An ode to Deco

An ode to Deco

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible … I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves.” By the time he passed away in 2012, Oscar Niemeyer was one of the greatest architects in world history. The Brazilian’s unique designs, informed by his abhorrence for all things bleak and uniform, were inspired by his belief that form should always come second to beauty. 

Despite the reverence with which he is treated by his trade, the citizens of Brasília are less enthused. Niemeyer had been the inspiration behind the planning of the nation’s capital in the 1950s, and the result was a metropolis which is regularly voted as one of the ugliest places on Earth. This is one prophet who, in his home capital at least, remains without honour. 

Anderson Luís de Souza – or Deco – might know how he feels. Despite a dazzling career that has seen him win the Champions League with two different clubs, the introverted playmaker retired in 2013 with a notable absence of pomp and bombast. 

Deco was born in São Bernardo do Campo on 27 August 1977, the third boy in a family of six children. Like every other kid in Brazil, he grew up with the pig’s bladder tied to his feet. Unlike every other kid, he was blessed with a phenomenal talent with the football, signing his first professional contract with Corinthians when he was just 15.

In 1997, when he was playing at a youth tournament in his native São Paulo, a Benfica scout spotted his immense potential. “I saw what everyone saw,” admitted Portuguese legend Toni, who was transfixed by the scruffy youngster’s delicate ball control and improbable balance. After one viewing he had seen enough. Deco arrived in the country of his grandfather’s birth as a demurring 19-year-old, eager to make a name for himself. 

His new club had other ideas. The writing was on the wall as soon as he arrived, bundled into a car at the airport and driven straight to Alverca on a season-long loan. Graeme Souness had just arrived as manager in Lisbon, adding bristle to his new side by signing Mark Pembridge and Steve Harkness. Deco was a luxury that the fiery Scot had no intention of indulging. 

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It was an immediate setback, one that the young playmaker struggled to recover from. A series of feeble performances in the south-west meant that, when Salgueiros signed him permanently a year later, Benfica fans were indifferent to his demise. 

The closest Deco’s new club had come to a trophy was a clash against Zinedine Zidane’s Cannes in the 1992 UEFA Cup, but now they had a potential star in the ranks, even if his appearances were limited by injury. 

Fernando Santos dashed their hopes before they’d even begun. Deco’s injuries meant he had played little for Salgueiros, but his talent was unmistakable, and he signed for Porto in 1999. Mário Jardel’s ridiculous tally of 36 goals had secured the Primeira Liga, but it would be their only league success in three seasons under the future hero. By the time that the ambitious young manager of União de Leiria arrived in the winter of 2002, Deco was mulling a move home.

At his unveiling, José Mourinho met the eyes of every reporter in the press room and announced that his team would become champions. Implementing a stern 4-4-2 diamond, the cocky young coach steered his players to a third-placed finish and a spot in the following season’s UEFA Cup, his scientific training methods and ruthless attention to detail energising a jaded squad. Deco danced beautifully at the apex of that diamond. “Before he arrived I was sad as I had gone three years without winning the league title. Mourinho was contagious in his way of being and working. We started winning matches straight away.”

The following season would be one of the greatest in Porto’s history, with the league captured at a canter before a routine win over Mourinho’s former employers bagged the cup. While a domestic double in his first full season was impressive, Mourinho only had eyes for Europe. Celtic’s path to the final warms Scottish cockles even today, but their opponent’s journey was completed with almost corporate ease, Roberto Mancini’s Lazio presenting the briefest of challenges in the semi-final. 

In a showpiece marred by indiscipline and foul play, two players shone brightest. One was Henrik Larsson, the irrepressible Swede whose pair of strikes had forced the game into extra time, and the other was Deco. 

Given licence to attack the Celtic defence, the Brazilian peppered Rab Douglas’ goal throughout the first half, before his cross was fumbled into the net by Derlei in injury time. The pattern would continue after the break, Deco picking the Celtic lock to send Dmitri Alenichev clear for the second on 54 minutes. Both teams settled into the trenches until Derlei secured the trophy with a scrappy winner in the second half of extra-time. He may have scored the goals, but Deco had won the trophy. 

Read  |  José Mourinho: the Porto years

Barcelona and Bayern Munich wanted him, but to his chagrin, a dream move to Catalonia was nixed by President Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa. As Porto embarked on a defence of their title, Deco was anonymous on the pitch, sulking at the refusal to grant him a career-making transfer. 

