Football has a strange way of placing some players up on a pedestal as ‘legends of the game’, while relegating others to the category of also-rans in the pantheon of greats. Maradona is revered as one of, if not the, greatest footballer of all time, while Michel Platini is seen as the incompetent Frenchman who runs UEFA by many English fans. Everyone seems to remember the 86’ World Cup but the 84’ European Championships are seemingly forgotten.
This phenomenon is not limited to the more casual observers of the game. Franco Baresi narrowly lost out to Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer as the greatest defender of all time according to World Soccer magazine, receiving 22 votes from a panel of respected journalists from around the world.
In comparison, Gaetano Scirea received only one vote, the same amount at England’s brave John Terry, despite the fact that he kept Barsei out of the national side for some time, won everything there is to win at club level for Juventus, in addition to the 82’ World Cup, and is rivaled only by the aforementioned Kaiser in his mastery of the Libero role. Surely he deserves more than equal footing with ‘JT’?
Turning now from comparing ‘Mr. Chelsea’ with legends of calico to the actual subject of this piece, let’s see if you can guess the identity of a player who is also seemingly being forgotten by many fans of the beautiful game, despite the fact that this individual is still playing professionally today.
He’s one of only a handful of players to have won the Champions League with two different clubs, receiving the UEFA midfielder of the year award on both occasions, he has won eight league titles in four different countries, he was a Balon D’or runner up, and earned 75 caps for his country, highlighted by playing in a European Championships final and World Cup semifinal.
The player’s name is Anderson Luís de Souza of course, or as you might better know him, Deco.
Some might say Deco was born in the wrong time period. There was seemingly no place in Brazilian football for a 174cm tall ball-playing midfielder in 1997. Of course, this seemed to be the case over in Europe as well, with midfield partnerships consisting of one creator, a Zidane or Scholes, and one destroyer, a Davids or Keane, the norm.
Though Brazil had produced elegant ball-playing midfielders in the past such as Didi, Rivelino, Gérson, Zico, Socrates, Falcão, et al, those within Brazilian football came to believe, perhaps as a result of the failure of the 82’ side, that centre midfielders had to be tall, strong players who could physically dominate the midfield battle.
This is evident in the Brazil side that won the World Cup in 2002; Brazil employed a back three with two destroyers in Kléberson and Gilberto Silva ahead of them, with the creative work left to an attacking three of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, and Ronaldo.
This left no room for a slight midfielder like Deco, neither a traditional playmaker nor a player in the mold of Kaka who could drive past defenders with his great pace, but a versatile, inventive midfielder who could link up play and also had an eye for goal.
Never establishing himself in domestic Brazilian football, Deco moved to Portugal at age 19 after Benfica bought him from Corinthians. He was then loaned out to second division side F.C. Alverca, where he quickly adapted to European football, helping the club gain promotion to the top flight with 13 goals in 32 appearances.
Despite his fine performances, on his return to Benfica, manager Graham Souness decided Deco wouldn’t be able to cut it at the top level and instead brought in Mark Pembridge from Sheffield Wednesday. There’s a reason Souness topped the Guardian’s 2008 list of ten worst football managers. Deco was sold to S.C. Salgueiros, where his play caught the eye of FC Porto, and he subsequently joined the club in 1999.
After an indifferent first year, Deco established himself as a regular with the Portuguese giants in his next three seasons with the side, helping Porto to a league title and two domestic cup triumphs. He also impressed individually, scoring 19 goals in 48 games in the 2001/2002 season, including six in Europe.
Despite this early success, his career really took off when a certain Jose Mourinho arrived in 2002. As is evident by his 17 yellow cards and one red card in 2002/2003 season, Mourinho helped Deco improve the tactical aspect of his game, asking him to help press the opposition from his position at the top of Porto’s midfield diamond.
Deco became an integral part of Mourinho’s Porto side, scoring 12 goals as Porto won the league title after a three year drought, triumphed over Celtic in the UEFA cup final, and added the Portuguese Cup to complete the Treble in the Portuguese manager’s first year at the helm.
