Illustration by Emir Can Seviindik
Every generation has players that didn’t quite live up to the potential that everyone thought they had. For one reason or another, some just miss the grade and vanish out of public consciousness, leaving fans wondering what might have been had the player not joined a certain club or made a certain move.
In the early 2000s, a Brazilian by the name of Diego Ribas da Cunha, known to you and I simply as Diego, was heralded as one of the next great playmakers for the Brazil national side and was predicted to go on to big thing alongside his best friend and Santos teammate Robinho. He broke into the Santos first team at 16 and immediately Brazil took notice. Here was this kid who had incredible close control, a first touch that was the stuff of dreams and a performance level that was at a far higher than his age suggested.
He was destined to be a star, one of the flag bearers as the national team went into a new era post-Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, but it just didn’t work out as it should have. I doubt we will ever have a definitive reason why, but we can look at his career and try and figure where exactly Diego stopped being one of the game’s biggest talents.
Diego’s talent saw him start training with Comercial FC in the north-western city of Ribeirao Preto from the age of six, where he would hone his skills and first learn what it’s like to play in a team. A few years later, as Diego chased a bigger club, he was signed up by São Paulo-based giants Santos. One of the biggest and most historic clubs in all of South America, Diego was in esteemed company, with the club previously being home to the likes of Pelé, Toninho Guerreiro and many other Brazilian legends.
At the age of just 16, Diego would make his first senior appearance for Santos in the state championship. As reflect and look at early footage of the youngster, you could tell he was something special. He didn’t juggle the ball on his head like Kerlon and he wasn’t doing tonnes of stepovers like Robinho; Diego was a classic attacking midfielder.
He wasn’t flashy, but he was certainly very effective on the ball. He could beat players with a drop of a shoulder, he knew when to make runs into the box, and he certainly knew how to find the back of the net. Whilst he possessed incredible dribbling, his inability to always pick the right option sometimes left his coaches and teammates frustrated with him.
He, Robinho, Elano and Alex soon formed a formidable group that helped Santos to the 2002 Campeonato Brasileiro, their first league title since 1968. The following season, Diego was a key factor in Santos reaching the final of the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 40 years, where they would eventually lose to Boca Juniors. Diego was becoming hot property, with Pelé saying that both he and Robinho “have got what it takes to be better than Pelé.”
Read | Robinho: the legend we waited in vain for
The first club to take an interest was Tottenham Hotspur. The story of this transfer is quite the metaphor for the rest of Diego’s career, as the move looked to be done and dusted until a last minute passport issue (at least that was what was claimed) prevented the Brazilian from joining Glenn Hoddle’s side in north London.
With that deal dead in the water, Diego looked at other possibilities and decided a move to Portuguese giants and Champions League holders Porto would be the best course of action as the club looked to find a suitable replacement for Deco.
On paper, Diego should have relished the challenge of being the star in a transitional Porto team. José Mourinho, Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho had all joined Deco in leaving the club, and with Porto having a busy summer to replace so many stars, Diego was expected to immediately take over from Deco.
Porto could only muster up 39 league goals as they lost their title to arch rivals Benfica, and with Diego unable to produce the kind of performances that many had expected and had seen during his time with Santos, in hindsight we were probably beginning to see what his career would end becoming. He was full of promise and flashes of brilliance, but ultimately disappointing results and untapped potential.
This was as good as it got for Diego in Portugal as new manager Co Adriaanse took a dislike to the young Brazilian. The two had a falling out and once again we saw what would become another trait in Diego’s career. If the manager fully supported him and gave unconditional love, Diego would be sensational, but if the manager didn’t – as Adriaanse did – he would disappear.
Diego struggled in his second season, resigned to just 19 appearances in the league. His career with Porto was slowly slipping away, as was the hype surrounding his talent.
With his time at Porto up, rumours ran wild on where this temperamental but talented Brazilian would head. The move that Diego got was exactly what he needed. Werder Bremen managed to snare the attacking midfielder for just €6 million – and what an investment that proved to be for the Germans.
Read | Denílson and the mercurial talent of a lost legend
Manager Thomas Schaaf knew exactly how to handle Diego, giving him the trust he required and building his team completely around the mercurial midfielder. Diego was the focal point of everything creative in the Werder team, and finally we began to see what he could do in one of Europe’s biggest leagues.
For the first time since his Santos days, Diego was loved. Not just by his manager, but also by the fans and the players, and he was the textbook definition of a star. Schaaf realised that he needed to keep reassuring Diego about his importance, and his on-field disciplinary problems were forgiven. When a player delivered like Diego did, some indiscretions can be put to one side.
We’ve all seen the clip of him scoring from inside his own half against Alemannia Aachen; his performances were out of this world at times. He was voted the best player in the first half of the Bundesliga in 2006, while he and Torsten Frings were dubbed the “two motors” of the club. Diego eventually went on to reclaim his place for the Seleção and won the Bundesliga Player of the Year award.
The next two years in Germany made Diego hot property, with his name again being on the lips of fans across the continent. His final season with Werder actually proved to be his best, scoring 20 goals in total, and despite Die Grün-Weißen finishing 10th in the Bundesliga, his performances helped the club reach their first ever European final against Shakhtar Donetsk.