The real test of Porto’s mettle would arrive in the Champions League. After seeing the group draw, Mourinho had turned to his players with typical arrogance and said: “We are going to the final.” His players were less sure, but after qualifying from a group containing Partizan Belgrade, Marseille and Real Madrid, the Dragões faced Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the round of 16. 

“How the fuck did he score?” Benni McCarthy had just seen Quinton Fortune give United the lead in Portugal before his own two goals gave the hosts a slender advantage for the return leg. Deco’s imagination had bypassed Roy Keane all evening, so much so that the Irishman reacted in typical fashion by stamping on Vitor Baía three minutes from time.

United were deprived of their captain for the return fixture, but everybody expected them to progress with a comprehensive win at Old Trafford. Eric Djemba-Djemba and Nicky Butt were both deployed, with Ferguson looking to frustrate Porto’s elegant craftsmen.

After Paul Scholes glanced in a header on half an hour, United surged forward in pursuit of a fatal second.  Porto withstood the onslaught, with Deco dropping deep to help out alongside Maniche and Costinha. As the clock struck 90 minutes, United were going through. That is until Tim Howard fumbled McCarthy’s free-kick, allowing Costinha to slide in a decisive goal. 

The ensuing celebrations are etched into Champions League folklore, as a delirious Mourinho sprinted from the bench to join the pile-on. When the celebrations died down, however, a tough fixture against Paul Le Guen’s Lyon awaited.

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Deco again laid down a marker, scoring the tie’s opening goal from six yards before his pinpoint cross allowed Carvalho to nod in a second. Two more assists came in the return leg – first, a defence-splitting pass to set up Maniche, before a cross with the outside of his boot for the same player to kill off the tie. 

Deportivo were at the fag-end of a glorious era that had seen them capture LaLiga a few years previously, but Albert Luque and Diego Tristán still had more than enough to derail Porto’s European dreams. The first leg was a study in melancholy, one of the worst games in Champions League history remembered only for Jorge Andrade’s red card. 

The second leg was just as dour, save for one guiding star. Deco was simply unplayable, creating chance after chance before winning the penalty that was summarily converted by Derlei. With an away goal secure, a familiar scene came into focus, with Mourinho bringing on Pedro Emanuel as the Portuguese stifled and frustrated their way to the final whistle. It wasn’t pretty, but they were through. 

Monaco had written their own fairytale journey to Gelsenkirchen, aided by the curtains of Jérôme Rothen and the ponytail of Dado Pršo. They would be cut down to size by Mourinho’s grimacing drill sergeants, harried into submission as Deco reserved his best performance for the biggest game of his career. Carlos Alberto opened proceedings with a volley on 39 minutes, before Porto’s number 10 sent Flavio Roma the other way with a cursory finish into the bottom corner. 

The Porto fans knew then that the trophy was theirs, thousands of blue and white shirts heaving en masse in the stands. When Alenichev slapped in a third, Mourinho had made history, but as he removed the winner’s medal from his neck he knew that a large part of his success was down to the impudent trequartista who had sent Edouard Cissé for a coffee. 

The award for UEFA Midfielder of the Year was recognition for a campaign in which El Mágo had graduated from skilful playmaker to a bona fide star. For now, though, the focus shifted to the European Championship. 

“If you’re Chinese, well, you play for China.” Luís Figo had left no doubt about what he thought of Deco’s inclusion in the Portugal squad for Euro 2004. The Porto man had been granted citizenship of his adopted country after a six-year stay, and had fallen in love with life in Iberia after a difficult introduction.

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Luiz Felipe Scolari had previously admitted that not including Deco in his Brazil squad had been one of his biggest regrets, so when he was appointed as manager of Portugal for a tournament on home soil, he wouldn’t waste a second opportunity. Despite months of argument and counter-argument in the Portuguese press, Deco was included in the squad for a friendly on 29 March 2003. Naturally, he made his debut for the Selecção against Brazil, and naturally he scored, arrowing a free-kick under the wall for a first win against the Samba giants in almost 40 years. 

It would prove to be a false dawn. Portugal were horrible under Scolari, failing to win any of their seven friendlies before the tournament kicked off in Lisbon in June. Despite his encouraging performances, Deco started the game against Greece on the bench, as Scolari preferred the aged genius of Rui Costa in attack. After a stumbling defeat in their opening game, Deco was included in the starting line-up, playing every match and becoming player of the tournament as the hosts crashed into Otto Rehaggel’s Greek wall in the final. 

Deco’s heartache was eased just 24 hours later by Frank Rijkaard and Barcelona. Ignoring the wads of cash on offer from Chelsea, he joined old foes Henrik Larsson and Ludovic Giuly in Catalonia to augment Joan Laporta’s insurgency. Los Cúles had signed Ronaldinho the year before, but a second-place finish was scant return for the ambitious new chairman. 

