Zlatan Ibrahimović simply puts his hands on his head, while Andy van der Meyde drops to his knees in disbelief. It is the 94th minute of a Champions League group match between AC Milan and Ajax. Trailing 1-0, the Dutch side are frantically searching for an equaliser. A low cross into the box finds the Swede, whose effort is blocked by Cafu. First onto the loose ball is Ajax captain Rafael van der Vaart, who redirects the ball towards the empty net.
With the Milan goalkeeper on the floor, it appears a certain goal, one which will only enhance the burgeoning reputation of the attacking midfielder. But it doesn’t go in. Unbelievably, Dida has managed to get off the deck, readjust his position and push the ball out at full stretch with his left hand. “I assure you that there are stops more complicated than this one,” he tells Gazzetta dello Sport afterwards. It seems incredible to think, but his statement is not misguided when you possess such a level of talent.
Born in October 1973 in the Brazilian state of Bahia, in his prime Nélson de Jesus Silva was one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Taking his name from the legendary Flamengo striker, the club he supports, Dida’s initial introduction to sport was through handball and volleyball. This aptitude for handling was to serve him well. So too was his organisational skills, which were such that he formed a team with his brothers at the age of 13.
Four years later he debuted for Cruzeiro de Alagoas, prior to a move to Bahia state giants Vitória. His early years featured a starring role in Brazil’s 1993 World Youth Championship victory, alongside being crowned the youngest recipient of the Bola de Prata award for the league’s best goalkeeper. Such form prompted a move to national giants Cruzeiro in 1994, where, during a five-year stint, Dida would win both the Copa do Brasil and Copa Libertadores, alongside two more goalkeeping awards.
By the end of this stint he had already appeared for the Seleção, debuting at the 1995 Copa América against Ecuador after regular number one Cláudio Taffarel was suspended. He also travelled to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but embarrassed himself in a 1-0 loss to Japan, crashing into Aldair to gift Teruyoshi Ito the winner. At the 1998 World Cup, Dida was relegated to third-choice goalkeeper, and the following January, declared his desire to further his development in Europe.
The only side to show interest were Milan, and Dida served to take Cruzeiro to court in an effort to cancel his contract six months early. Naturally reluctant to lose one of their stars, Cruzeiro contested the decision for five months, during which FIFA allowed a loan to Swiss club Lugano in order for Dida to maintain his fitness. Playing twice in Switzerland, the transfer to Italy would be finalised in May 1999, with Milan paying around £3m for the 26-year-old.
His start in Italy would be difficult. Despite playing in the victorious 1999 Copa América for his country, Dida found himself as the third choice. Returning to Corinthians on loan, a year away would establish the ‘keeper as a penalty-saving expert, with Dida denying Raí on two occasions during the 1999 Campeonato Brasil semi-final. There was also the winning save from Vasco’s Gilberto in the inaugural Club World Cup final.
The Brazilian finally debuted for Milan in a 4-1 victory over Beşiktaş in the Champions League in early September 2000. Less than a week later he started away at Leeds, although he made a costly error by dropping Lee Bowyer’s long-range strike in the 1-0 defeat.
The 2001 false passport scandal that rocked Italian football ended his first season, with it being discovered that Dida’s Portuguese documentation was forged. He was banned by UEFA from playing in a European league for a season, being loaned back to Corinthians again.
Another return to Milan came in 2002, with Dida coming on for the injured Christian Abbiati in a Champions League qualifier again Czech side Slovan Liberec. So impressed was Carlo Ancelotti with the Brazilian’s performance in the 1-0 victory, from then on, Dida was his first choice. In his first proper season with the Rossoneri, he would concede only 30 goals, helping Milan win both the Coppa Italia and Champions League.
In the final of the latter, Dida was to prove decisive. Milan dominated the game against Juventus, although it remained 0-0 and went to penalties. Step forward Dida. In the shootout, the Brazilian saved from David Trezeguet, Marcelo Zalayeta and Paolo Montero as Milan won their sixth European title. Following the match, Juventus boss Marcello Lippi admitted Dida’s stellar reputation unnerved his team, with four players refusing to take a penalty.
To cap off this crowning first full season for Milan was a nomination for the Ballon d’Or, where he finished 13th. Characteristically modest, he remarked prior to the ceremony: “I have no chance of winning as there’s a lot of excellent players on that list, but it’s an honour to be nominated.” The first Brazilian goalkeeper to be put forward for this award, at last a nation notorious for its lack of goalkeepers had a shining star.
The 2003/04 season saw Milan go one better in the league to win Dida’s only Scudetto. The Brazilian became the first foreigner to win Serie A’s best goalkeeper award, having conceded just 20 goals all season. In doing so, Dida broke a run of three straight wins for his rival Gianluigi Buffon and was universally recognised as one of the best in the business.
Despite being sent off against Livorno on the opening day of the 2004/05 season, Dida would return for a fantastic period of form, with 10 goals conceded as Milan lost only one match out of 18. This run featured an astounding save off a free-kick from Chievo’s Roberto Baronio. With the shot on target and Dida taking a step to the wrong side, the Brazilian somehow recovered to tip the ball over with his right arm.
The season was, however, a huge anti-climax, as Milan ended seven points behind champions Juventus, who would later have the title stripped from them. There was also the small matter of the Champions League final, when Liverpool famously came back from 3-0 down to win on penalties. Managing to save the effort of John Arne Riise, Dida was unable to repeat his heroics from two years before, with opposite number Jerzy Dudek the star of the shootout.
