Overweight, lazy and brilliant: the career of Werder Bremen legend Aílton

Overweight, lazy and brilliant: the career of Werder Bremen legend Aílton

WITH A SHORT BLOW OF HIS WHISTLE, Edgar Steinborn confirmed something many scarcely thought possible. In May 2003, Werder Bremen sat 23 points behind Bayern Munich, but 12 months on at the Olympiastadion, the travelling fans and players celebrated clinching the Bundesliga title with two games to spare. For one man, the emotion was all too much. Standing in the centre of the pitch, the unmistakable figure of Aílton Gonçalves da Silva broke down.

Owing to one rushed signature, the player forced himself out of a club that never wanted him to leave, and at that very moment on 8 May 2004, nor did he. “I cried a lot during the months at the end of the season. At home, in bed, on the toilet. Again and again I asked myself, ‘Why Schalke? Why Schalke?’ It was to prove the beginning of the end for a player who had to work so hard to make it to the top.

Owing to his weight, strength and surprisingly quick turn of pace, Ailton was nicknamed Kugelblitz– Ball Lightning- by the German press. An unexplained electrical phenomenon, this is fitting of an instinctive striker who came to the game late on. Born in the north-western state of Paraíba, Brazil in 1973 and honing his craft barefoot on a farm, his first club was lowly Ypiranga. Here his goals in the 1994 Campeonato Gaúcho helped the little-known club qualify for the 1995 Série C, the club’s first-ever stint in a national competition.

After several spells of varying success at Internacional, Mogi Mirim and Santa Cruz, a prolific season in the Brasileirão at Guarani led to worldwide interest towards the end of 1997. Werder were keen, although considered the asking price to be excessive, and Aílton signed for Mexican outfit Tigres instead. Five goals in 23 games did not deter Werder boss Wolfgang Sidka, who was determined to sign the forward, finally getting his man in October 1998 for £2.5 million.

Despite the fact he spent his first three weeks in Germany living in a hotel eating nothing but spaghetti, things initially seemed positive for Aílton. Scoring on his debut against Freiburg, it appeared he would need little time to adjust to European football. Unfortunately, Sidka was sacked three days later with the club languishing towards a relegation battle, and in his place came the noted disciplinary Felix Magath, who took issue with Aílton from the start.

Due to the former’s German-speaking policy, Aílton was used sparingly in his first season, starting four games and scoring just twice. Luckily for the Brazilian, Magath was sacked with two games of the season left and his replacement, Thomas Schaaf, was far more accommodating of the striker. A lack of fitness meant he played little part in the survival or subsequent Pokal win over Bayern, but this was an indicator of the winds of change Schaaf would usher in.

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Omitted from the matchday squad for the first three games of 1999/2000 due to ultimately failed negotiations with Botafogo, Aílton’s chance came in his second game back. Away at Wolfsburg, Yugoslav striker Rade Bogdanović was forced off after 15 minutes, and Aílton came on to help Werder to a 7-2 win. A goal and two assists for Claudio Pizarro were the first signs that a player who many saw as an overweight flop might actually be quite good. That season he went on to establish a good understanding with both Pizarro and club legend Marco Bode, recording 16 goals and 14 assists in the process.

Many were amazed at this sudden transformation of a bit-part player into one of the Bundesliga’s most prolific marksmen. Despite Aílton making the bizarre claim that it was due to the fact he was having more sex with his girlfriend, it is far more likely to be owed to Schaaf. Tactically he played to the Brazilian’s strengths, assigning the player little defensive responsibility and using the vision of the likes of Andreas Herzog and later Johan Micoud to find Aílton’s runs in behind.

The next two seasons culminated in similarly high goal returns, although not without issue. The differences between the relaxed lifestyle of Brazil and punctual Germany are obvious, and Aílton was no exception. One notable incident occurred during pre-season in 2002, when he returned late to Bremen and decided to take a taxi to the training camp on the island of Norderney at a cost of over 700 euros. So notorious was his absenteeism that every time he went home, Bremen fans would hold competitions guessing how many days late he would come back.

