It's Underdog week here at SB Nation; a time for us to reflect on the unsung heroes who made their mark with our favorite clubs. While some might actually consider AS Roma an underdog club, the Eternal City has played host to some pretty legendary and well-heralded careers over the past few decades. If you're a Roma fan, you know who I'm hinting at (the guy in our URL and the guy with the beard and tattoos who shouted a lot spring to mind), but the Giallorossi's spirits have been lifted just as high by the underdogs; the guys whose heart and hustle more than made up for their lack of acclaim and adulation, the ones who carved out solid careers through sheer force of will.
When you're a budget conscious club like Roma, there's simply no way to succeed without a gaggle of underdogs. In the past twenty years alone, Roma has seen the likes of Julio Sergio, Marco Cassetti, Max Tonetto, Eusebio Di Francesco and Rodrigo Taddei (among others) punch above their weight. Without their positive performance-to-cost-ratio, there is simply no way Roma would have achieved anything in the 21st century.
Given this week's theme, I thought we'd shine the light on one of the most overlooked players of the American era, Leandro Castan. Brought to the capital in the summer of 2012 for a measly €5.5 million, most folks simply assumed he was another byproduct of Walter Sabatini's predilection for South American players. After all, he was very likely just a placeholder to sit next to Nicolas Burdisso until Alessio Romagnoli was ready to takeover. Plus, he had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the recently departed and much loved Juan, who returned to his native Brazil in July of 2012 after several successful seasons with Roma.
As a 26-year-old defender making the leap to a top European league for the first time (though he played in Sweden during 2007-2008), expectations were low. Castan wasn't a young intriguing prospect and he wasn't the “next” anything or anyone. He didn't come with a bevy of comparisons, he didn't have a highlight reel and he wasn't capped by Brazil; he was just a run of the mill defender from the Brazilian Serie A.
And as if all that weren't bad enough, he was thrust into the middle of Zdenek Zeman's bold “fuck defending” strategy, which required heroic efforts from the defense just to keep the score respectable. To put ZZ's approach into perspective, consider this: Roma's 56 goals allowed that season were fourth worst in the league, one better than 19th place Siena. Throwing anyone into that set-up was unfair, let alone a guy making the biggest competitive leap in his career.
Despite the odds being stacked against him, Castan quickly made a name for himself in his rookie season. In 30 appearances, Castan logged 2,683 minutes and finished with a 7.13 match rating (per WhoScored). But when you dig a bit deeper into that rating, that run of the mill Brazilian defender suddenly looked like one of the smartest center-backs in Italy.
Castan was 11th in tackles, tied for 5th in fewest times dribbled past, tied for 6th in interceptions, tied for 5th in shots blocks, tied for 3rd in crosses blocked and he even completed 92% of his 1,242 passing attempts (all other figures are per 90 minutes). Sure, he was eventually bested by the player he essentially discovered (Marquinhos) but his timing, intuition, vision, and toughness made him one of the best center-backs in the league that season.
And if Castan's 2012-2013 season was a pleasant surprise, then the numbers he put up the following season made Sabatini and Roma look like geniuses. With 36 appearances and over 3,000 minutes in league action, Castan hardly missed a beat that season. But he was so much more than a consistent presence in Rudi Garcia's lineup—he was consistently excellent.
Castan finished the year as one of the top defenders in Serie A. Castan was 4th in tackles, tied for 3rd in fewest times dribbled past, tied for 7th in interceptions, tied for 6th in shots blocked, tied for 4th in crosses blocked and he completed 88% of his 1,732 passing attempts (all other figures are per 90 minutes). All told, Castan played to a 7.31 match rating (per WhoScored).
With his protege Marquinhos sold off to PSG in the summer of 2013, Castan was arguably under more pressure in 2013-2014 than he was in his first season, but he quickly adapted and formed one of the best defensive tandems in the league with Mehdi Benatia. He may have only cost Roma €5.5 million, but he was delivering performances commensurate with a player worth five times as much.
It's hard to contextualize just how surprising this was. Castan was well past the age most South American players move to Europe, but through hard-work and dedication he transformed himself into one of the best defenders in the league, if not Europe itself. Things were looking up for Castan and Roma.
With the 2014-2015 season underway, and Benatia now playing with Bayern Munich, Castan was set to assume a new mantle with Roma, not only as their top defender but as a club leader. But once the season official began, Castan's luck took a turn for the worse.
First, there was a minor muscle issue that kept him sidelined for nearly six weeks, forcing him to miss nine matches, but what came next put Castan's career, if not his life, at a crossroads.
During Roma's round two match against Empoli, Castan was subbed off after 45 minutes, complaining of dizziness, a lack of balance and trouble seeing. Following a battery of tests, Castan was diagnosed with a cavernoma—basically a collection of dilated blood vessels that form a lesion.
While surgery isn't required of all cavernoma's, given Castan's occupation and the risk of further balance issues, his medical team decided on surgery in December of 2014. Following the operation, Castan began his long road to recovery, and after nearly eight and a half months away from the game, Castan made his return to the pitch on August 22, 2015, playing 90 minutes in the opening match of the 2015-2016 season against Hellas Verona.
Outside of a minor bout with the flu that season, Castan was relatively healthy but never managed to gain a foothold in Roma's lineup, falling behind Kostas Manolas and Antonio Rüdiger in the pecking order. His mere presence on the team sheet was a minor miracle, but he just never had the chance to reclaim his spot and his Roma career came to an unceremonious end on January 17, 2016, playing 66 minutes at the Olimpico against Hellas Verona.
With his body fully healed and his European ambitions not yet extinguished, Castan would play two more seasons in Serie A, splitting his time between Torino and Cagliari before returning to Brazil to play for Vasco de Gama, where he remains to this day.
Given the unique nature of his surgery, and the sheer amount of time it took him to return, it's easy to remember Castan solely for that bit of bad luck, but let's not sell the man short. His transfer didn't garner many headlines, but he rewarded Roma's faith ten-fold.
He wasn't a prodigious, preternatural like Marquinhos, nor was he a physical freak like Kostas Manolas or Mehdi Benatia, but during his two full years with Roma, Leandro Castan willed himself into the perfect Serie A defender, possessing vision, touch, intelligence and toughness in equal measure.
On that alone he deserves merit, but when you consider the odds he overcame, both as an overlooked player and the fact that he returned from BRAIN SURGERY!!!, Leandro Castan should go down as one of the most unexpected and most lauded success stories of the past 20 years.
Not many of us knew who Leandro Castan was back in 2012, but he's impossible to forget now.