After Chelsea's Europa League win over Basel on Thursday, David Luiz showered, got changed and spoke to the press. So far, so normal. But while his team-mates were making their way home (it was after 10.30pm at this stage) or chatting with family and friends in the lobby of the hotel at Stamford Bridge, Luiz still had work to do. Using a back staircase he made his way through the conference rooms of the hotel to meet with a group of children desperate to make his acquaintance. "I'll see you in a while," he told a Portuguese-speaking friend on his phone; "I'm going to see my kids."
When he emerged he graciously nodded greetings to bemused onlookers before carrying on with his evening. But he had not simply shown his face and signed a few programmes out of obligation; he had been in the room for almost an hour. This was a fine example of the kind of gregarious, good-natured attitude to life that is making David Luiz increasingly popular in west London. With his perma-smile and "Geezers!"-heavy patter, he is fast becoming the poster boy for a new generation at Chelsea.
Even the most ardent Blues fan would admit that a changing of the guards is well overdue at Stamford Bridge. Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole may have been superb servants to the club - and still have plenty to offer - but they have shaped the club's image for a decade now. The regeneration project that started with the sale of Didier Drogba may have been swept under the carpet with the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, but Roman Abramovich and his minions cannot put off the inevitable forever.
Luiz, the ringleader of Chelsea's new Brazilian enclave, is perfectly placed to take up the mantle. He is confident in his ability and his convictions, to the extent that he doesn't mind putting a few noses out of joint (witness is on-pitch argument with Frank Lampard against Rubin Kazan last month). This bullishness, one senses, is something any challenger to the Terry-Lampard-Cole axis needs in his armory - and probably something that those old heads respect, if only grudgingly.
But Luiz lacks the personality flaws that have made Chelsea's stars (and by extension the club itself) so hard for neutrals to love in recent years. In place of Terry's lager ladishness lies cosmopolitan charm; Luiz speaks freely and engagingly with the press in three languages and makes people giggle on Twitter. There is no room for Cole's on-pitch snivelling in Luiz's dog-with-a-bone demeanor. And he has never voiced support for David Cameron, which means he's beating Lampard at politics. Rebuilding around Luiz would allow Chelsea to win back some of the goodwill that myriad PR missteps have allowed to seep away in the Abramovich era.
None of this would count for anything, of course, if Luiz didn't cut the mustard on the field of play. But Luiz is also a phenomenal player. A year or so ago, conversations about Luiz would commonly end with some luddite or other saying things like, "Give me a solid defender every day of the week," or "Why would I want a centre-back who can dribble?" or "I hate football and smiles and joy and life." Those people have mysteriously fallen quiet. Luiz is now not only the best defender at Chelsea, but arguably the best central midfielder as well. He is more mobile than John Obi Mikel (so are many inanimate objects, admittedly), more composed than Ramires and more rounded than Frank Lampard.
Gary Neville once said that David Luiz looked like he was being "controlled by a ten-year-old on a PlayStation". This was a witty remark, but what people didn't realise was this: playing like you're in a video game is not a bad thing. Sure he's wild, gets caught of position now and then (more then than now) and does things defenders shouldn't (did you see his goal against Basel?!). But those things make him amazing to watch. Give me wreckless, Sideshow-Bob abandon over short-back-and-sides boredom every day of the week.
David Luiz makes football fun, and for that he must be applauded. We can only hope he gets the chance to make Chelsea fun again as well.
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