Flying down the wing, the ball at the end of his toe, movement in his hips and flair in his soul, Denílson was the quintessential Brazilian winger. Any who had the pleasure to see him perform his wizardry in the flesh could have easily been fooled into thinking that he would go down as one of the greats, however that isn’t quite the case for Denílson de Oliveira Araújo, who remains one of the ultimate talents that got away.
There is something that strikes the ventricles of every football aficionado when they witness attacking wing play at its deadliest, exciting and most enthralling. For me, more so than a killer through ball from Andrés Iniesta, a left to right booming diagonal pass by Frank de Boer, or a bullet header from Alan Shearer.
A quick step-over, drop of the shoulder and skip past the full-back is what dreams are made of. I may be pulling at my nostalgic heartstrings but two wingers bombing down the sidelines is a sight that seems to be from a far-flung footballing climate, and seemingly almost as rare as a golden-headed lion tamarin native to Denílson’s homeland. Instead, the footballing elite is tending to opt for more intricate play where technique and possession are favoured over flair and excitement. For this reason, wingers such as Denílson are a dying breed.
When true whitewash huggers did exist, Denílson was the archetype. Chalk on his boots, pace to burn, step-overs galore, back heels aplenty, Cruyff turns and rollovers were all part of the artillery stored in his locker. Although the street kid could play on either wing, the ball only ever touched his left foot. His right foot was purely for balance, absolutely necessary but never takes the limelight. Legend has it that his right boot actually did grace the leather of the ball on a few rare occasions.
The boy from the marauding span of Diadema started his career at his local club São Paulo, making his debut at the tender age of 17 and breaking into the national side just two years later. He was a key member of a new generation of exciting Brazilian footballers and referred to as the Canhoteiro, which means the ‘left-footed one’, and is also the nickname of a legendary São Paulo player from the 1950s.
Despite playing barely 50 matches for the club, he is still regarded as a legend. His promise was so much that his name was even muttered amongst true Brazilian wing masters such as Jairzinho and Garrincha. During his time in the most populous city in the southern hemisphere, Denílson had an enviable goalscoring record better than one every two games and also shone brightly during for a budding international career, first for the under-17s in France and then for the Seleção as they danced their way to victory in 1997 to both the Copa América and Confederations Cup.
The following year would be a defining one for Denílson. He was a key figure in the Nike football advert that took place just before France 98. For me, it’s one of the best adverts ever made as the American force combined with the re-emerging footballing powerhouse. If he did nothing else he would go down in history just for this. He appeared alongside Brazilian greats such as the Ronaldo, Romário, Cafu and Roberto Carlos as the players samba-styled their way through the airport displaying an array of tricks, skills and footballing passion alongside the iconic, unforgettable tune of Mas Que Nada.
In a way, the advert could serve as a metaphor for Denílson’s playing career – exciting, entertaining, fun and talented, but when it matters most and the goal beckons, the wrong decision is made, the ball hits the post and ricochets agonisingly away, as happened to Ronaldo in the advert.
Just before France 98 commenced, Denílson was to make a move that would define his whole career. The boy from Brazil put pen to paper and signed for Spanish club Real Betis in what was then a world-record fee of £21m, leaping-frogging the previous record by Brazilian teammate Ronaldo, who went from Barcelona to Inter Milan for around £19m the year previous and the record before that when Shearer moved to Newcastle. The big difference was that both Ronaldo and Shearer had displayed their talent consistently on the highest stage; Denílson hadn’t.
His exciting appearances for Brazil, status in São Paulo and extreme natural talent all helped to elevate his price tag into world record territory as many marked him out as the next best thing. At just 20 years of age, Denílson had the world at his feet, or at least balanced on the end of his left foot.
With the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid all gunning for his signature, it came as somewhat of a shock when it was announced that Betis had won the race. With the footballing world’s jaw agape, Denílson was supposed to mark the start of a new era for Betis spearheaded by club president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.
For Lopera the money didn’t matter, he wanted a statement, marquee signing and he certainly got that. It was only afterwards that Lopera was found out to be syphoning money out of the club illegally into his own businesses so he was happy to spend the club’s money and set Betis up for an unsteady financial future, as long as he was making a few pounds while he did it.
Advert and signing done, it was time for the World Cup. Despite fielding intense media pressure prior to the tournament, even more than Il Fenomeno, Ronaldo, the most expensive player in the world did not start the first game of the campaign against Craig Brown’s Scotland as this would mark the player’s problems long term; he’s very much style over substance and when it actually matters, a coach cannot trust him. With this Mário Zagallo, the Brazil coach and two-time World Cup winner himself, chose the safer option of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Romário, only bringing the street kid on in the 70th minute.
