Reinildo Mandava: Atletico Madrid’s Mozambican Defender

On May 23, 2021, French minnows and serial underdogs LOSC Lille made history. With their 2-1 victory over Angers, Lille became Ligue 1 champions for the first time since 2011, beating a PSG side tipped to repeat as French champions for the fourth straight time. A key part of their success was Mozambican fullback Reinildo Mandava.


He played a pivotal role in Lille’s 3-0 dismantling of Lens in the Derby du Nord. He played 90 minutes in a key, season-changing win over PSG. And, yes, he did start on that pivotal Sunday when Lille took home their fifth-ever Ligue 1 title.


From then on, it’s only gotten better for Reinildo. After writing history with Lille, he played half a season with Lille before signing with Atletico Madrid for three million euros. The rest is history, as he transformed from a solid full-back to one of Europe’s best left-backs. 


From Maputo to Madrid


Reinildo, born in the central-east Mozambican city of Beira, started his professional career with Ferroviário de Baria as a teenager for three seasons.


“When I was eight or nine years old, I used to play in the street in my neighborhood with my friends. One day I told my father [who worked as a coach] that he should come and see me play. That same day when I went to play, he came over to see me secretly. When I got back home, he called me just before dinner and told me that if I continued like that, I would become a great player. He told me that I had to focus on achieving that goal, to dedicate myself one hundred percent.”


Six months after debuting with Ferroviario, he wore the red and black of the Mozambican national team, earning his first cap in a 4-0 rout at the hands of Morocco. After three seasons of football in Beira, Reinildo moved to the country’s most successful side, GD Maputo for one season.


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In his time with Ferroviario da Beira and his short stint with GD Maputo, Reinildo won the Taça de Moçambique once, while fielding attention from Tanzanian clubs and South African teams. Despite his reputation as one of the continent’s elite fullbacks, Reinildo stayed in Mozambique for four seasons before finally leaving Africa for Benfica B at 21 years old.


He did not play for the reserve team, as he spent most of his time out on loan with Fafe and Covilhā over a year and a half. Reinildo’s only appearance for Benfica was a 1-1 draw where he played the full 90. It’s safe to say that no one thought Reinildo would pan out to be anything in the constantly-adapting world of football. 


Until B-SAD bought Reinildo in 2019, he was unknown in Portugal. His impressive performances ended up attracting attention throughout Europe. He did not have the attacking prowess of Trent Alexander-Arnold nor the skills of Marcelo. Yet, his consistency on defense and aerial power helped B-SAD to a decent season and also helped him land a lucrative winter move to LOSC Lille in 2019.


“It’s a pleasure to be from Lille today. It’s like a dream for me because when I was young, I always had the ambition to join a great team such as LOSC. I know that very good players evolve here and are surrounded by a high quality staff,” Reinildo told club media as he toured the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. 


Although he featured three times in his first season in Lille: a big season where they finished in second; he went on to make a bigger impact in the 2019/2020 season. The departure of previous Lille left-backs Fodé Ballo-Toure and Youssouf Koné opened up playing time for Reinildo. Although Domagoj Bradaric ate up most of the left-back minutes, he appeared in 22 games and won 16 starts. 


His breakthrough season coincided with Lille’s historic run to the pinnacle of French football with a Ligue 1 title. Reinildo started earning more playtime than Bradaric, proving himself to be more aggressive and physical down the flanks. So, as a result, it was Reinildo who got the start in most of Lille’s games. And for good reason. 


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Reinildo was a pest on the flank, stifling opposing attackers while creating good chances. His brilliance coincided with Bradaric’s down season and a Cinderella run for Lille. Mike Maignan, Jonathan David, Jonathan Bamba, and Jonathan Ikone were all brilliant. Although they provided the high-flying saves and frequent goals that every champion needs, Reinildo provided a doggedness that tied the team together.


