In 1998 he became the world’s most expensive footballer. A mere ten years later, not even Turkish Süper Lig club Vestel Manisaspor wanted to sign him on a free transfer. Aleks Klosok recounts the rapid rise to and dramatic fall from grace of one of Brazilian football’s great underachievers: Denílson.
In his address to the US Congress in 1942 Winston Churchill proclaimed, “We are the masters of our fate”. For Denílson, his fate was to be unforeseen and equally unrivalled to that of his predecessors. Whilst initially his rags to riches story captured the imagination of Brazilian football purists, his career was to be far from a fairy-tale – one defined by sporadic success, a series of spurned opportunities and selfishness.
The left winger’s meteoric rise to stardom was far beyond what the man heralding from Diadema, a sprawling industrial city in the state of São Paulo, could have ever imagined. He first caught the eye during his supremely successful 4-year spell at São Paulo, for whom he made his debut at the age of 17 and who would go on to score 58 goals in 110 appearances. His stock rose dramatically during the 1997 Copa América and Le Tournoi tournaments in Bolivia and France respectively, where he produced a number of eye-catching performances for A Seleção. In the space of 18 months, the 20-year-old would go from being one of world football’s most talked-about sensations to being its most expensive star. Denílson’s future appeared to be a very bright one.
So what was it that made the 1997 FIFA Confederations Cup Golden Ball winner such an attractive proposition? Blessed with the innocence of youth, Denílson showed no fear. He loved to dribble with the ball, constantly terrorising defenders with his blistering turn of pace, directness and unpredictability, leading him to be compared with past greats such as São Paulo’s historic footballing icon Canhoteiro, Brazil’s 1970s star Jairzinho and the masterful Garrincha. Far from being a slight winger, he was powerfully built with supreme balance, who used his upper-body strength to his advantage to shrug off incoming challenges. Furthermore, despite his relatively young age, those around him quickly came to admire his supreme self-confidence, which verged on the side of arrogance.
His stellar performances and potential drew a number of suitors, but it was the La Liga outfit, Real Betis, who eventually beat their rivals to the wonderkid’s signature – albeit breaking the world transfer record in the process by spending an estimated £21,500,000. And whilst this ‘marquee signing’ was intended by the then president, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, as a signal of the club’s intent on breaking into the highest echelon of Spanish football, Denílson’s inflated price tag was to haunt him for the rest of his career. The winger’s return to France for the 1998 FIFA World Cup was less dramatic, mainly appearing as an impact substitute under former Head Coach Mário Zagallo. It was to set the tone for his 7-year spell at Estadio Benito Villamarín.
Unprepared for the transition from Brazilian to Spanish football along with the level of expectation that had been ratcheted up since his move, Denílson was never able to hold down a regular place in the starting line-up. Just as he struggled for consistency, so did the club. Real Betis’s relegation to the Segunda División in his second season led to a brief return to Brazil on loan with Flamengo CF. Despite leading the club back into La Liga in 2001, over the coming years the he increasingly became little more than a cameo player as his potency in front of goal rapidly diminished. 2005 was to bring his frustrating time in Spain to a close.
The following five years would see the 2002 FIFA World Cup winning player ply his trade in five different countries. Despite enjoying his most productive season in Europe during his single season in Ligue 1 with Bordeaux in 2005, reports of excessive wage demands saw the Brazilian embark upon the first of his big obscure paydays. Beginning in Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr, Denílson’s travels took him to Major League Soccer with FC Dallas, back to Brazil with a successful spell at Palmeiras and unexpectedly to the Vietnamese Super League with Xi Măng Hải Phòng, where he became the highest paid player in Vietnamese history, before confirming his retirement – a dramatic fall from grace for the man who once had the footballing world at his feet.
Whilst physically there was no doubting his talent and technique, which ranked alongside some of the greats of Brazilian football, psychologically Denílson was unable to resist his own hype, principally fuelled by his record breaking move to Europe, which came to undermine him. Amidst the hyperbole, it soon became apparent that the winger was all but one-dimensional. In Europe he simply didn’t have the same space and time to think on the ball as he did in his homeland. And whilst he undeniably possessed a gifted left-foot, his complete reliance on it was quickly exposed by opposition managers and players alike, leading to his virtual isolation from many games and thus consigning him to the substitutes bench for the majority of his career.
Despite absorbing all of the riches that the game had afforded him, the winger was always fighting a losing battle in an attempt to convince the world that, far from being it’s most expensive player, he was its best player. Such is the unpredictable nature of football, that for every success story, be it a Ronaldo or Romário, somewhere out there in the world there will always be a Denílson.