Versions of this article can also be found over at BTL and as part of the GFFN 100 2018
Verging on his thirties after a disastrous season for then employers Wolfsburg, Luis Gustavo’s career was slipping towards it’s autumn without him having truly found a home. Nevertheless, success was forthcoming in Germany for Gustavo, albeit in the shape of medals rather than the adoration of supporters. In France with Marseille however, complete with shaggy new curls and a bristling mustache, he has quickly established himself as a cult hero - the ‘gentleman’ of the Velodrome. Now Gustavo has a shot at both affection and glory as well as an enduring legacy as a great of one of Europe’s most historic clubs.
Gustavo’s European career started apace back in 2007. Three impressive seasons at the emerging Hoffenheim had brought him to the forefront of the Bundesliga consciousness having arrived from Brazilian lower league outfit Corinthians Alagoano and helping his new German employers win promotion. A 20m euro move to the perennial champions Bayern Munich followed, a transfer that lead to then coach Ralf Rangnick’s departure, so infuriated was the enigmatic German to lose midfield general. However, despite an impressive trophy haul, Gustavo failed to impose himself with real regularity on the Bayern first team, particularly during the latter half of his three season stint at the Allianz Arena. Cash rich Wolfsburg made moved to add him to their growing list of Bundesliga stars in 2013, here, at the Volkswagen arena, Gustavo enjoyed status as a squad leader.
However, injuries hit hard in the latter half of 2015 while Gustavo’s consistency, fitness and overall form had been on a downward trajectory in parallel to the fortunes of his club. This was not a surprise given his importance to the team’s successes. Valérien Ismaël, Wolfsburg coach at the time, had suggested that the Brazilian had lost an appetite for playing the game, something Gustavo actually alludes to. “He [Ismael] coached me at a time of my life that was particularly difficult,” reflected Gustavo in L’equipe, “There were situations at the club that I could not accept, so I went home to recharge my batteries, to come back more motivated.”
Gustavo arrived in Marseille during the 2017 summer transfer window for a fee of 10m euros and the Brazilian had an instant on his new Marseille team, both as a emotional leader and as a squad figurehead while his individual displays have been consistently superb, especially during his freshman year. A now relatively wizened, Gustavo naturally assumed the sizeable responsibility as a leader and talisman of the Velodrome club, often inheriting the captaincy when regular wearer of the armband, Dimitri Payet, was absent, and dictating midfield battles both in France and in Europe with a serenity and assuredness that OM have long lacked and had been desperately searching for.
"Luiz is a very intelligent player with technical, tactical and physical qualities," explained OM coach, a Ligue 1 winner at the helm of Lille in 2011, Rudi Garcia. "He's a leader. He does a very good job at playing out from the back. In fact, he can play anywhere as long as he's in the middle of the pitch." Gustavo’s impact has been so great that his stay on the French south coast could yet come to define an already decorated and vibrant career. Marseille are an almost prohibitively proud club boasting a rich history and France’s biggest fanbase while still fiercely arguing their case to be seen as the biggest in Ligue 1, despite PSG’s recent dominance and bottomless pockets. Their roll of honor makes for daunting reading: Deschamps, Papin, Voller, Barthez, Boli and Drogba all count themselves as members of an exclusive club, as greats of the cathedral that is the Stade Velodrome. Luiz Gustavo has a chance to, one day soon, join them. He may already lay some claim.
A sizable caveat to Gustavo’s rise on the South coast of France is that the credentials required to join the pantheon of Marseille greats has been eroded a little in recent times. Given the current level of investment and playing staff at Garcia’s disposal, Gustavo won’t be winning European cups or even Ligue 1 titles as Didier Deschamps did as player and then as coach but crucially, and in a short space of time, Gustavo has quickly embodied the fans’ unbridled desire for success and passion for their club while personifying the typical mix of panache and zeal that characterizes Marseille’s historical style of play.
Assuming that Gustavo can maintain his overall level and perhaps lead the developing ‘Champions Project’ to a domestic cup or perhaps Europa League silverware over the next few years, his status as a hero of the Velodrome would be confirmed. However, having come close last season in losing the Europa League final to Atletico Madrid, chances of that seem slim. OM, with Gustavo in it’s vanguard, may have missed their chance as the Brazilian edges towards the twilight of his career and the Champions Project ever-flattering.
