By Alan Feehely l @azulfeehely
Spanish football returned to action this month with the Seville derby, a game many consider to be one of the best in European football. Sevilla and Real Betis are two of the best-supported teams in Spain and the city of Seville never fails to serve as an alluring host, sated in heat and ardour.
Our new Covid-shaped reality necessitated that the game be held without the supporters that distinguish it, but that didn’t hamper the quality of football on display. Sevilla, playing at an empty Sánchez-Pizjuán, were the dominant side, controlling the play with intelligence to put in an efficient performance that prevented their visiting rivals from laying a glove on them.
Betis did not lack quality. In Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir they have two of the best midfielders in Spain, but Sevilla were able to smother their creative attributes with an assured showing marshalled by the calm and composed partnership at the centre of defence of Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos.
Said to be drawing admiring glances from Liverpool amongst a host of top European clubs, Carlos has been a consistent performer throughout his debut season in La Liga. Brave, strong, and quick to step forward and intercept danger, he has personified his team’s poise and has proved a reliable presence at centre-back.
“I am very calm, honestly,” he told ABC when quizzed on his future. “I am very focused on the situation we are going through now. The most important thing that I have to think about is training. I think that this future period of the league, finishing the competition, will decide my future. It has been a spectacular year for me — I am very happy with everything I am experiencing at Sevilla.”
La Liga Lowdown’s Sevilla correspondent, Gregor Chapelle, believes Carlos to be his standout pick this season. “He’s got everything you need in a centre-half — physicality, ability in the air, ability on the ball, good distribution. He loves a tackle and can chip in with the odd goal. He’s the kind of centre-half you’d hate to play against.”
“I think they’ll have a job on their hands holding on to him,” Chapelle continued. “There have been a few big clubs sniffing around him, including Liverpool, and I’m not surprised he’s got a few admirers. If they [Sevilla] can cement a Champions League spot they may be able to hold on to him, but the lure of a club like Liverpool, or anyone else of that stature, may be too much to resist.”
Born in Barra Bonita in the state of São Paulo, Carlos represented several local clubs in his youth including América, Desportivo Brasil, São Paulo, Paulista, and Madureira, but found opportunities scarce and struggled to make much of an impact on domestic Brazilian football. “He played mostly for small clubs in Brazil,” explained Brazilian football expert Paulo Freitas.
“He did get a chance at São Paulo and did well at U20 level there, but they were packed with good defenders so he did not have any chance in the senior team. His lack of impact in Brazilian football meant his move to Estoril went largely unnoticed.”
Diego Carlos himself remembers the early days of his career as an important foundational experience. “I played on a team called América, from the Rio Preto region, and then with Desportivo Brasil,” he told La Liga’s YouTube channel. “They’re a small club, but they’re the first team I played with as a pro and it’s where my career really took off. I’m here today because of Desportivo Brasil.”
“My move to São Paulo was great — while I was there, nobody knew me, and I was just another player,” he continued. “I played in two competitions with the B team, the Copa São Paulo and the Paulista, and I was able to play as a starter. I really enjoyed it and my career really took off there.”
“After six months with the B team, I played in the first team for another six months. I met a lot of senior players there and gained a lot of experience, but I decided to move to Portugal because there weren’t many opportunities for me in Brazil. There were a lot of defenders on São Paulo’s team, so I spoke with my agent and told him I wanted to go to Europe.”
Estoril currently play in the LigaPro, the Portuguese second division, but in Carlos’ time they played in the top flight. Positioned just outside of Lisbon, they are the lesser lights of a region that include Benfica and Sporting but remain a proud institution themselves. “At that time the owner of the club was a Brazilian company called Traffic,” remembered supporter Francisco Braga.
“That’s why we bought some Brazilian players with real quality, like Carlos, Evandro, Carlos Eduardo, and Kléber,” he continued. “Carlos spent his first season in Portugal on loan at Porto B, but he returned to Estoril the following year. He was a strong defender — good at tackling, strong technically for a central defender, and powerful aerially.”
“He was one of our best players that season, and that’s why he moved to Nantes. It’s not normal for a small team such as Estoril to sell players to a team abroad, but those were the best years of our history. I’m following his career closely today because he is one of the best central defenders in the world — we are proud to have had such a good player at our club.”
Diego Carlos returned the pleasantries. “Estoril gave me the chance of a lifetime,” he recalled. “During the first week I spoke to the head coach that was there — he said that I lacked experience and suggested that I play with another team. During my first year they were playing in the Europa League and their roster was full, so they loaned me to Porto B. My time there opened a lot of doors — I was able to play in 17 games and gain a lot of experience.”
“I knew I wanted to play in Europe, so I had to give it my all. I knew that if I didn’t put it all on the line I would have to go back to Brazil, and I didn’t know what that would do to my career. The following year I went back to Estoril and played 34 games, scoring twice. By the time I returned, I was more than ready to play for them.”
