On July 28, 2019, Filipe Luís joined Flamengo on a free transfer, returning to Brazil after 15 years abroad. He ended a glorious spell with Atlético Madrid that was interrupted only by an ill-fated season at José Mourinho’s Chelsea.
The long-haired left back left behind an unforgettable career, one in which he lifted domestic and international silverware, locked down a starting spot in Diego Simeone’s steel trap defense, and played a leading role in the most successful era of Atlético’s 116-year history.
Nevertheless, when asked about the man replacing him, Luís had no doubts that he would surpass his own legacy. “I think he’ll be the best left back in Atlético Madrid history,” said Luís in an interview with MARCA. “He’s strong, young, willing to learn, and above all, humble. He has everything it takes.”
The man in question was Renan Lodi, who joined from Athletico Paranaense in that same summer window.
Born in Serrana, São Paulo, Lodi’s journey to the top was anything but easy. His parents split up when he was three, and due to financial reasons, he stuck with his father and his grandparents.
“I lived in a very humble environment,” said Lodi in an interview with ESPN Brasil. “I could’ve taken the wrong path, but I opted for football and fought for my dream.”
Lodi grew up flying kites and playing football on the streets of Serrana, and sold cans to afford bus tickets to training facilities.
Whenever he couldn’t find cans to sell, his grandparents managed to scrape together money for him to go to practice. Lodi started off playing in Santos’s satellite academy ‘Meninos da Vila,’ located 25 kilometers away in the nearby Ribeirão Preto.
“From the start, I saw a boy with a lot of strength, a lot of potential, and who was already standing out due to his technical ability,” said Lodi’s youth coach Paulo Borges. “As soon as he joined our team, the results came immediately.”
In his first season, Lodi scored 21 of the team’s 30 goals, with Borges’s side capping off their undefeated season with the league title. He later tried out for Corinthians, which accepted him, but the four-hour drive from his hometown to the academy was too long for him to make on a weekly basis.
Lodi returned to Serrana, where he would stay for another year, before heading nine hours south to Curitiba, joining the amateur side Trieste. He caught the eye of Alessandro Brito, a scout for first-division side Athletico Paranaense.
After seven months at Trieste, Brito brought Lodi to the Furacão, where he would spend the next seven years of his career.
Like many Brazilian fullbacks before his time, Lodi started off as a forward, modeling his game after the likes of Ronaldinho and Kaká.
However, upon joining the club as a 13-year-old, his coach moved him to left back. He disliked playing in defense at first, but soon gained a liking for the position. Lodi rose up the youth ranks, before making his professional debut on October 13, 2016, in a 1-0 loss to Grêmio.
Three days later, he was given the start in the ‘Atletiba,’ the crosstown derby between Paraná’s two biggest sides: Athletico and Curitiba. Athletico won 2-0, and as he came off in the 66th minute, the Rubro-negro fanbase bellowed his name into the night sky.
After his third start against Atlético Mineiro, Lodi returned to the bench for a while, with then manager Paulo Autuori preferring the elder Sidcley to the 18-year-old fullback. Lodi polished his skills under the tutelage of Athletico’s U-20 coach Tiago Nunes, who assumed the position of first team manager on June 27, 2018.
Within a month, Lodi had staked out a starting spot under Nunes, relegating veteran defender Thiago Carleto to the bench. Nunes’s arrival catapulted Athletico from the relegation zone to midtable, and Lodi’s pinpoint crossing and marauding runs down the left flank fit like a glove in the new system.
With Lodi emerging into one of the best left backs in the continent, Athletico went on to win their first international trophy: the Copa Sudamericana (South America’s version of the Europa League).
Despite attracting interest from the likes of Juventus and Zenit, Lodi stayed put in Brazil for another season.
He demonstrated his elite potential against the likes of River Plate and Boca Juniors, whilst attracting a new suitor: Atlético Madrid. Athletico held out for top dollar for their young stud, rejecting two separate offers, before selling him for €25 million — €20 million up front and €5 million in add-ons.
Anyone who knows Diego Simeone knows that he can put the fear of God in his new signings. Luciano Vietto and Bernard Mensah vomited during their first training sessions under ‘El Cholo’ due to the intensity of the workouts, but even his ferocious screams can make a young player second-guess his future.
During a preseason retreat in the Guadarrama Mountains, Simeone summoned Lodi to a room for a private conversation.
Simeone pulled up a TV screen and told him what he needed to improve on defensively. A week before the league opener, he brought him back for another meeting, and showed him what he had improved on. “You will play, you will be the starter,” recalled Lodi in an interview with GloboEsporte.com.
It was a debut to forget. 41 minutes into the match, Lodi was booked for a late tackle, gifting Getafe a free kick.
As he jumped to head the ball away, he inadvertently slapped the face of Damián Suárez, who fell to the ground writhing in exaggerated pain. Referee Cuadra Fernández did not hesitate to give Lodi his second yellow in as many minutes, as his debut match for Atlético ended in ignominy.
Whenever Lodi returned from preseason workouts, he would always collapse in exhaustion due to the strenuousness of the exercises. This time, though, he came back home and told his girlfriend Rafaela, “Let’s go back to Brazil. I can’t take it anymore.”
Like so many other Brazilian kids, Lodi grew up dreaming of wearing the green and yellow on his back. So when Athletico Paranaense refused to liberate him for the Toulon Tournament, he broke into tears.