This European campaign also featured the defining moment of Dida’s career, coming in the second leg of a tense quarter-final with city rivals Inter. After Julio Cruz was adjudged to have fouled Dida in the midst of Esteban Cambiasso’s disallowed goal, furious Inter fans responded by throwing a sea of flares onto the pitch. As Dida tried to take the resulting free-kick, he was struck on the shoulder, falling to the floor before being rushed to safety by medical staff.
The match was delayed for around 10 minutes and called off entirely following the persistent disruption of the Inter fans. Dida was unable to continue, receiving treatment for bruising and first-degree burns, after the pyrotechnic missed his head by inches. UEFA subsequently awarded the game to Milan, fining Inter €200,000 for the behaviour of their fans.
Regardless of losing in Istanbul, Dida ended 2005 by being named as the goalkeeper in the inaugural FIFA Team of the Year. He also came a career-best second in the IFFHS goalkeeper award – where he lost to Petr Čech – and was again shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or. There was further success with Brazil, too, as Brazil won the 2005 Confederations Cup, a tournament in which Dida became the competition’s most capped player.
The following season would unfortunately see the return of the nervous displays that typified his early days in Milan. In the first week of January 2006, he dropped a corner for Paolo Cannavaro to open the scoring for Parma, in a game Milan would eventually win 4-3. Then, a month later, he completely misjudged a long-range effort from Andrea Gasbarroni in a 1-1 draw with Sampdoria. Concerned, Carlos Alberto Parreira stated how Dida would lose his starting place at the World Cup should his form not improve.
An impressive response in the Champions League semi-final loss to eventual winners Barcelona dispelled any doubt, though. Following two previous tournaments as a substitute, Dida went to Germany 2006 as the undisputed first choice. A quarter-final exit to France was seen as a failure given the talent in the reigning champions’ squad, but Dida was one of the few players who escaped criticism. Conceding just two goals across five matches, he also became the first ‘keeper to captain the Seleção in 28 years.
In October, having amassed 91 appearances to become the third most capped Brazilian goalkeeper of all time, Dida announced his international retirement. His exploits had paved the way for a new generation, with the likes of Alisson, Ederson and Júlio César all following in his footsteps to succeed in Europe.
In November 2006, Dida damaged knee ligaments in a 1-0 loss to AEK Athens, being sidelined for almost two months. On his return to the side, he was easily beaten at his near post in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich, an error that handed the Germans a 2-2 draw. He then let in two more cheap goals in the first leg of the semi-final with Manchester United, with a Milan fan furiously placing him on eBay after the match.
He did, however, atone in the second leg, keeping a clean sheet as Milan won 3-0 to reach the final in Athens. The third such occasion of Dida’s career was to end positively, with a brace from Pippo Inzaghi exacting revenge over Liverpool.
It was to be the Champions League, however, that would prove the downfall of Dida. Following Scott McDonald’s last-minute winner for Celtic on a Wednesday night in October 2007, a fan ran onto the pitch and tapped Dida on the head. Initially giving chase, the Brazilian then fell to the floor in shameful circumstances before being carried off on a stretcher. Deemed by UEFA to have feigned injury and violated the “loyalty, integrity and sportsmanship” of the competition, he was handed a two-match ban.
On his return to the pitch, Dida continued to turn in questionable performances. The worst of these came in January 2008, when a comical error gifted Inter victory in the Derby della Madonnina. Bizarrely, he appeared to dive out of the way of a routine shot from Cambiasso. By now, the Ballon d’Or nominated goalkeeper was gone, replaced by a nervous figure Milan fans christened Didastro, a play on the Italian word for disaster.
Such uncertainty, alongside recurrent back and knee troubles, meant Dida only appeared once more that campaign. The return of Abbiati from a fruitful loan with Atlético Madrid saw Dida resigned to being backup in 2008/09, only appearing in the disappointing UEFA Cup run to the round of 32. A season-ending knee injury for Abbiati, however, after just 12 minutes against Siena in mid-March 2009 meant Dida did return to play in Serie A for the first time in over a year.
Further injuries meant he missed the entirety of 2009/10 pre-season, and consequently began the campaign as back up to Marco Storari. The Brazilian would return to the side, together with some childish errors. A blunder against Real Madrid saw him drop the ball for Raúl to score, and upon Abbiati’s recovery, Dida was benched once again. New manager Leonardo did, however, decide to rotate the pair as the season wore on, with the Brazilian recovering to end the campaign as first choice.
The conclusion of that season also brought the end to Dida’s time at the San Siro, with his contract expiring in the summer of 2010. Insistent on finding another club in Europe, he remained a free agent for almost two years before returning to Brazil in May 2012 to sign for Portuguesa. There were then short spells at Grêmio, where he displaced Marcelo Grohe, and Internacional, where he served as understudy to Alisson.
Dida’s last appearance came at the age of 41 in April 2015, making him Internacional’s oldest ever player. He was also their first black goalkeeper in 43 years, with ethnicity a key part of his legacy. Prior to Dida, the only other black number one for Brazil was Moacir Barbosa, the man blamed for the infamous Maracanazo defeat to Uruguay. Becoming Brazil’s first black goalkeeper at a World Cup for 56 years, Dida appealed to the nation to forgive Barbosa, saying “this is the moment to break the taboo”.
Speaking on such a matter, Luiz Felipe Scolari was glowing in his praise. “He went to Europe, played in one of the biggest teams in the world and opened doors. What do you say after that?” A trailblazer who sought to challenge convention, Dida deserves to be remembered as so much more than the error-prone goalkeeper we saw at the end.
By James Kelly @jkell403