Diego Carlos signed for Nantes for €2m the following summer. He adapted well to Ligue 1, learning French and imposing himself on a new brand of football. “He had a reputation as a tough, rugged defender, and he was widely considered to be one of the best centre-backs in France,” remembered French football expert Tom Williams. “Carlos’ arrival coincided with an upturn in Nantes’ fortunes. They finished seventh, ninth, and 12th in the three seasons he was there, having never finished higher than 13th the three seasons before.”
“There was a fair amount of upheaval while he was there — he played under five different coaches,” continued Williams. “I think what worked in his favour was that he played under some quite defensive-minded coaches, notably Claudio Ranieri, who was coach in 2017/18, and Vahid Halilhodžić, who took over in October 2018 after Miguel Cardoso had failed in an attempt to turn Nantes into a more proactive side.”
“He was linked with some big clubs during his time at Nantes, so I wouldn’t say it’s all that surprising [that he’s being linked with Liverpool]. I think the feeling when he left Nantes was that if he proved himself at Sevilla, it would potentially open the door to one of Europe’s biggest clubs.”
“The French league was a different kind of experience,” Carlos recalled. “I only spoke Portuguese, and in Portugal this had been fine as we spoke the same language. When I went to France, I couldn’t communicate with the other players, but as time went on I met a lot of great people that gave me a lot of support and helped me adapt faster.”
Carlos joined Sevilla in June 2019. “I had been waiting to hear from a team playing in Europe,” he continued. “It was a goal that I really wanted to achieve, so when they called I said yes right away. It’s a wonderful team with an amazing history, and I really enjoy being here. I’m in Spain, playing in La Liga, where the football is at a really high level and the whole world can see it. Everyone on the team has great qualities — the whole team wants to win and control the ball.”
On top of speculation regarding his club future, there is also talk about whether he’s ready to make his debut for Brazil. Thiago Silva is 35 and will be leaving Paris Saint-Germain this summer and has a challenge on his hands to retain his place alongside Marquinhos at centre back at the 2021 Copa América.
“He is still fairly unknown in Brazil,” responded Freitas. “National team manager Tite is following his progress, but he is for now outside the core group of national team centre-backs. Maybe with a bit of luck he can make it into the squad, but it does not seem likely at the moment that he could become a starter. But things can change fast at the Brazilian national team.”
“He is an athletic centre-back who is also comfortable on the ball, with good positioning and decent speed. He likes to make long range passes, although the accuracy can be less than impressive. He is a good player, but I think he is already peaking. Maybe he can improve a little bit more, but I do not expect him to become a world class player.”
Tom Sanderson, a football writer with extensive knowledge of both Brazilian and Spanish football, agrees that it will be a tough task for Carlos to break into Brazil’s starting XI, but labels him, alongside Sevilla teammate Lucas Ocampos, as one of the revelations of the 2019/20 La Liga season.
“Long-term, I believe that berth alongside Marquinhos belongs to Éder Militão,” he said. “But yes, he has caught the eye of fans back home plus Tite and his staff. Had the 2020 Copa América gone ahead, I think the fact that Tite had the pressure taken off him by winning last year’s edition means that he could have experimented in Colombia and Argentina this summer.”
“Felipe has been one of the other strongest new centre backs in La Liga at Atlético Madrid, another revelation, and is someone Tite knows well from a famous 2015 Brasileirão-winning Corinthians outfit in his last club job before taking over the national team,” he continued. “Who knows, all four might have gone to the Copa América, and may still next year, but Tite could have definitely tested the waters with Carlos and Felipe.”
“I think the immediate characteristics you reach for are obviously his strength and size. He’s incredibly difficult to get by, or bully off the ball, and is a great tackler in addition to posing a considerable aerial threat that has seen him score important goals for Sevilla. Unfairly, however, we often think of players built in his mould as being little more than enforcers, and also perhaps clumsy and error-prone. But Carlos is very calm on the ball and rather than just lumping it, he often plays fantastic long balls to feet or for his teammates to run on to either when clearing it out or with more time to take a decision.”
Such attributes were evident in Sevilla’s second game after the restart, when they took on Levante at the Camilo Cano on Monday evening. Carlos launched a perfectly-struck long pass over the top to find Munir El Haddadi, who squared for Luuk de Jong to score. Carlos was also at fault for the equaliser, however, scoring an own goal that saw the game finish 1–1.
It was two points dropped as Sevilla looked to consolidate their position in third and confirm qualification for next season’s Champions League, and despite two subsequent draws – at home to Barcelona and at Villarreal – they remain firmly on course for a top four spot. Carlos was in the spotlight for the visit of the Blaugrana after a firm challenge on Lionel Messi, which sparked outrage from the Argentinean despite the tackle winning the ball. It was the forceful, determined nature which rattled Messi and caused him to push Carlos, although both escaped any further punishment. That moment epitomised Carlos, his significance to this Sevilla team and his role in the final seven games of the campaign.