ensue. Carvalho was successively loaned out to a series of clubs to develop. Only in 2001/02, as a 23-year-old, did he break into Porto’s first team, forming an effective partnership with Jorge Andrade, which would later be re-established to brilliant effect at Euro 2004.

It would be the following season, however, with a brash, young, up-and-coming coach called José Mourinho in the dugout, that his career took off. Andrade moved to the Spanish side Deportivo La Coruña and Carvalho formed a partnership with legendary Porto centre-back Jorge Costa, who had returned from a brief spell abroad. What followed were the greatest two years in the club’s illustrious history.

During an astonishing run of success, Porto won every trophy going bar one: two league titles, the Portuguese Cup, the Portuguese Super Cup, the UEFA Cup and culminating in the biggest club trophy in world football, the Champions League, in 2004. Only one Portuguese Cup escaped the all-conquering Dragons in a two-season spell that will surely never be matched, and Carvalho was at the heart of it. Carvalho’s name was not shouted from the rooftops as loudly as others in that great Porto team, such as midfield maestro Deco, club legends Jorge Costa and Vítor Baía, or Mourinho himself. But his brilliance could not go unnoticed, and Carvalho was duly anointed with the UEFA Best Defender of the Year Award in 2004.

Chelsea years, Kryptonite defence

José Mourinho was headhunted by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and took over the London team, making an immediate and explosive impact. When historians of the Blues write about this period, which catapulted Chelsea to become one of the strongest clubs in Europe, they should not neglect to mention Carvalho’s role. Mourinho made his trusted central defender his first signing, the €30 million bid seeing off other offers from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United who were all vying for his signature. Carvalho would go on to form one of the greatest central-defensive partnerships in the history of the game, next to John Terry.

In the 2004/05 season, Chelsea conceded a miserly 15 goals in the league in the entire campaign as they romped to the first of back-to-back Premier League titles. It is the fewest goals conceded in a full EPL season and the record stands to this day. John Terry is one of the pillars on which the Abramovich-era Chelsea dynasty has been built, but the former England international admits his partnership with Carvalho was key to the success:

“It’s one of those records [the 15-goal season] that could be around for a very long time. As soon as Rickie came through the door, we just struck up a relationship. We complemented each other really well. I knew things were going to go well. Once you play a few games and you train with top players, you realise just how good they are. I knew straight away that we had something very special.” – John Terry (Sports Gazette, November 2020)

At Stamford Bridge Carvalho continued to accumulate silverware, lifting three championship titles, two league cups and two Community Shield trophies. Terry won the UEFA Best Defender of the Year Award three times in this period, but still today many argue Carvalho was as deserving of the distinction as his partner in crime.

In truth, given their very different approaches to defending (Terry uber aggressive, Carvalho more reliant on stealth), it is pointless to claim one is better than the other, and it was this very contrast in styles that made it such a perfect partnership, as Carvalho himself explains:

“Our connection was something else – if he didn’t clear a ball, he knew that I’d cover him and vice-versa. We complimented each other on the field. It’s a real privilege in football to be able to play next to a guy you fully trust. We clicked straight away. John was a tremendous defender, a true leader and someone whose opinion I valued a lot.” – Ricardo Carvalho (FourFourTwo, July 2021)

Carvalho had a hugely successful career spanning two decades, but it was in those two final years at Porto and the 6-season spell at Chelsea that he was at his peak, during which time he was without question one of the best defenders in world football.

Into his 30s, Carvalho’s time in London came to an end as he linked up with Mourinho at a third club by signing for Real Madrid in 2010. His first season was his most successful from an individual standpoint in the Spanish capital, as he clocked up 48 appearances and scored three goals for the Merengues. Injuries than began to catch up with the now 33-year-old. Carvalho played little in the following two seasons, although he did contribute to Real Madrid’s famous La Liga triumph in 2011/12, when alongside compatriots Ronaldo, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão, the defender helped Mourinho’s team overcome what many consider to be the greatest club side of all time, the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola and Messi.

He left Spain in 2013 but such was Carvalho’s appetite for the game that he continued to play at a high level for three further seasons, making 118 appearances for Monaco, before ending his career with a brief stopover in China.