With the dismantling of Lille (Maignan to Milan, Ikone to Fiorentina, Boubakary Soumare to Leicester), Reinildo became even more important. He shot more, became a better passer, and made more tackles. His growth, experience, and cheap price tag led Atletico Madrid to sign him in the winter of 2022, six months before his Lille contract expired.


He made playing in the physical, rough La Liga as easy as putting butter on bread. News sites heralded Reinildo as Atletico’s best signing in over a decade, and he provided a viciousness that the Wanda Metropolitano had not seen since their La Liga-winning campaign a year ago. When Reinildo arrived, Atletico was sixth and on the brink of missing out on European football. At the end of the season, Atleti was third.


Now, as this season wears on, Reinildo has been excellent; no, perfect; for Atletico Madrid. He is second in tackles won, ninth in interceptions, and tenth in blocks. He can be the future of an Atletico side exploring their identity and wondering what lies ahead.


Reinildo’s Playing Style


Reinildo is annoying and in a good way. He’s annoying to line up against, as Nico Williams found out on October 15, 2022. In a crunch match between Athletic Bilbao and Atleti, Reinildo lined up against the Spain international and delivered one of the best defending performances Spain will ever witness. Reinildo had seven tackles, three blocks, four clearances, four interceptions, and ten recoveries. He even blocked Dani Vivian’s shot with his face while sprawled on the floor.


If he did not connect with that shot, Vivian would have scored. Not only that, but he also held Williams to one successful dribble out of 12 attempts. Although Antoine Griezmann’s 48th-minute goal sealed the three points for Atleti, Reinildo’s valiant efforts powered them to a win. The performance is not an isolated incident. Reinildo has been nothing less than extraordinary this season, and the stats prove it.


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In Europe’s top 5 leagues, only seven other players have more tackles won than him. He’s a defensive ace, topping charts in clearances, interceptions, blocks, and more. But those numbers only scratch the surface of Reinildo’s skill.  He’s pacy (websites estimate his top speed at 35.4 km/h) but physical too.


The Mozambican is cool and collected with the ball in hand (84.1% passing accuracy), and although he does not get up the field as often as contemporary wing-backs might, he does have the dribbling and offensive danger to keep pressing attackers in check. If you mashed together Gennaro Gattuso’s defending and Richarlison’s dribbling, you would get (more or less) Reinildo.


A natural left-back, Reinildo plays as the left-most part of a three-man back line. He rarely strays from the touchline to get the ball and rarely goes into the final third. It varies in his position, but Reinildo’s roles are to defend and to help build out of the back and get the ball into the midfield.


What Does This Mean for Mozambique and Their Football?


Mozambican football is having a bit of a renaissance. The quarter-finals finish at the African Nations Championship, the fact that Mozambique is on course to qualify for its first AFCON in 13 years, and the arrival of a player in the Top 5 European leagues, much less one who stars in them, means that the nation is experiencing a newfound success.


Mozambique’s rapid rise to the edges of (dare I say it) AFCON contention corresponds with its rapid economic growth. The money in the Southern African nation led to profits in the Mocambola, which then grows the national team. The best-known product has been Reinildo, but aspiring Liga Portugal winger Geny Catamo and CAF Champions League legend Luís Miquissone have all made the news for their talent.


Its rise is not an unnecessary tangent, but it’s another way Reinildo is excelling. They drew against #137 Rwanda but beat #91 Benin. Against Benin, Reinildo pulled off a majestic assist that saw him dribble past three players and play a pass to Catamo, who scored.


Reinildo is not only powering Atletico Madrid’s attempt to avoid humiliation and reach the four Champions League places in La Liga again but is also the mastermind behind Mozambique’s ascension to contention. He could even be the best to come out of Mozambique since the days of Eusebio and Mário Coluna. Watch out for this determined defender not only in the Metropolitano but also in Maputo’s Estadio do Zimpeto as he continues to show his excellence. 


By: Deolu Akingbade / @AkingbadeDeolu

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty Images