Deco was moved into the centre of the field alongside Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, his natural introversion dovetailing alongside the club’s homegrown stars. He played like a La Masia veteran, combining humble pressing with moments of breathtaking brilliance. His partnership with Ronaldinho became one of Camp Nou’s biggest draws, with even Scolari admitting that together the duo could “make rain fall”. 

Indeed, it was Ronaldinho who was beaten into third place in that years’ Ballon d’Or, with only the goals of Andriy Shevchenko stopping Deco from receiving football’s highest individual honour. 

After a six-year wait and countless melodramas, Barcelona finally secured the LaLiga title in May, but it would be the following year where Deco and his teammates exorcised their greatest ghost, coming from behind against Arsenal to win their first Champions League trophy since  1992. 

Read  |  Ronaldinho and the eternal journey to joy

Once again the Portugal midfielder had been superb, acting as Ronaldinho’s right-hand man to inspire victories against Chelsea, Benfica and Milan. His flawless transition into central midfielder brought further honours – needless to say, he was voted Man of the Match in the final before winning another UEFA Midfielder of the Year award. His club success, however, was being viewed enviously in the corridors of the Bernabéu. 

Ramón Calderón had sparked into action, pillaging Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson from Juventus whilst Ruud van Nistelrooy joined from the Premier League. Los Blancos snapped at their rival’s heels all year, winning the title on their superior head-to-head record. For Rijkaard, it was the beginning of the end.

The 2007/08 season would be a disaster for club and manager as Barcelona finished third behind Villarreal. What’s worse, fate had decided that Barcelona would face Real Madrid at the Bernabéu just after they had sealed the title, meaning that the Catalans would be required to greet them with a pasillo, or guard of honour. 

Deco, however, wouldn’t be part of the welcoming committee. Along with Samuel Eto’o, he had been given a convenient yellow card in the previous game, a move that was deemed selfish in the Barcelona dressing room. 

It was just the latest example of the midfielder’s wayward influence on the squad. Deco had previously shown a penchant for rule-breaking at Porto when, along with a clutch of his teammates, he had arrived drunk at training only for Mourinho to cancel the session in disgust. He and Ronaldinho may have been the chief architects of Barcelona’s rejuvenation, but barely a year after the triumph in Paris they had grown hubristic. 

Repeated lateness for training and excessive partying was made worse by Rijkaard’s reluctance to punish the same players who had carried his reign. When a young Lionel Messi began falling under Ronaldinho’s wing, the club hierarchy knew they needed to act. Rijkaard was sacked, and the two best players in the squad were jettisoned. 

Scolari had made a habit out of punishing the England national team, but all was forgiven when he was appointed Chelsea boss in the summer of 2008. One of his first moves was to sign a player to whom he had given an international debut, and when Deco smacked in a goal from 30 yards in his first home game against Portsmouth, Blues fans expected big things. 

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Fifty appearances and countless injuries later he was gone, a series of niggling concerns and dressing room disharmony curdling his stay in the English capital. Scolari had been sacked after just seven months, with his departure blamed on politicking senior players and a lack of authority. At least, that’s what Deco implied when he admitted, “Honestly, I did not like the experience at Chelsea.”

Despite being convinced to stay for one more season under Carlo Ancelotti, Deco left the club in 2010, a Premier League and FA Cup double adding metal to the bitter taste in his mouth. 

After 14 years in Europe, Deco signed for Rio de Janeiro giants Fluminense in 2010, helping the Tricolor to their first Brasileirao in a quarter of a century. Once again, injuries curtailed his involvement, with the veteran midfielder appearing in just half of the team’s fixtures throughout his three-year contract. He retired in 2013, but not before he was embroiled in a doping scandal, testing positive for the stimulant furosemide during a routine test that spring. The finding was subsequently overturned, but vindication arrived too late for his departure from the game in August. 

A great performer always leaves their audience wanting more. Two Champions Leagues, one UEFA Cup and 21 domestic titles would satisfy even the most vociferous of appetites, but for Deco the feeling of unfulfillment remains. Whilst he may be revered in Porto and respected in Barcelona, the rest of the football world has been slow to appreciate his talent. 

Just as those who doubt Oscar Niemeyer should cast their eyes over the Palácio da Alvorada, Deco’s doubters should look at the highlight reels of one of the greatest playmakers in recent history. He was, you can be assured, far better than many remember.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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