Blog by: Karthikeya
In a year marked by retirements left, right and centre, we’ve become accustomed to hearing of stars hanging up their boots. Each followed the other with rapid-fire speed (Scholes, Beckham, Carragher, van Bommel, Owen), giving us barely enough time to clear out the cobwebs of accumulated memories. But as a new season dawns, ‘ere comes the news of another fading great who has decided to call it a day.
In an era of fly-by-night icons, where players repeatedly flattered to deceive, Deco was an authentic legend. His manager at Portugal and Chelsea, Luis Felipe Scolari, once commented that Deco and fellow Brazilian Ronaldinho could together “make rain fall”. As an attacking midfielder, and later as a deep-lying midfielder, he was gifted with exquisite passing and shooting abilities combined with a Herculean stamina that saw him lead 90th minute counter-attacks with speed and gusto.
His peak years, of course, are long past. There was an era when Deco commanded the same respect and fear from opponents that Mesut Oezil or Franck Ribery do now. In a star-studded, double champion Barcelona side boasting the likes of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and a young Messi, the 29-year old Deco was named the club’s Player of the Season for 2005-2006.
It is surprising that such a talented player was over 25 when first noticed by Europe’s biggest sides, but Deco was a late bloomer. His best phase was between 2002 and 2010, during which period he played for three great sides: Porto, Barcelona and Chelsea, winning league titles with all three. Later, he returned to his native Brazil where he won two more titles with Fluminense.
He first came to Europe in 1996 to play for Graeme Souness’ Benfica side as a teenager. Despite impressing his teammates in practice and away on loan, he could not cement a place in the first team. Displaying the same far-sightedness he had earlier shown at Liverpool, Souness decided that Deco would never become a player worth keeping. He transferred him to Salgueiros, where a single season was sufficient for the Brazilian to impress Porto scouts. He signed for Portugal’s biggest club in 1999.
In terms of silverware, his Porto years were his best. Between 1999 and 2004 Deco amassed 11 trophies, including a memorable treble (league, Portuguese Cup and UEFA Cup) under Jose Mourinho in 2002-03. He anchored Porto’s attack as they won another league title the next season, followed by the trophy that really launched his European career as well as Mourinho’s: the 2004 UEFA Champions League.
Having outsmarted and outplayed Monaco’s defenders throughout the final, in a performance that deservedly earned him the man-of-the-match award, Deco was feted as one of the finest talents around. At the none-too-young age of 27, he was the next big thing.
With several European big guns chasing him, the 27-year old elected to join Barcelona rather than follow his mentor – and several Porto teammates – to Chelsea. However, the famous Mourinho-player bond is all too evident: Deco has often credited Mourinho with lifting him out of depression when he arrived as manager in 2001. It is slightly ironic, therefore, that Deco would go on to become a legend at Barcelona, where Mourinho is, by consensus, considered pond life.
At Barca, Deco forged a fruitful partnership with Ronaldinho, playing a key role in Frank Rijkaard’s side as Barcelona won back-to-back league titles in his first two years. The crowning moment was his second Champions League title, in 2006; at the pinnacle of Deco’s personal powers. His high work rate and footballing intelligence were key elements in making Rijkaard’s preferred three-man midfield work. The results made him one of the most revered midfielders in the club’s modern history.
As he entered his 30s and younger players started to slide their foot in the door, his old-school footballing skills became progressively redundant. By 2008, Deco’s proficiency had taken a drop. It didn’t help that new manager Pep Guardiola wanted a more homogenous team. Where Rijkaard sought to channelize the disparate qualities in his multi-ethnic squad, Guardiola had a very different vision for Barcelona; one that had no place for talented individualists like Ronaldinho and Deco.
He joined Chelsea, where he was part of a midfield featuring Michael Ballack, Juliano Belletti and Frank Lampard. The side was unsuccessful outside England, but the midfield four are still etched in Blue folklore as probably their best ever. He won three trophies with Chelsea, helping them to their only Double till date. In 2010, he and Ballack were moved on, and Deco left Europe for good.
Looking back today, there will be few regrets for the Portuguese player of Brazilian stock; other than his inability to win a title with the national team. He split opinion in both countries when he opted to play for Portugal in 2002; but in hindsight, it was the right decision. The Brazilian midfield of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s boasted of legends such as Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Juninho. Young Deco wasn’t even an afterthought.
His retirement has been provoked by a recurring hamstring injury; a by-product of his massive work-rate. In a curious, unwanted sense, it stands testimony to the high standards Deco set himself on the field. In addition to his formidable skills, his determination and desire to win will be remembered – and missed – by fans across the planet.