However, his on-field discipline problems in the semi-final cost him his place in the final. His yellow card meant he missed out on the biggest game in Werder’s history, and it cost them. No one seemed to blame Diego, though – everyone knew he was leaving, and his performance in the DFB-Pokal final, where he set up Mesut Õzil, meant that the Brazilian left Bremen on a high.
On leaving Germany, Diego finally made the move to the big-time that many had predicted, joining Juventus, the right club, at sadly the wrong time.
When Diego joined the Bianconeri, they were at a crossroads in their history. The Italians were trying to rebuild after the Calciopoli scandal and had appointed former player Ciro Ferrara as head coach in the hope of emulating the success Barcelona had when they appointed former player Pep Guardiola.
Read | Adriano: football’s monumental ‘what if’ tale
Diego’s arrival prompted former Serie A legends to wax lyrical over the Brazilian. The great Zico said, “For the role he plays and the way he takes free-kicks, it is true that we are a bit alike,” while Serie A icon Jose Altafini stated, “Diego is faster than Zico and can play all over the pitch.”
Pietro Anastasi helped build up Diego by arguing that he was a combination of Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Baggio and Michel Platini. Gianluca Vialli was stunned that Juve managed to sign Diego, claiming: “Diego is worth the same as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He is one of the top three players in the world.”
It’s safe to say that expectations were high in Turin.
His career in Italy started well, with a one-man demolition against Roma being the highlight of his early weeks. Many were amazed by how easily he took apart the Giallorossi, and it signified that Diego was capable of big performances at a big club. Unfortunately, this was as good as it got for the Brazilian in calcio.
Ferrara implemented a 4-3-1-2 formation to build around Diego, but with Felipe Melo and Christian Poulsen offering next to nothing in attack, too much was placed on the shoulders of their star midfielder and he was subsequently scapegoated for the failings of the club. This wasn’t the Juventus we see today who regularly challenge for honours and make smart moves; this was a Juventus in no man’s land.
The situation didn’t suit him. Diego was set up to fail, and with Giuseppe Marotta quick to rid the club of the previous regime, Diego bit the bullet and his stay at Juventus was cut short. Maybe if he had moved a few years later, we would be telling a different story about how the Brazilian became the successor to the great Alessandro Del Piero.
With his reputation having taken a beating, Diego returned to Germany to join Steve McClaren’s Wolfsburg, but the Englishman couldn’t work out how to get the best out of the mercurial star. When someone comes in for a club record transfer fee, like Diego did, you would expect the manager to have some sort of idea of how to use them.
He was told that he was not wanted at the club and when Felix Magath replaced McClaren, he tried everything in his power to move Diego on. Atlético Madrid came calling and offered him a lifeline, with Diego Simeone wanting to make him part of his new adventure.
Read | Kerlon and the demise of a great that never was
The two Diegos hit it off immediately and the Brazilian hit top form in Madrid. Diego added a different dimension to Atleti and quickly became one of the most important players for Simeone. He helped the club win the Europa League for the second time in three years but had to return to Wolfsburg at the end of the season after his loan ended when a transfer fee couldn’t be agreed.
Both player and club were keen to part ways, but with no clear interest, Diego had to stay put. The relationship deteriorated further as the season went on, and eventually the two parties decided to separate, with Diego heading back to Madrid in what would surely be his last chance at a big club.
What most fans remember about his second spell with Los Colchoneros is his wonder strike against Barcelona, but many forget that he was a part of the squad that captured the La Liga title and reached the UEFA Champions League final. Diego went on to wax lyrical about Simeone: “He was the best coach I have ever had. He not only improved me as a player but also as a person.” It spoke volumes about how Cholo managed to work with Diego, highlighting the importance of effective, singular man-management when dealing with the Brazilian.
A spell at Turkish club Fenerbahçe would follow as he signed a three-year deal after being told by Simeone that his time in Madrid was over. Despite becoming a firm fan favourite in Istanbul and showing fleeting moments of his undoubted quality, it became clear that his career in Europe was beginning to wind down. Hr played out two years of his contract and eventually returned home to join Flamengo, fittingly leaving Europe as a hero to a loyal set of fans in Turkey.
It didn’t take long for Diego to become a key player for Flamengo, and as his social media pages show, he and his family are enjoying life back in South America. He’s happy, and deep down that is all Diego has ever wanted – more than trophies, big moves and finance.
It’s tough to sum up Diego’s career without focusing on timing and managers. He was unlucky to come across disciplinarian managers too often in his career, and it’s no coincidence that his best days were spent under excellent man-managers at Werder Bremen and Atlético Madrid. The Brazilian was also unlucky to join a Porto side in regression, a Juventus desperately rebuilding after their most crushing low, and a disappointing Steve McClaren at a strong Wolfsburg. For Brazil, it was a similar story, with managers failing to trust him and a number of sensational stars ahead of him in the pecking order.
Regardless of that, at his peak, Diego was a wizard on the ball. He could change the game with a devastating feint or a classy, pinpoint of his boot. His set-pieces were amongst the best in the game, his vision was often unrivalled and, like his friend Robinho, he achieved more than many give them credit for. After all, it was never the two Santos boys who set the hype surrounding their careers.
While he has always been compared to other great players – from Pele and Ronaldinho to Del Piero and Zico – Diego is simply Diego. He’s his own man, on and off the field, and despite failing to hit the heights many predicted, a generation of fans from the clubs he played at are left with incredible memories of what he was capable of at his best.
By Tom Scholes @TomScholes316