It’s easy forget, with football fans having spent the better part of a decade eulogising over the talents of Xavi and Iniesta, that their ascent to the Barca first-team was at one point being held up by Deco – an understated midfield maestro before it became fashionable to be one.
His qualities were of the kind that football managers in today’s chess-like game assign enormous value: he was deep-lying schemer with a boundless passing range and, importantly, the patience to plot his way through a stubborn defence. He could thread a ball through the eye of a needle, lob one over the defence to back post runner, or just smash it in from 25 yards himself.
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Yet, despite his obvious talent, Deco has been largely forgotten by football history, his contribution to Barca – during the transitional Rijkaard era (albeit one in which they lifted the Champions League) – overshadowed by the four years under Pep that followed. True: messrs Xavi and Iniesta both had a better run, they also had a superior support cast, and the benefit of a more stable club.
Being lost in the shuffle is something that Deco will be well used to, though. The talented midfielder came through the ranks at Corinthians in his native Brazil, but soon found himself off to Portugal (first with Benfica) where he languished for a couple of years without finding his footballing niche.
He was 22 before he started playing regularly for a top side (which may not seem very old but, in footballing terms, it’s also not especially young), and nearly 26 before he got a call-up to the national side. But it wasn’t his national side: the Porto man had been shunned by Brazil for so long that he opted to play for Portugal on residency rules instead.
In true footballing fashion, Deco’s debut for his adopted country would come against the one in which he was born, and – in true footballing fashion – he netted the winner in a 2-1 Portugal victory. Pretty soon, he was a permanent fixture in Felipe Scolari’s burgeoning side that narrowly missed out on the European Championship on home soil in 2004.
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Ironically, he soon became exactly the type of midfielder that big, athletic Brazil lacked in 2006 and 2010: a genuine, tempo-setting playmaker capable of pulling the strings from deep.
Back at club level, Deco was earmarked for a key role in Jose Mourinho’s Porto side, who – against the odds – lifted the Champions League in 2004. The midfielder hit more assists than any other player in Europe’s premier club competition that season, and was rewarded with the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year Award at the end of it (joining the likes of Ronaldo, Buffon, Zidane and Beckham).
Success followed after he moved to the Nou Camp, where he helped Barca win the title twice in his first two seasons, before claiming the Champions League (again) in his second after a nervy 2-1 win against Arsenal in the 2006 final.
In 2008, Pep arrived on the scene and – like he does so often – ruthlessly discarded of the players he didn’t view as compatible with his idiosyncratic philosophy (although in Deco’s case it was less to do with playing style than age: he was 31 at the time). Deco head to a Scolari-headed Chelsea for one last run at the top level, and produced the odd moment of magic before finishing up in Brazil.