Uruguay's Diego Godin showing at World Cup that he's the best defender in football
It was a famous year for footballers called Diego. Famously, Diego Maradona won the World Cup in 1986. Less famously, Diego Godin was born. Thirty-two years on, this probably will not be a World Cup defined by a Diego -- not in the way 1986 was, anyway. Yet it might be a tournament in which another reaches new heights or, perhaps more accurately, in which his excellence gets the belated recognition it deserves.
Godin has been the best defender of the World Cup so far. He might have been the finest in the world for a while, even if his peers have tended to plump for others when it comes to individual awards. Carles Puyol nominated his former Barcelona teammate Gerard Pique as the best earlier this year, while Giorgio Chiellini named an old rival in Sergio Ramos. Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk has become the most expensive in world football, followed by Aymeric Laporte.
All the while, Godin has been Godin, perhaps the most dependable and perhaps the least error-prone. The numbers in the World Cup show a similarity with Nicolas Otamendi, who has made three more clearances and three fewer interceptions, but it is a case of lies, damned lies and statistics. It is the contrast between a bastion of reliability and a headless chicken.
Furthermore, Godin has excelled for Uruguay at a point when, one by one, the credentials of his rivals for the unofficial title of the planet's most outstanding defender have been diminished.
Ramos was caught in possession when Khalid Boutaib went through to score for Morocco. Pique's needless handball gifted Russia a penalty, just as Samuel Umtiti literally handed Australia a spot kick in their Group C opener. Jerome Boateng capped a hapless display against Sweden with a red card, while Mats Hummels struggled in Germany's opening defeat to Mexico. Leonardo Bonucci isn't even in Russia, courtesy of Italy's failure to qualify.
Isolated mistakes should not form the whole appraisal, but Boateng, Ramos and Pique's performances were unimpressive at this World Cup. Godin's have been outstanding even if there is a case for saying that he could have done better when Pepe struck for Portugal in the last-16. The Atletico Madrid defender was too focused on Cristiano Ronaldo, and it must be said, he stopped the serial Ballon d'Or winner from scoring.
That Pepe goal was the only one Uruguay have conceded so far at this World Cup. It is a record only Brazil can rival, and if the Selecao have arguably had harder fixtures, Uruguay, with a considerably lower share of possession (49.4 percent to 58.6 percent), have had more defending to do.
There is also something old-fashioned about the way Godin defends for club and country, at the heart of tight, well-drilled back fours that wouldn't have seemed out of place in decades past. It is not that he can't play; just that, amid the fondness for deploying players with midfielders' skill sets at the back, he has not forgotten that his essential duty is as a stopper.
Indeed, both Godin's ability on the ball and his leadership prowess were highlighted when he left his post in defence. Godin surged imperiously into midfield with the ball, both attracting and beating opponents, in the wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It married a willingness to take responsibility with an understanding that Uruguay needed an added dimension against obdurate teams, as Oscar Tabarez's workmanlike midfield didn't always have the invention to inject something different. Godin was in more typical form at the end of the win against Portugal, heading crosses away in classic rearguard action.
Godin is a specialist in such situations, an expert in "backs-to-the-wall" defending. He and his Atletico teammate Jose Maria Gimenez might be part of the best defences in both club and international football.
In Madrid, two Diegos have benefited each other: Godin and Atletico manager Simeone. The Europa League winners have conceded only 268 goals in the latter's 378-game reign, keeping 200 clean sheets. Godin has been a great constant, playing in 306 of those matches. It has become a body of work, a commitment to frugality that has been sustained over a series of seasons just as Uruguay navigated the group stages of both the 2010 and 2018 World Cups without conceding. It has been done in an unflashy manner which, combined with a reliance on the collective, can strip individuals of credit.
But World Cups tend to bestow the informal tag of the game's most outstanding defender upon players: In 2010, Puyol's semifinal winner against Germany and Pique's passing meant the Barcelona duo suited the ethos of the times. Fast-forward four years, and it was logical to anoint Hummels and Boateng.
Now while Uruguay are less likely to win the World Cup and while a Brazil triumph could place the crown on Thiago Silva's head, Godin has still looked like the best of the bunch. Perhaps, quietly, he has been for some time, but clean sheets and consistency did not earn him the accolade. That requires brilliance in a World Cup.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.