International career

Ricardo Carvalho was given his international debut by Luiz Felipe Scolari in October 2003, playing in one of a series of friendly matches as Portugal prepared for the 2004 European Championship as the host country. The opening match of the tournament brought a shock defeat for the Seleção at the hands of Greece. Carvalho was watching from the bench. Scolari shook things up immediately for the second match, bringing in Carvalho for Fernando Couto and that was that. Portugal beat Russia 2-0 to get their campaign back on track, with Carvalho and Jorge Andrade resuming their partnership from Porto two years previously. The two immediately clicked as if circumstances had never separated them, forming a superb duo.

Portugal had been establishing themselves as an elite international team, having embarked on an exhilarating run to the semi-finals of Euro 2000. The Euro 2004 tournament was every bit as exciting, with the football-crazy nation besides itself with emotion and excitement as the Seleção put in successively more convincing performances to go one better and reach the nation’s first-ever major final, only to suffer heartbreak and lose unexpectedly to nemesis Greece. A country wept, but the Seleção had given their fans a memorable month and Ricardo Carvalho had firmly established himself as a key component of the team. He would be the first-choice centre-back for Portugal for the best part of the next decade.

Two years later and Carvalho was again shining on the very highest stage, as Scolari’s Portugal reached the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. By comparison, Portugal and Carvalho’s next two tournaments were disappointing, bowing out in the quarter-finals at Euro 2008 against Germany and the round-of-16 against Spain in the South Africa World Cup in 2010.

Exile and renaissance

As Portugal regrouped ahead of Euro 2012, and now under the management of Paulo Bento, a shocking incident took place ahead of a qualifying match against Cyprus which brought an abrupt interruption to Carvalho’s international career. Bento let it be known Carvalho would not start the match, a decision that left him fuming, with the central defender storming off the training pitch and speeding off in Fábio Coentrão’s car, still in his kit. In the subsequent days, neither party offered the hint of an olive branch, leading to an irretrievable breakdown in the relationship between tough disciplinarian Bento and Carvalho, with the coach stating: “Carvalho will never play for Portugal again while I am a coach.”

And so it was. After 75 caps and outstanding service to his country, Carvalho’s career had seemingly been curtailed in the most dissatisfying of circumstances. However, three years later, Fernando Santos replaced Bento as Portugal coach and in his very first competitive match, he recalled Carvalho for the tricky trip to Denmark, with the Seleção playing catchup after the shock home defeat to Albania in the opening qualifier.

How did Carvalho respond? With a man-of-the-match display as Ronaldo’s last-gasp header gave Portugal all three points in Copenhagen. The veteran defender was back and performing as if he had never been away, playing in 6 of the remaining 7 qualifiers, with Portugal winning them all, and it was no surprise when Carvalho was named in the Euro 2016 squad. At 38 years of age, Carvalho became the oldest outfield player to represent Portugal at a major tournament. He played the three group games, and although he was then replaced by José Fonte for the remainder of the tournament, it was fitting that Carvalho was part of the setup at Portugal’s finest hour as a footballing nation as the Seleção stunned France in the final to become Champions of Europe.

Ahead of his time

Interpreting a recent interview summing up his career, one can conclude from Carvalho’s own words that he was a player ahead of his time.

“I wasn’t one of the tallest, but I had aerial reach, read the game very well and was intelligent, so I anticipated plays. Above all else, I enjoyed being a defender and doing what I did.

“When I was climbing up the ranks at Porto, defenders were usually asked to clear the ball and avoid taking risks – but that wasn’t me. I liked to drive the ball forward. In my day, that was difficult; people at Porto said I was a defender and not required to do it. But now you see that centre-backs are asked to do what I did! Luckily I had the right coaches at the right times. They knew I could go far in my career.”

From becoming a European champion at Porto to a serial winner under the bright lights of London and Madrid, and tasting glory for his country in Paris, it’s fair to say the kid from the sleepy town in rural northern Portugal did not defraud those hopes.

Tom Kundert

Tom Kundert

Tom Kundert is the creator of PortuGOAL.net, the Portugal correspondent for World Soccer Magazine and the co-author of two books on Portuguese football.

View all posts by Tom Kundert →

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