Deco: Understated Genius

Understated, discreet and selfless, Portuguese international Deco was a player's player. Dominic Neo charts the former Barcelona, Chelsea and Porto midfielder's career through the years.

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Deco’s brilliant finish for Porto in his testimonial match encapsulates his career: the cool, measured sidefooted volley that kissed the crossbar and nestled into the top corner exemplifies a career characterized by technical adeptness and guile. It was piece of sublime skill that was ever so subtly pulled off.

With a slight grin on his face, he walked away from the goal and quietly acknowledged his teammates’ contribution with high-fives all around. Understated, discreet and selfless. That was Deco in a goal.   

The ex-Portuguese international has had an illustrious career. He won eight league titles and 16 cups with Porto, Barcelona, Chelsea and Fluminense over 11 years. The diminutive playmaker notably won two Champions League titles: in 2004 with Porto and in 2006 with Barcelona. Deco also narrowly missed out on international success with Portugal, with Greece upsetting the hosts 1-0 in the Euro 2004 final. Individually, he won the silver ball in the 2004 Ballon d’Or and was named UEFA’s best midfielder in 2003-04 and 2005-06. He has been incredibly successful.

One of the best players in the world, along with others like [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi."

Those are the words of Luiz Felipe Scolari, a coach that has seen his fair share of football geniuses. His former teammate at Porto, Derlei, has lauded him as the best player he has ever played with as well. Yet, Deco has somehow kept a very low public profile, in spite of his numerous successes and obvious quality.

It may be because of his subtle playing style. Not one to burst down the pitch or to lunge in with a crunching challenge, the 1.74m tall maestro preferred to play the game simply. He is blessed with brilliant technique, spatial awareness and vision, which enable him to unlock defenses with perfectly weighted through-balls and take long-range shots with unerring accuracy. This sweet strike from thirty-yards out, which he managed on his Chelsea debut, is a prime example of Deco’s technical gifts:

Nominally a central midfielder, Deco is most effective just behind the offensive line, linking up play and creating chances with short, incisive passes. He has been lauded for his excellent workrate and tactical nous too, dispelling the myth of the lazy playmaker. In 2004, he played at the tip of a midfield diamond at Porto, just behind the front two. At Barcelona, he operated just behind fluid front three of Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and Ludovic Giuly. That his former coach at Barcelona, Frank Rijkaard, termed him the “barometer of the first team”, is not only telling of Deco’s measured and composed playing style, but more significantly, the statement is a glowing testament of the Portuguese’s sheer importance in a team of superstars.

"Before Mourinho arrived I was sad.”

Deco, though, was not always highly rated. Although he made a big move to Europe as a 19-year-old in 1997, it did not work out for him in the first four years of his career. Benfica acquired Deco from Corinthians, and proceeded to loan him to Liga de Honra club, Alverca, for a season. Upon Deco’s return, then manager Graeme Souness preferred Welsh midfielder Mark Pembridge to him. Deco was then sold to Salgueiros, without making a single appearance for Benfica.

He impressed enough during his short stint at the second division club for Porto to snap him up. Although Deco finally managed to get his career going, his failure to win the domestic title frustrated him. It was not until a certain Jose Mourinho came along that his career blossomed. Deco acknowledges the Chelsea manager’s contribution:

"I was inconsolable as I had gone three years without winning the league title [with Porto]. Mourinho was contagious in his way of being and working. We started winning matches straight away and soon felt it was possible to win the league. We played beautiful football."

“What Mourinho gave me was fame as was he was able to build a great team … being in a winning side made people notice so I thank him for that”.

The rest, as they say, is history. Deco went on to win 24 titles in the next 11 years with four clubs. You would be hard-pressed to find a more successful modern footballer.

Brazil or Portugal?

It is then, rather inexplicable that his birth country, Brazil, never called him up to the national squad. In 2002, having resided in Portugal for more than six years, Deco gained Portugese citizenship. He then decided to play for Portugal. It was a controversial decision that generated plenty of public discussion.

As life would have it, his first international match was against – you guessed it – Brazil. In 2003, he came on as a substitute and promptly scored a free-kick to help Portugal notch their first victory over Brazil since 1966. Not a bad way to silence your critics.

Deco went on to win 75 caps and score five goals for the national team. Although he never won an international title with Portugal, Deco was still a vital part of the Euro 2004 squad that narrowly lost to Greece in the final. All things considered, he had a solid international career, especially for a player who won his first cap at the age of 25. Better late than never.

Understated, underrated genius?

Is he, like Scolari claimed, one of the best players in the world? Deco’s multiple accolades would certainly suggest so, but his unassuming style and disposition does not make him as eye-catching as Ronaldo and Messi. Yet, he was a crucial cog of championship winning teams. Deco is a proven winner. And world-class players win titles.

He will, however, continue to remain slightly out of mainstream football consciousness. When we debate over the best modern players, Deco will likely and inexplicably excluded from the discussion. How will he be remembered, then? Messi’s tribute offers a suggestion:

'Deco deserved this [testimonial], both as a footballer and as a person,' he said.

'He’s a player I learned a lot from, as did so many other team-mates. There was no way I was going to miss this event.'

Deco is a professional’s professional. For every through ball that Messi ever so effortlessly makes, there is a hint of Deco within. It is a fitting way to remember such a classy player. In his own inconspicuous way, Deco did not go gentle into that good night. He would not have it any other way.

Fans of Deco will be able to catch him next in Asia with Tiger Street Football 2014. The double Champions League winner will be appearing in Cambodia (August 9), Mongolia (August 23) and Singapore (September 6).