At the time of signing in June 1998, it was written in The Independent newspaper that, “Bigger clubs like Internazionale, Barcelona or Real Madrid have a habit of swallowing up bright young talents like Denílson. Betis aim to grow with their new signing. What the thrusting Spanish club will get for their money is a fledgeling international of abundant talent who has studied at the highest tables.”
In the same article, Andrew Longmore stated: “Ronaldo, no less, says that Denílson will be the star of the tournament, which might be the truth or a subtle way of deflecting some of the hype. The thought of a scurrying new Garrincha providing the service for Ronaldo and Rivaldo or breaking from midfield himself is too tempting to ignore, either way. He has pace, strength, near-perfect balance, and genius enough in his left foot to inherit the mantle of Garrincha and Canhoteiro.”
It’s clear that now he had been tagged with that price, people expected world-class things from the winger on a regular basis. He was no longer a lad from São Paulo with talent: he was the most expensive football in the world, and that brought pressure. During the World Cup, where Brazil were beaten in the final 3-0 by France, Denílson didn’t quite fit the tactics occupied by Zagallo, and the burden hanging over him wasn’t to be swept away in one swing of that magical left foot. He had a new challenge; a move to the south of Spain and a new league to conquer.
Denílson spent the next seven years at Betis, a club whose name he is almost synonymous with, making almost 200 appearances. However, it wouldn’t be a period he or the club envisioned prior to signing as he constantly struggled to find consistent form and rekindle his youthful, free-playing style.
His first season at the club saw Los Verdiblancos drop down into a bottom half finish, down from eighth place the previous year. The player struggled from the off. Despite adoration from the fans, he couldn’t get off the mark and agonisingly had to wait till Valentine’s Day to score his first goal; at least giving the story a smattering of romance.
Denílson’s struggle for consistency was reflected by Betis themselves, and the second year turned out far more disastrous with the club dropping down to the Segunda División. After the drop, Denílson was temporarily offloaded to Flamengo in an attempt to reduce his hefty portion of the wage bill and due to his desire to put himself contention for the Seleção with the 2002 World Cup just around the corner. This really wasn’t part of his or Lopera’s plans when he signed two summers previously.
Due to his lofty wage demands, Flamengo could no longer keep up the payments and he was recalled back to Betis in January 2001. He helped the club gain promotion back to LaLiga and would spend the next five years as a bit part player on Betis’ peripheries. The thing Denílson probably craved for most – consistency – was a distant dream at Betis as they waltzed through eight managers in three years.
Although things did get better with the club managing to qualify for the Champions League and even win the Copa del Rey in 2005, Denílson was not the major reason behind the revival. Even so, he did still manage to make the 2002 Brazil World Cup squad, made a few fleeting appearances and got himself a winner’s medal thanks to Ronaldo’s two goals in the final when Brazil this time beat Germany.
In 2005, the player and Betis were to part ways as he went to France to try his luck with Bordeaux, which lasted just one paltry season. After this spell, the career of the former most expensive player on the planet really did start to spiral downward, despite being just 27, in what should have been his prime years. Denílson became the ultimate nomadic journeyman, playing for six clubs in four years in no less than five countries. In these four years he played in the likes of Saudi Arabia, Brazil, the USA, Vietnam and Greece. I use the term ‘played’ lightly as he managed an average of just nine games per club, but picked a series of huge wages along the way.
After a brief spell at Al-Nassr straight after Bordeaux, Denílson went back to Brazil where he signed for Palmeiras, then under the guidance of former Real Madrid manager, Wanderlei Luxemburgo. Denílson lasted for 30 games before jetting to Vietnam to sign for Xi Mang Hai Phong, becoming the league’s highest-paid player on £4m a year in the meantime.
This time he managed just three weeks and one game before picking up an injury and then signing for Greek side Kavala, where he wasn’t to play a single game. It was here, in the northern city, where Denílson hung his boots up on a 16-year career without even touching a ball with his former majestic left foot.
Sometimes fairytale beginnings do not always have fairytale endings. For Denílson, his supreme talent as a youngster was squandered due to a combination of pressure, greed and too much too soon – a problem which is becoming more prevalent for today’s young footballers. The footballing public were initially enraptured with Denílson’s rag-like beginnings to quickly becoming the most talked about footballer in the world by the time he was 20, but it wasn’t to last.
Life is about choices and it seems Denílson made a series of ill-educated and ill-informed decisions to suit his bank balance rather than the career he could have had, which would have undoubtedly brought riches anyway. Indeed, he does have a number of medals, mostly from being a member of the Brazil national squad, plus a Copa del Rey with Betis, but it could have been so much more.
Both the pressure and the greed overshadowed his talent and unfortunately he was never able to fully recover and become the player to match his natural talent.
By Ben Hardman @hardmanbs
Check out more of Ben’s work on his Real Betis blog.