“Dave,” they called him. Just Dave. Just … there. Dependable, reliable, unremarkable Dave. It started as a joke, old now and not that funny then, but maybe there’s something in it.
The story is well known, and it’s probably handy to remember in a London accent: when Cesar Azpilicueta joined Chelsea in 2012, then-captain John Terry decided his name was a bit difficult to say, so he called him Dave instead. (For the uninitiated, the reference comes from an old British comedy series “Only Fools and Horses” — and yes, Azpilicueta has seen it since — in which Trigger, named so because he’s not the fastest, calls just about everyone Dave for one simple reason: he doesn’t know or can’t remember what they’re actually called.
Dave, then. That’ll do. A kind of everyman: blunt, basic, normal. Dave is anyone, a what’s-his-face. There, but not there. Easily overlooked. Dave, driving a van. Laying bricks. Down the pub. He might as well have called him “Bloke.” Azpilicueta has probably grown tired of it — yeah, sorry about that — and it is eight long years now since he did a neat video explaining how to say Azpilicueta. And what’s so hard about Cesar, anyway? But again, maybe there’s something in it.
This week, it kind of felt that way. It’s not really that Dave wasn’t in Luis Enrique’s Spain squad when it was announced on Wednesday, just as he hadn’t been in the one before, the one before that or the one before that; it was that no one asked him to be, no one even noticed. His wasn’t a name they missed, an absence they felt. On Friday, two teams with Spanish captains were in the draw for the quarterfinals of the Champions League. On Monday, only one of them will report for duty at Las Rozas.
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Sometimes it can seem like Luis Enrique has called up every Spanish centre-back there is — Pedro Porro was the latest unexpected name — but not Azpilicueta.
This is no rant, it’s not even an appeal for inclusion nor a call for “justice.” It’s not the most burning issue ever. Luis Enrique knows what he’s doing, and he’s not the only Spain manager to overlook Azpilicueta. There was a time as the World Cup-winning generation slipped by, when he could feel irritated by it, annoyed by the fact that he wasn’t given greater opportunities, nor promoted from squad member to starter — and he has played for Spain 25 times — but now there is acceptance from everyone, like it’s long gone. It’s just not an issue. And that’s pretty much the question, more pertinent this week: should it be?
Azpilicueta doesn’t have a lobby and isn’t in Spain — although Luis Enrique has shown that he is not easily swayed by factors like those anyway — but on Wednesday night his team knocked out the La Liga leaders. Over two legs, they didn’t concede a goal (that said, maybe he should have conceded a penalty). They barely conceded a chance. And … nothing. Strip it down to basics and it’s this: Azpilicueta is the captain of Chelsea. He has started 26 games this season, in which they have kept 20 clean sheets, and he’s not even a candidate. Like, really?
This isn’t even really about the seleccion, that’s just the symbol. Like everyone has turned a bit Trigger. Asked if Azpilicueta has been overlooked, Nacho Monreal replied: “Yes, totally. You only have to look at his career to realise what a player he is. He is one of those footballers who don’t get talked about so much, who doesn’t get the glory, but on the basis of their work they are there: captain of Chelsea, 10 years at the club, one of Chelsea’s best defenders in recent times, in the perfect XIs, playing an incredible level. Everything he has achieved… you have to take your hat off to him.”
Now Monreal would say that, perhaps. He and Azpilicueta are friends who came through the Osasuna youth system together, after all. And the moment you start talking about players being underrated, they no longer are. Sometimes it can tilt the other way. Underrated is the new overrated, a hill to shout from. Often the idea that no one is talking about a player, no one recognises him, is just not true; it can be a demand for a noise that’s unnecessary. And Azpilicueta is recognised.
“A team of Azpilicuetas would win the Champions League.”
“He is one of the best in the world. He is a fantastic guy, always positive. For a coach to have him is a dream.”
“His attitude, his application every single day is the absolute standard for any young player. He is the epitome of the club. He is the one the fans look at and say: ‘That’s how we feel about Chelsea.’ He’s captain for that reason.”
“He’s unbelievable. What a pleasure, what a gift to have a captain like this. He is key.”
That’s Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Frank Lampard and Thomas Tuchel — just his Chelsea managers, the men who know him best, those who most relied on him. Then there was Barcelona trying to sign him when Robert Fernandez was the sporting director and Ernesto Valverde was coach, men who saw in him a Carles Puyol. He would have been talked about then.
As for the first of those comments, by the way, Azpilicueta’s response was nice: “Maybe on penalties … it wouldn’t score many goals.” Maybe not, but boy would it defend well. And while everyone knows all that, it often feels like they don’t. That what Azpilicueta has achieved gets overlooked, certainly in Spain. Nine years at Chelsea, remember. Nine years. At Chelsea. Where he is captain. When he does get praised, it’s for reliability — a virtue that is sometimes an oddly backhanded compliment when it shouldn’t be. As if that relentlessness, that consistency, came as standard in every player. As if being indestructible was easy.
These are facts. Only nine men have ever played more games for the club, and by the end of the season, it may well be only seven. He is one of only four players to have played every minute for a league title-winning team (Gary Pallister, Wes Brown and John Terry, in case you’re wondering). Between the start of the 2015-16 season and the end of the 2018-2019 season, he missed just two of 152 games. In 2019, no outfield player in any of Europe’s five major leagues played more minutes. Of 38 league games, in the past five season he played: 37, 38, 37, 38, 36.
This year, aged 31 now, it was a little different, it seemed. And then it wasn’t. Tuchel turned to him. His ankle isn’t in great shape but Azpilicueta has been there every minute. “If you have a guy so humble, so full of quality, so ready to give everything for the team, to have the mentality of a water carrier, to help everyone on and off the pitch, a smile every day in training, every time ready — it’s a gift for every manager and in my belief for every team,” Tuchel said.
There is just one problem with those kinds of lines: the fondness can end up seeming grater than the football. Chelsea have kept 11 clean sheets in 13 games. It’s not chance.
Watching a Chelsea side captained by Azpilicueta control Aletico on Wednesday, the mind was taken back to the last time they met in the knockout round, in 2014, when things ended very differently. Azpilicueta played that night and was beaten. So did Filipe Luis, who produced what he considered his best-ever game. Arguably the best left-back in Europe, Chelsea signed him that summer but it didn’t work, largely because by his own admission, the competition was just too strong. And if Monreal would say what he said about Azpilicueta, Filipe Luis, beaten and with reasons to be bitter, wouldn’t say this:
“The truth, the truth, is that he never gave me a chance to win my place, to take his place off him,’ Filipe Luis said. “He never gave any reason for me to be first choice.” And that may just be the biggest compliment there is.
Within a year, Filipe Luis had gone. His competition is still there nearly a decade on from the day he arrived, standing in front of his teammates and singing a song by the appropriately named Estopa. When he arrived at Stamford Bridge, Filipe Luis had a problem so many players have had over 413 games: his name is Cesar Azpilicueta Tanco, but they called him Dave.