In a generation where the best Brazilian born players were almost exclusively top level creative midfielders, Deco is probably the one who got away.
The former Porto, Barcelona and Chelsea man represented Portugal at international level eventually and he made a name for himself on the European stage at club level and also with the national team that he played for strictly through FIFA’s citizenship rules.
A gifted playmaker, Deco had it all and won it all during his time in three of Europe’s best leagues. League titles in three different top European countries, two UEFA Champions League titles as well as several domestic cups.
Deco’s early career was plagued with injuries. After moving from Brazil over to Portugal as a youngster, he was in the Benfica academy and hailed as the eventual successor to the legendary Manuel Rui Costa.
His dribbling and passing range were similar, but he never quite had the mobility or pace of the the winger, and thus was instead used centrally in a midfield role rather than as a forward. After struggling to overcome fitness problems and being released by the Lisbon club, he spent one year at lowly Salguieros before signing for FC Porto.
This transfer was eventually labelled as a “historical mistake” by fans due to the success he had with the Dragões. The player himself blames Graeme Souness for his departure, telling former striker Nuno Gomes in an interview, “Benfica decided, it wasn’t my decision. They didn’t want me. The coach was Graeme Souness at the time. I was young and Benfica needed some players.“
Once arriving at FC Porto in 1999, Deco was installed as a regular starter in his second season but it was in his final three seasons where he became a legend at the club.
In 2001/02 he scored a career high 19 goals from midfield as Porto came third, seven points behind champions Sporting CP. The following two years were the most successful of his time in Portugal though and where he gained the name and reputation that would follow him for the rest of his career.
He would win the next two Primeira Liga titles but in 2003/04 was when he really became a star. At 26-years-old, he would score four and register 29 assists in 45 games as Porto won the title but also shocked the world by winning the Champions League.
Ten of those 29 assists came in the 12 Champions League games that season, and he also scored in the final as they defeated Monaco. He would follow manager Jose Mourinho out of the club that summer, but while Mourinho went to Chelsea as ‘the special one’ Deco joined the Catalan side to go up to the next level in a £15m + Ricardo Quaresma deal.
Once again the deal was met with scepticism, with Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho the main man at the club and Barcelona not really tending to play with a natural number ten.
Manager Frank Rijkaard opted to use Deco as the most offensive player in a three-man midfield and it was the Portuguese man’s work rate and willingness to press that shocked worried fans the most. His performances were exceptional as he formed a wonderful partnership with Ronaldinho and striker Samuel Eto’o that powered his side to two La Liga titles and a Champions League during his four years with the side.
He accrued 20 goals and 45 assists in 161 games for the club – numbers that don’t exactly jump out at you. But that’s exactly why he’s in this series; to be remembered for his greatness.
Let us remember that in 2004, the year he won the Champions League final with Porto and made the final of Euro 2004 with Portugal that he finished as the runner-up to Andriy Shevchenko in the Ballon d’Or and ahead of new teammate Ronaldinho in the voting.
Once Pep Guardiola arrived at the Camp Nou and placed a greater emphasis on youth with the promotion of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets to the first-team, Deco eventually did move to Stamford Bridge.
He joined up with former Portugal boss Luiz Felipe Scolari and made an immediate impact, winning the Premier League player of the month at the first attempt. When Scolari was sacked later that season, he lost his place and asked to leave but once Carlo Ancelotti joined – he was able to become a regular once more.
Under Ancelotti he was used as a number ten once again in a diamond formation and also in a three-man midfield once again in a squad full of options. He played a big part in winning the double that season, with 28 appearances in all competitions before returning to Brazil to finish his career with Fluminese.
In an era now where an attacking player’s impact is seemingly only recognised because of their numbers when it comes to goal involvements, Deco is not that man. 74 goals and 150 assists in 482 career club appearances don’t exactly shine through.
Despite that, he is fondly remembered at two European giants for his role in their success during his time at the club and is arguably the best Brazilian-born playmaker to never wear the famous yellow and green.