These small discrepancies were quickly forgiven so long as the player performed well on the field. His much-improved form piqued the interest of Bayern, although they opted for Deportivo’s Roy Makaay instead. Undeterred, Aílton reached new heights in the 2003/04 season to outshine the man favoured by the Munich club. Things started with the striker having a hand in all three goals in the opening day victory over Hertha, two goals and an assist being a precursor of the impact Aílton was going to have on this season.

Scoring in the next match against Borussia Mönchengladbach, he also registered against Schalke, 1860 Munich and a double at Wolfsburg, after which came a decision that would alter the direction of his career for good. With his contract up at the end of the season, Werder officials had become ignorant of the level of interest in their star man.

Schalke were one such party, and due to their offer to double his wages, Aílton agreed a pre-contract only three days after initial contact. Werder were angry, lodging an official complaint with the DFB amidst questions of foul play. Whilst what Schalke did was morally questionable, with the same issue occurring with Aílton’s teammate Mladen Krstajić, there was nothing legally wrong in their approach.

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Despite the ill-feeling, it did nothing to halt Aílton’s remarkable performances. In the weeks that followed came a brace at Freiburg and his sole hat-trick against Bochum, with the first goal a deftly executed one-touch chip from all of 20 yards. There was more to these goals, though, with a further eight assists recorded across the season. Aílton also had superb players around him, with strike partner Ivan Klasnić, the aforementioned Micoud and Fabian Ernst all making key contributions. The truth, however, is that the catalyst of this form, which saw Werder sit five points clear of Bayern going into the winter break, was Aílton.

A scare came in January when he pulled a thigh muscle during a friendly with Dutch side Roda, although he recovered in time to score another brace against Hertha in the opening match of 2004. Two more braces against lowly Köln and in the 4-4 draw at Stuttgart, where he also recorded two assists, meant that heading into the Bayern game, Werder were able to win the Bundesliga.

With the score already at 2-0 courtesy of strikes from Klasnić and Micoud, Aílton curled one in from outside the box to make it 3-0 after little over half an hour. A second-half goal, ironically from Makaay, turned out to be little more than a consolation for Bayern, and Werder held on to secure their first title since 1993. After the game, Aílton gave a bizarre interview, which has become the stuff of legend, called ‘Versteh den Ailton’ – understand Aílton – in which he incoherently talks to bemused reporters in a mix of German and Portuguese.

Despite losing the remaining two games 6-2 and 3-1 to Bayer Leverkusen and Hansa Rostock, Aílton ended the season with a remarkable 28 Bundesliga goals. This was the highest league return for a player since 1981, and with goals against every team bar Hannover, he was rewarded with the German Footballer of the Year award. In doing so he became the first foreigner to receive such an accolade, whilst finishing second to Thierry Henry in the 2004 European Golden Shoe rankings.

After securing the double with a 3-2 cup final over Alemannia Aachen in his last game, Aílton departed Bremen alongside Krstajić. The Brazilian left a city where he was celebrated as a hero for one he once described as “a dump”, and the champions of Germany for a club that had finished six places and 24 points behind Werder. In every sense, it was a step down. Krstajić would prove the more important signing, going on to make 178 appearances over five seasons and form a formidable partnership with Marcelo Bordon.

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Aílton meanwhile spent a sole season in Gelsenkirchen, hitting a commendable 14 league goals to end as top scorer and help Schalke into second place. Unfortunately, the fans failed to accept him due to his lack of tracking back and perceived laziness. It also didn’t help that the player made little secret of his lack of enthusiasm for a transfer, stating how he was sad to miss out on the Champions League and wished the move wasn’t happening. Such was his love for Bremen, he even went so far as to say he would continue to live in the city and commute the 500km round trip each day.

Such difficulties meant Schalke gladly accepted a 3.5 million offer from Beşiktaş in August 2005, where he was tasked to replace Lyon-bound John Carew. Despite scoring in his first three matches, he only recorded a further four goals in five months and was quickly replaced by fellow Brazilian Bobô.