The success continued in the next season, as Porto defended their league title while pulling off one of the greatest surprises in modern football history by winning the Champions League. Playing in a slightly deeper role linking midfield and attack, Deco was voted UEFA Club Footballer of the Year and topped the Champions league in.
Also the most fouled player in the competition, Deco helped lead Porto to a famous victory against Manchester United on the way to their final matchup with Monaco where Deco ran the show, scoring Porto’s second goal as well as being voted man of the match.
Andy Brassell writes of Deco’s play that season for Porto in All or Nothing: A Season in the life of the Champions League:
“Deco is pivotal to most good things that Porto do. A player who’s the very definition of flair . . . he’s influential on so many levels – his set pieces are always dangerous, and he has the vision to open up a defense. The opposition know he can also beat two or three players at a time so he attracts potential markers every time he picks up the ball, leaving spaces elsewhere on the pitch. Not forgetting, of course, that he’s simply very good a keeping the ball . . .”
Despite these qualities, Deco was never called up by Brazil, and he became eligible to play for Portugal upon earning his passport after spending six years in the country. Realizing his mistake in never calling him up for Brazil, Deco was immediately brought into the squad by new Portugal manager Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2003. He scored a free kick in his first game, coincidentally against Brazil, as Portugal defeated the current world champions for the first time since 1966.
Though Scolari clearly was a fan of his, Deco’s inclusion was nevertheless contentious at first, with many in the media, as well as supporters of clubs other than Porto resenting his place in the squad.
Luis Figo went as far as to say of Deco’s call up, “It’s something that distorts team spirit and I don’t agree with it. If you’re born Chinese, well, you have to play for China.” Figo continued, “It looks like you’re trying to take advantage of something. That’s my opinion and I’m not going to change it because he is in the team.”
Deco responded to the criticism surrounding his selection, saying: “I don’t regret choosing to play for Portugal, I was born in Brazil and it would be a lie to say that I’m Portuguese now and not Brazilian. But I love Portugal and I love playing for the national team.”
His critics were soon silenced as Deco was named part of the Portugal squad for the 2004 European Championships, replacing Rui Costa at halftime against Greece in the first group stage game before playing every minute of Portugal’s remaining games on the way to the final, where Portugal lost to Greece on home soil for a second time.
After the Euro’s, Deco was heavily linked with a move to Chelsea after Mourinho’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, but he instead went to play under Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona. With Barcelona already having signed fellow Brazilian Ronaldinho the previous summer, some questioned Barcelona’s wisdom is signing another attacking midfielder. However, Rijkaard had another role in mind for the midfielder, and Deco excelled playing in a midfield three that season, coming second to Andriy Schevchenko in the 2004 Balon D’or voting.
Deco and Ronaldinho, a duo that according to Scolari, “can make rain fall”, helped bring the attractive, free flowing football back to the Camp Nou that had absent for large periods of time since Johan Cruyff’s original Dream Team. Though Deco never achieved the popularity Ronaldinho did, he was a perfect foil for the forward.
While Ronaldinho’s footwork and goals were so spectacular that even that Real Madrid supporters had to stand up and applaud, Deco was a master of keeping the ball circulating by playing simple, never taking five touches when one would suffice. Showcasing his great passing ability, work rate, and footballing intelligence, Deco helped Barcelona wrest the La Liga title from holders Valencia, scoring ten goals in all competitions.
The following season was perhaps the best of Deco’s career. Barcelona defended their La Liga title in fine fashion, winning by twelve points as Deco was voted Barcelona’s player of the year for the 2005/2006 season. In Europe, Barcelona topped their group and knocked off Chelsea, Benfica, and Milan on the way to the final, as Deco collected another UEFA midfielder of the year award after his side defeated Arsenal 2-1 in Paris.
Deco was at the peak of his powers, a complete midfielder who controlled the tempo of the game flawlessly. Speaking of the possibility of a 4-6-0 formation, former UEFA technical director Andy Roxburg said: “you’d need to have six Decos in midfield – he doesn’t just attack, he runs, tackles, cover all over the pitch. You find him playing at right-back sometimes.’ High praise indeed.
