Lucio is the world's best center back
You wouldn't expect a soccer player to start off one of the best years of his career by getting run out of his club. But in the case of Brazilian defender Lucio, the old adage holds: Few seem to know what they've got until he's gone.
Deemed a surplus at Bayern Munich last summer, the graceful defender moved on to Inter Milan. In Serie A, he picked up where he had left off after nearly a decade in the Bundesliga, stewarding the defense for the Italian champions. But it was the other title that Inter took back to Milan that caused many to see the veteran in a new light. Victory in the Champions League final meant personal vindication for the Brazilian against the very team that had cut him loose just months earlier.
Suddenly everyone was talking about the quality that has been plain to see for more than a decade.
At 32, Lucio has staked a claim to the title of best center back in the world. When they're doing their job, center backs don't get much attention. Greatness at the position means a long, steady climb to consistency through match after match of impeccable play.
Lucio is the epitome of that dependability, a guarantee in back that coaches can count on and plan around. Certainly there are younger center backs with more potential and others who are stronger in certain areas of the game or more renowned than the relatively soft-spoken Lucio. But few can be considered so consistently great.
The well-timed tackles, aerial domination and back-line leadership are all on par with the world's best, but Lucio does other things, too. Things central defenders shouldn't be able to do. Gliding freely around the field, he is eminently comfortable with the ball at his feet, and like his Brazilian teammates in midfield, he has an eye for a silky pass.
Consistency is also a forte. Lucio hasn't missed a minute at the World Cup since the 2002 tournament kicked off in South Korea. When Brazil kicks off Friday against the Netherlands, he'll be starting his 17th consecutive World Cup game. Along with his highly competent partner Juan, Lucio anchors one of the more solid defenses in the tournament.
With Lucio on the pitch in World Cup matches, Brazil has outscored its opponents by 28 goals (36-8). What's more, Lucio has been in Brazil's starting lineup for 14 World Cup victories (14-1-1), one short of the all-time high, currently shared by Ronaldo (15-3-1) and Wolfgang Overath (15-3-1).
In the discussion of Brazil's best ever at center back, Lucio may not overtake the legendary Carlos Alberto, who was just as good in the middle as on the right. But with three more wins in South Africa, Lucio would match his feat of skippering Brazil to a World Cup title. When Brazil takes the field in 2014, most likely without Lucio who'll be 36 by then, his contributions will perhaps become even more apparent.
Not that anyone in Brazil doubts the defender's importance -- it just seems easier to appreciate Lucio once he's gone.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.