The clichéd footballing purist will tell you there's no beauty in the art of defending. After all, to defend is to engage in the miserable act of negation; only with the ball is the positive act of construction rendered plausible, a goal being the ultimate reward for crafting something from nothing: in football’s case, that of a well-executed team move, or a sublime act of individual skill.
But the purist — perhaps by definition — is wrong. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and there are plenty of those who’ll testify to the simple, destructive joy of watching Leonardo Bonucci crush the dreams of all those who stand before him. The Juventus centre-back, a towering figure with the kind of iconic visage you'd ordinarily expect to find in marble statue or the sepia pages of an aging Panini album, will be the rock at the heart of his side’s defence in Saturday’s Champions League final, and watching him is sure to be one of the highlights.
For not only does Bonucci possess the unflinching ability to brush aside all those who venture into his path, but he does so with an elegance that renders that very act one of delight. To watch Bonucci in action is to be able to witness one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation at the peak of his powers; it is every bit a testament to the abilities of mankind as anything a silky playmaker or tricky winger could produce, if not more so: there cannot help but be an added elemental heroism in the strength and determination required of an elite defender. It's doubtless a remarkable rise for a player once considered the lesser half of a centre-back pairing completed by Captain Clumsy himself, Andrea Ranocchia.
To be sure, the emergence of the Legend of Bonucci has been assisted by events off the pitch as well as on them. The Italian international made headline news in 2012, when he turned the tables on an armed assailant reportedly desirous of Bonucci’s watch, punching him, and chasing him down the street with his pricey timepiece still in hand. But the very credence of the story is in part testament to a player characterised above all else by an absolute indomitability.
However, don't make the mistake of thinking Bonucci’s the archetypal bruiser. Our purist-cum-straw-man would also be wrong precisely because of the way in which Bonucci embodies the act of defence as attack’s first principle. To defend may well be to negate, but a negation without which no creation would be possible. And Bonucci epitomises this better than anyone defender currently in the game, precisely through his remarkable ability to transition between phases in the blink of an eye.
It's scarcely an exaggeration to claim that for both Juventus and the Italian national team, the retirement of Andrea Pirlo was offset by Bonucci’s emergence as football’s finest ball-playing centre-half: a phenomenon that has earned him frequent comparison to German great Franz Beckenbauer. It's equally no surprise to discover that Bonucci spent much of his playing time as a youngster in central midfield, honing his enviable technical skill; nor that Pep Guardiola, the man with the world’s most egregious playmaking fetish, described Bonucci's just last year as one of his “favourite ever players.”
Ultimately, it is neither Bonucci's imperious defending, nor his visionary passing that has seen him emerge as a true fan favourite, but instead the sense of the superhuman that can only be attributed to the fact he can do both so well. Looking forward to Saturday’s final, Bonucci’s ability to trigger counter-attacks with a deadly long pass puts Real Madrid in the tricky position of not only having to stop Bonucci stopping them, but also of stopping him altogether.
It's rare that a centre-back has the potential to make the decisive contribution, but Bonucci has this enviable attribute in a way perhaps only Madrid’s own Sergio Ramos can match. Having already been beaten once in a Champions League final, the jewel of the world’s best defence will be desperate to finally get his hands on the elusive trophy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a neutral who didn’t think he deserved it.