While Guardiola’s Barcelona side famously approached this ideal, he was not the first to apply the concept. Though Rijkaard typically played Deco alongside Mark van Bomel and Edmílson in Europe, in La Liga, he frequently played with a midfield of Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Inietsa, and Deco, certainly a sign of thing to come.
Heading off to Germany for the 2006 World Cup in good form, Deco was by now a key cog in the Scolari’s Portugal side. Scoring in Portugal’s first game versus Iran, Deco’s metronomic passing led Portugal out of the group stage and past the Netherlands in the infamous ‘Battle of Nuremberg’, where he was one of four players sent off. Returning to the side after serving his suspension against England, he was unable to stop Zidane’s France as Portugal again fell just short of glory in a tightly contest semifinal.
Back at Barcelona, Deco was again an integral part of the side, making 47 appearances all competitions. However, Real Madrid captured the league title that season and after a poor 2007/2008 campaign, Deco and Ronaldinho were sold as new manager Pep Guardiola wished to build his side around Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi, among rumors that the two had become a bad influence on the dressing room.
Deco was reunited with ‘Big Phil’ Scolari at Chelsea, and enjoyed a great start to his time with the West Londoners, scoring a couple of spectacular goals and being voted the Premier League player of the month in August 2008. However, his form dropped off and he found himself consigned to the bench after Scolari was sacked.
Despite speculation that he might leave Stamford Bridge, Deco stayed on after new manager Carlo Ancelotti took over and again had a postive start to the season before injuries curtailed him. After recovering, Deco played himself back into the side for the title run in and helped Chelsea win the Premier League and a second FA Cup trophy in two years, completing the first Double in club history.
After injuring himself in the first game of 2010 World Cup, Deco would not feature again for Portugal and he announced his retirement from international football after the tournament. He subsequently joined Brazilian side Fluminense, where he helped the club win two Brazilian Championships. He also led Fluminense to the Rio State Championship in 2012, where he was voted the tournament’s best player, finally getting the recognition he deserved fifteen years after leaving his home country.
While Brazilian fans have somewhat of an excuse for not fully appreciating Deco considering he left the country so young and never played for Brazil, it is unfortunate that many fans of European football remember him not as the elite player that he was, but simply as another above average midfielder to have played on the continent in recent years.
Never mind that Deco was in many way the archetype for Xavi and Iniesta, two players who are so highly revered in the modern game. Apparently Guardiola founded FCB in 2008. Speaking of Guardiola, it is somewhat ironic that a comment by the very man who forced Deco out of Barcelona ultimately sheds some light on what a special player he truly was.
After their victory over Santos in the 2011 Club World Cup Final Pep Guardiola said his Barcelona side played football “as my dad and my grandfather told me Brazil did.” The Catalan side starting XI included Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, and Thiago Alcantar; five Decos one might say. On the other hand, Santo’s midfield consisted of Arouca and Henrique, two destroyers, with Ganso as the playmaker. Barcelona utterly dominated, enjoying 71% possession and winning 4-0. The result was a shock to the system of Brazilian football.
While Spain has produced an extraordinary amount of excellent ball playing midfielders in recent years, Brazil has not. The closest thing again Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has at his disposal is probably Oscar of Chelsea, though he plays primarily as the central player in a 4-2-3-1.
A player like Deco, with his adaptability, ability to pass and move, and football acumen is sorely missed not just from Brazil, but from nearly any national team apart perhaps from Spain. Am I the only one who thinks Deco could still do a job for the Three Lions?
In an age where many fan’s concept of the history of the game began the moment they start paying attention, and the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and social media mean that football is increasingly wrapped up in the present, it is important to not only remember the players that were able to win the World Cup as a result of being part of an exceptional generation, those that wowed fans with great displays of individual skill, or those that scored obscene amounts of goals in teams who frequently steamrolled the opposition.
We should also appreciate players who possess a true love of the game and are capable of that bit of magic, even if it’s only for a few moments or seasons, that show their true class. In this spirit, I will leave the last words on Deco to Scolari, a man who truly appreciated the midfielder’s genius.
“Deco, obviously, is not Zidane, but he is very similar. You expect one thing and then it changes. That is very important. For me, he is one of the best players in the world . . .”