Joining Hamburg on loan late in the window, Aílton is remembered more for a goal he didn’t score than the ones he did. Three strikes in 13 appearances were underwhelming, although a fine solo effort at Schalke must have felt personally satisfying. The miss in question came in a match of huge significance – the Nordderby with Werder – on the final day of the season, with the winners qualifying for the Champions League. HSV had the upper hand going into the game, although found themselves level at 1-1 with around 20 minutes left.

Found by Sergej Barbarez, Aílton was presented with an open goal, although somehow managed to blaze wide from eight yards out. Shortly after, Miroslav Klose, brought in to fill the void created by Aílton’s departure, scored following a mistake by Khalid Boulahrouz. The game finished 2-1, with Werder walking into the group stages and Hamburg left to face the arduous lottery of the playoffs. Following that, Aílton was voted HSV’s Player of the Season, selected online after a campaign by thousands of grateful Werder fans.

Hamburg reached the group stages regardless, beating Osasuna, although Aílton was no longer there. The 1.25 million option to buy was ignored; Beşiktaş didn’t want him either, and on deadline day he ended up at Red Star Belgrade. He did pick up another league winners medal, although once again was only involved until January. This time he went on loan to Grasshopper Zürich, and despite a respectable record of eight goals in 14 hames, including a hat-trick against Luzern, Aílton failed to earn a permanent move.

The sad decline for a player who just three years earlier was Germany’s top scorer continued into the summer. His reward for that feat, the Torjägerkanone trophy, was found for auction on eBay, with bidding reaching 600,000 before an injunction shut it down just 80 minutes before expiry. The culprit was Werner Helleckes, a former agent who claimed the listing was justified since the Brazilian owed him hundreds of thousands of euros in unpaid bills.

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Aílton started the 2007/08 season back in the Bundesliga, signed by newly promoted Duisburg, despite his ballooning size. The form of Manasseh Ishiaku restricted him to the bench, however, and he hardly helped improve already strained relations by requesting paternity leave in October. Following another late return from the winter break, he was released in February. In nine appearances he only scored once, fittingly on his return to the Weserstadion, where he apologetically held up his hands. If nothing else, it allowed Werder fans to pay tribute to their former hero, giving him a standing ovation when he was substituted in the 65th minute.

Aílton then took on a nomadic journey through Ukraine, Austria, Brazil and China prior to another return to Germany in 2010. Uerdingen was the destination, with the Brazilian then returning to Bremen in July. This move brought about much nostalgia, regardless of fact he was to don the red of Oberneuland instead of Werder’s green, with the 37-year-old commenting, “I have never forgotten this city.” This unlikely transfer came about through Aílton’s friendship with manager Mike Barten, and the fourth division side attracted much publicity by unveiling the striker on top of a petrol station.

Nowadays the striker is a larger than life character in his adopted homeland, appearing on reality TV shows such as I’m A Celebrity, releasing an energy drink and recording a song. Indeed, due to being overlooked by Brazil, he did attempt to play for Germany, although was overlooked by then coach Rudi Völler. One nation that were interested was Qatar, who offered to pay Aílton 1.2 million to become a citizen, but FIFA stepped in as he had no connection to the gulf state.

Aílton continued to play and score in the sixth division for Hassia Bingen up until December 2013. Asked why this was the case, he replied, “I can’t just sit at home on the couch drinking coffee.” Even in retirement he keeps busy, splitting his time between Texas, where his wife works as a beauty therapist, and a ranch back in Brazil. Unfortunately the true motivation behind much of this can be put down to the precarious financial situation the player has ended up in.

At his peak, it is rumoured he spent upwards of €100,000 each month on clothes, alongside an odd arrangement in the title-winning season where whenever he scored, he bought his wife Rosaria a piece of jewellery. In order to help, Werder organised a farewell match for him in September 2014, with a capacity crowd at the Weserstadion to witness the final match of an icon. Back in his spiritual home, he hit a hat-trick as his side won 8-4.

This send-off displays how highly he is regarded in Bremen. Sometimes a player and club just go together like hand in glove, and this is one such occasion. He feels the north-western city was his one true home in football, where the locals fell in love with both his goalscoring exploits and eccentric personality. It is for his time in Werder green that he is best remembered, a remarkable five years that, even at the best of times, seemed to end in tears. 

By James Kelly  

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