What Could Have Been: Denílson

by Kevyn Doran

Consistency.

It’s not difficult to argue that it’s the backbone of football. The greatest managers in the world swear by it. “Consistency wins things, there’s no question about that.” Not my words, but those of Sir Alex Ferguson. If Fergie isn’t your cup of tea, then how about Arsene Wenger? He claims that “every game is difficult and as soon as you drop your level a little bit, you are in danger“. If you prefer your footballing philosophy to come from those on the continent, then feel free you take your pick from Guus Hiddink (“I think that’s what we need, we need consistency“), Josep Guardiola (“Ensuring concentration and consistency in my team is not only my job; it is my responsibility“) or Carlo Ancelotti (“We were top of the league for eight months because we played with consistency”).

You can trawl through Google’s archives and find the biggest names in football either praising their team’s consistency, or lamenting the lack thereof. Either way, these managers have taken charge of some of the most talented footballers of all time, so one thing is clear: for all the talent in the world a player may have, consistency is equally as important. Case in point? Let’s take a 61 times capped Brazilian World Cup winner who was once the most expensive player in the world. And we still know nothing about him.

Okay, so it doesn’t take a genius to realise the importance of consistency. Take a look at Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma for a quick-fix example. Both players of (arguably) equal talent, their careers went in opposite directions since they secured their big money transfers from Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United and Barcelona respectively. Speaking of big money transfers, that brings us nicely back to our subject at hand. Denílson de Oliveira Araújo joined Real Betis from Sao Paulo in August 1998 for an inflation-adjusted €34.5 million,  becoming the world’s most expensive player at the time.

Before I make the following point, let me categorically deny that I doubt Denílson’s ability. Anybody who had the pleasure of seeing him play on one of his good days knows that he had the chance to go down as one of the greatest of all time. I would not include him in this series if I questioned his talent. But it can be argued that Betis were perhaps counting their chickens before they had hatched, having seen the success of Romario, Bebeto and Ronaldo in La Liga who had previously been heralded for their performances in Brazil.

A record of more than a goal every two games for Sao Paulo, followed by some stellar performances for Brazil in the Copa America, had seen Denílson heralded as destined for great things, but it never quite worked out for him at Betis. Indeed, his debut in the green and white shirt would sum up his eventual seven years at the club. A 0-0 draw with newly-promoted Alaves failed to capture the Verdiblancos faithful’s imagination.

Betis failed to make any improvement upon their previous season, dropping three places to 11th and out of the European qualification spots. Things got catastrophic in Denílson’s second season, with Betis finishing in 18th place and finding themselves relegated to the Segunda Division. Denílson moved to Flamengo on loan the following year, partly in an effort by Betis to reduce their wage bill, and partly because of Denílson’s demand for top tier football before the 2002 World Cup. However, after only 11 appearances, Betis recalled their record signing due to the Brazilian club’s inability to keep up with agreed payments.

Over the next 5 seasons, Betis reclaimed their La Liga status, and consistently won European qualification, culminating in a 4th place finish in Denílson’s final season at the club. However, Denílson himself was no longer a first team regular. He had also helped himself to a World Cup winners medal in 2002, having made a handful of substitute appearances for Brazil in Japan/Korea.

In the summer of 2005, Denílson moved to French club Bordeaux. His arrival coincided with the club’s meteoric rise up the table, climbing from a 15th place finish in 2004/2005 to a runners-up spot to Lyon the following year. Denílson’s form was typically inconsistent during his time in France, and rumours of excessive wage demands saw the Brazilian leave for Saudi Arabian club Al-Nasr the following summer. He became the ultimate journeyman after his Betis career, playing for 9 clubs in 5 year. These ranged from obviously obscure paydays in the form of FC Dallas and Xi Măng Hải Phòng (where he became the highest paid player in Vietnamese history, only to leave the club after one game), to homeland returns such as Itumbiara and Palmeiras.

Most recently, Denílson was seen plying his trade for Greek side Kavala, but was released in April having only been with the club for 3 months despite signing a 2 year contract. Probably the most unbelievable aspect of Denílson’s story is the fact that he is still only 32 years old – the same age as Thierry Henry and Raúl, and younger than the likes of Michael Ballack, Francesco Totti and Mark Van Bommel who are all still playing at the highest level.

Denílson’s story is one of caution, or rather a lack of caution, displayed by both Real Betis and the man himself. Betis bought into the hype of “the next big [Brazilian] thing”, which further allowed Denílson to do the exact same thing. He may have had the same technique, close control and dribbling skills as some of the all time greats, but Denílson lacked the mentality, determination and consistency to be truly ranked alongside his heroes. While stories of the fame and success of his compatriots Ronaldo and Romario will forever capture the imagination of young fanatics worldwide, Denílson will unfortunately remain a permanent fixture in “Where Are They Now?” sections across the internet.