Rudi Garcia, however, remains his shaggy haired midfield general’s champion. Having attempted to lure the Brazilian to his Roma side, Garcia finally got his man at Marseille, noting his obvious abilities as a leader and an all round consummate professional. "He's a gentleman and important in the locker room. He has charisma and a good relationship with everyone.” explained the Marseille coach. Meanwhile, upon Gustavo’s signing a delighted Garcia spoke of his potential influence on the squad as a whole, key to OM’s pursuit of the player. “It is above all about character, we have a very young midfield... we needed a boss and a player of this caliber to give this team a little more confidence.”
Caliber of character, as referenced by Garcia, has been the determining factor in bonding Gustavo so tightly and so quickly to the Velodrome faithful. “I’m someone very calm and positive.” explained Gustavo, “I’m always trying to help my colleagues, find the words that will aid morale. I always think of others, to be strong together with them.” His honest, humble and supportive persona is clear in his play at OM, so much so that the club’s various supporter groups support quickly devoted a song to their new hero, an honor to which Gustavo responded in a typically grateful manner: “My name has been shouted in stadiums before but a song to my glory? Never! It was really a pleasant surprise. I can only thank the fans by working even harder on the pitch.”
Despite an extraordinary first season at the Velodrome, the start of the 2018/19 season has been rocky for both Marseille and, in part, their moustached midfielder. Despite retaining their entire squad from last season, although admittedly meaningful additions were as rare as leavers, having challenged for second (and Champions League football) on the final day of the Ligue 1 season and battled through to the Europa League final in Lyon, Garcia’s Marseille and the much derided Champions Project, having finally made progress as a whole, have stumbled horribly this autumn. Already accruing more league defeats this season than they did in the whole of last season, OM have been largely dull and uninspiring while their Europa League group stage campaign ended in an an early exit and, embarrassingly, just a single point.
For his part, Gustavo has often been dropped into defence, playing as part of a pair or even a trio of centre backs. Although this initially was largely out of necessity, as Adil Rami missed a handful of games with a thigh issue while his usual partner, Rolando, also struggled to recover from a long term knee issue. Croatian World Cup squad making defender Duje Caleta-Car and teenager Boubacar Kamara were both being rarely trusted to fill their places.
Although no stranger to the role, being deployed there at both Bayern and Wolfsburg on occasion, the switch has become a problematic one for Gustavo. Despite showing his typical passion, zeal and chest-out combativeness that so endears him to the Marseille fanbase, his lack of pace and support from an ailing back line regularly left him exposed in both Ligue 1 and European competition as Garcia persisted with Gustavo in a deeper role longer than many saw as necessary. Having been returned to a more natural midfield berth, the Brazilian’s displays have largely righted themselves but with the OM team more generally lacking gumption, intensity and even heart at times Gustavo has been unable to drag the side back towards it’s effectiveness of last season, despite possessing (and showing) all three of those qualities in abundance.
Clearly frustrated, despite his on field efforts, Gustavo has not pulled his punches this season. Following a particularly poor home defeat to Lazio he told RMC: "We must do a lot better because this is not the level of Olympique Marseille. It's always the same, we need to defend as a team. When we play as individuals, we concede goals. We need to fix that… This is a difficult time, one where you have to stay together.” ‘Staying together’ has repeatedly been Gustavo’s edict this season but despite his best efforts, it doesn't seem to be catching on. “We continue to make the same mistakes, which does not put us in a position to progress.” said Gustavo after the 3-0 loss at Montpellier in November, “It's not a crisis, but we're not playing well at all. We all need to improve, otherwise we will have a difficult season.”
Crisis or not, the importance of a sense of belonging, or the right fit, is an underrated force in Football. For example, only two managers in the post war era have won the English first division with more than one club; Brian Clough and Kenny Dalglish. Although there are other forces at play here, it’s clear surroundings and circumstance can make or break a player’s or manager’s spell with any one club, regardless of their individual quality or record. Gustavo and Marseille, however, are perfectly suited - they simply work together. One fan site described him recently as ‘the lungs and the brain of the team.’ “I can not find the words to explain what is happening between [the fans] and me,” continued the Brazilian in an interview with L’equipe, “this move is the one I've always dreamed of, it's wonderful to receive so much gratitude and love.”
“I do not consider myself the boss. I am very quiet here. I respect everyone. No matter their age. I mainly try to help my teammates... For me, the main thing is that the team wins,” says the midfielder, “I think the more time passes, the more we will unite and the more we will help each other to go far.” In no small part down to Gustavo, Marseille have made progress in some areas, despite falling behind in others. However, without the ‘Gentleman of the Velodrome’, as he quickly becomes the heart and soul of the team, that glacial progress could come to a halt entirely after a tough end to 2018. Wherever l’OM go from here, at 31, Luis Gustavo has finally found a home.
by Adam White