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May 8, 2014

Taxi for Maicon -- Destination: Brazil

The press were brutal.

"[Douglas] Maicon was torn [apart] by [Gareth] Bale that, by the end of the night, the Inter defender resembled a six-foot, Latin American sieve," noted Eurosport. BBC proclaimed that "the defender who played such a big part in Inter's Champions League triumph was destroyed by the rampant Welshman," who "tore Maicon to shreds time after time." Michael Cox of ZonalMarking noted that the matchup should never have been so one-sided, as Inter "had one of the best right-backs in the world" pairing up against the Welshman. Not long after -- if it had not already been stated before -- the then 29-year-old was widely considered a player in decline.

- De Martinis: Humiliation in hindsight: Roma's loss to Catania

The day was November 2nd, 2010. Inter were playing a Champions League group-stage match away at Tottenham in England, two weeks after winning the reverse fixture 4-3 at the San Siro, less than six months after winning the competition under Jose Mourinho. A fortnight before, the warning signs were there: Bale notched a second-half hat-trick. Fourteen days later, his solo runs on the flank, paired up against the current Roma right-back, helped Spurs edge towards the knockout stages of Europe's top-flight multi-national competition.

By the end of the night, the home crowd was chanting "Taxi for Maicon," as Bale revealed two days later that the Brazilian continually apologized for kicking him, presumably with no other way to keep him pegged back.

Fast forward to 2014. On May 7th, the now 32-year-old full-back is called up to Brazil's national team to head to the World Cup in June. Given some of the players left out by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, his selection is certainly worth mentioning. After all, he will be going to play for his national team on the world’s biggest stage, while Marquinhos, Leandro Castan, Joao Miranda, Kaka, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Filipe Luis will not. What does he have that the talented players left out lack? For one, his positioning; Brazil are astoundingly deep at center-back, a wealth of options for Scolari that must be causing suffering to Roma teammate Castan. As a fullback, Maicon's competition was perhaps less intense but his call-up no less deserved.

What changed in the four years between his London Taxi and his call-up?

The season following the Bale match-up, 2011-2012, was disappointing for Maicon. He played just 23 times in Serie A, scoring just two goals, though both were in massive clashes against Juventus and crosstown rivals Milan. By the end of the year, the fullback needed a new challenge and was eager to work with a former coach.

Thus, in late August 2012, Maicon signed for Manchester City under Roberto Mancini. He made a mere 13 appearances the ensuing season -- one described as "desperately disappointing" by the Daily Mail. Following his once-Inter coach over to England, he failed to adapt to the physicality of the England game (perhaps Bale's performance was an early warning about the pace of the Premier League), and never managed to replace the increasingly effective Pablo Zabaleta in the starting eleven.

Once Mancini left, Maicon left too. He himself noted that his hard work on the pitch in England was interrupted by injuries off, but knew that leaving to a club where he could start allowed for the extra motivation of trying to convince Scolari of his worthiness to a World Cup position.

How has he done since last summer? It's perhaps best described by Scolari himself: "At Roma he's been reborn. Now he's showing his quality again" The Maicon that Roma boss Rudi Garcia has enjoyed is not merely the one who failed in England, nor the one who seemed in decline towards his later years at Inter. In 28 appearances this season, the Brazilian averaged 1.5 tackles, 1.4 interceptions, and 1.8 clearances per match while completing 87% of his attempted passes per game.

His output, of course, is not merely limited to his defending; he's created 31 chances for Roma, scored two goals, and been named the Squawka Man of the Match twice as well. It is perhaps no coincidence that Roma's highest ever points tally was achieved the season after signing Maicon; though by no means the only difference between this season and last for the giallorossi, he is definitely one of the most influential.

Perhaps it was merely getting back in Serie A that was the key for Maicon. In a familiar league with a fresh experience behind him, the Brazilian needed little acclimation; playing alongside a fellow Brazilian in Castan and another veteran of Italy in Mehdi Benatia, in front of the experienced Morgan De Sanctis may have reduced the amount of time a fullback without any Serie A background would have needed to get comfortable.

The real key, however, may just be Garcia, the maestro that consistently makes Roma sing. Under his tutelage, Maicon's attacking abilities allow him to link up with forwards like Gervinho or Francesco Totti with team tactics that prevent leaving the defense exposed too often. He has the freedom to roam and the energy to track back when required, with the skill to often force an opening or dribble his way into the box.

The dividends here are shared by all; Roma have received the greatest fullback they've had in quite some time, Scolari regains a piece of the puzzle he felt he had once lost, and Maicon himself is back in contention for trophies. Though Dani Alves may yet block his path to start in his home-country in his effort to win the greatest trophy in the sport, Maicon no longer needs a taxi.

He will, after all, be on a plane come June.