Three months later, he suffered the same fate when Atlético Madrid refused to release him for a pair of friendlies for André Jardine’s Olympic team. Once again, Simeone called him in for a private talk, and this time, Lodi poured his heart out to him.
He spoke about the heartbreak of being unable to play for Brazil, of the challenge of living an ocean away from his family and friends, of the pressure of playing for one of Europe’s biggest clubs. Simeone told him, “Let’s get to work, because you’re still going to play for Brazil.”
Lodi put the pedal to the medal and returned to the starting line-up immediately after serving his one-game suspension. A month later, Simeone was proven right; Lodi won his first ever call-up to Brazil’s senior team.
Since the expulsion against Getafe, Lodi went from zero to hero in Madrid. He wasn’t just showcasing his attacking finesse, but his defensive acumen as well. In the first leg of the Round of 16 fixture against Liverpool, he didn’t give Trent Alexander-Arnold or Mohammed Salah an inch of breathing room, and held on for a 1-0 win.
He started the second leg as Atleti bounced the defending champions out of the UEFA Champions League, and continued his impressive performances throughout the season as Atleti finished a distant third in the league, lost to RB Leipzig in the Champions League quarterfinals, and crashed out at the Copa del Rey third round by Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa.
Eager to keep hold of their Brazilian gem, Atleti rejected Manchester City’s offer of nearly €50 million for him, per Matteo Moretto. They did not sign a competitor at the left back position, instead choosing to trust in Lodi as their sole option on the left side of the defense.
Rather than a positive sophomore campaign, however, Lodi took a step back in 2020/21. Having started the club’s first three league matches and their first four Champions League matches, Lodi faded from the line-up as Simeone decided to experiment with a new formation, ripping apart his traditional 4-4-2.
It worked like a charm; with José María Giménez partnering Stefan Savić and Mario Hermoso in the back four, and Kieran Trippier and Yannick Carrasco operating as wingbacks, Atleti claimed their first league title in 7 years. Whilst Lodi’s minutes took a downturn due to the new system, he nevertheless played a role in their championship.
With Real Madrid and Barcelona breathing down their necks, Atleti’s title hopes were called into question in the penultimate matchday as Ante Budimir gave Osasuna the lead at the Wanda Metropolitano. They equalized seven minutes later as Lodi latched onto a through ball from João Félix and smashed it into the top corner.
Luis Suárez would score the go-ahead goal shortly after in the 88th minute, and in the following week, Atleti once again came from behind to defeat Real Valladolid 2-1 and seal the league title. Lodi headed back to his native country, starting in Brazil’s final three knockout matches as they lost to Argentina in the Final on home soil.
Lodi once again found playing time limited, often relegated to a substitute role as Atleti stumbled through the first half of the campaign. When Atlético completed a deal for Mozambican left back Reinildo Mandava in January, it seemed the writing was on the wall for Lodi’s career in the Spanish capital.
Having remained on the bench for three out of the last four league matches, Simeone elected to start Lodi in the first round of their Champions League Round of 16 tie against Manchester United.
Reinildo would play as a left back alongside Giménez, Savić and Šime Vrsaljko, whilst Lodi operated as a wide midfielder due to Yannick Carrasco’s suspension and Thomas Lemar still making his way back from injury.
Rather than blow up in his face, this move worked like a charm. A player often criticized for his lapses in concentration, Lodi was disciplined off the ball and would shift back into a left wing-back position when Atleti did not have possession. He set up João Félix’s opening goal, completed two out of four crosses, and won two out of four duels as Atleti drew 1-1 due to Anthony Elanga’s equalizer.
It was little surprise, then, when Simeone kept Lodi in the line-up for the following match against Celta de Vigo. Atleti took the lead in the 34th minute when Lodi latched onto a through ball from Geoffrey Kondogbia, found himself tightly marked by Hugo Mallo, yet still managed to beat Argentine goalkeeper Matías Dituro at his near post.
They doubled the lead at the hour-mark as Kondogbia picked out Lodi’s run with a phenomenal pass, with the Brazilian sneaking past Celta’s defense without a trace and smashing home the volley.
In doing so, he not only scored as many goals in one game as he had during his first 73 league matches at Atleti — he also became first Atleti defender to score a brace since Juan Valera in 2006.
“I’m very happy for him, he deserves it,” said Simeone after the game. “He never gave up, he is a humble and very respectful boy. I am convinced that when you work hard, good things happen and Lodi is a hard worker and football is giving him back good things.”
As Lodi exited the pitch in the 64th minute, he was met with a standing ovation from the Wanda Metropolitano crowd, an ovation that brought him to tears.
Despite being in and out of the team, the 23-year-old has never stopped working and competing for a place in the line-up — he remains one of the most promising players in his position…whatever that is.
Simeone has pulled off his fair share of ingenious positional changes, with Marcos Llorente thriving after changing from a defensive midfielder to a right winger.
Yannick Carrasco has also impressed at a left wing-back position, and after Carrasco, Llorente, and many more, Lodi may yet be the next Colchonero to witness a revival in fortunes following a positional change.
After Luís made the transfer to Flamengo official in 2019, Lodi contacted him for the first time, revealing how much he wanted him to stay in Madrid and mentor him.
Luís told him that he had already watched several matches of him, that everyone in the national team was already talking about him, and advised, “Be patient with Simeone, because he is very blunt and seems like he’s always pissed off at you. But don’t change the way you play, play your game, because you’re an ace.”
No matter how well he does, Lodi will never erase the legacy that Luís left at Atlético Madrid. But he will write his own.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Oscar Del Pozo – AFP