News Matches
Cult Hero

Denilson: The World Cup-winning stepover king rejected by Bolton

11:00 EAT 05/12/2022
Denilson Brazil Cult Hero HIC 16:9
The Brazilian was once the most expensive player on the planet but he never learned to make the best use of his box of tricks.

In this era of gross financial inequality in football, it's hard to imagine a world in which a club like Real Betis were able to break the world transfer record.

But that is exactly what happened in 1998 when the mid-table Liga side spent an eye-watering £21.5 million ($24m) on a Brazilian left winger with a box of tricks to envy.

The story of Denilson is a familiar one in football. One of unfulfilled talent, wasted potential and, perhaps, the pursuit of money over sporting excellence.

On his day, he was untouchable – capable of manipulating the ball to his will and putting the fear of God into the world’s best defenders with a devastating blend of strength, skill and speed.

Boil him down to his stats, though, and he could not look further from someone who was once the most expensive player on the planet.

His story began at Sao Paulo where his precocious talent was enough to earn a senior Brazil call-up in 1996 at the age of 19.

After further catching the eye at Le Tournoi and the 1997 Copa America – where he netted his country’s opener in a 3-1 victory over Bolivia in the final – he went on to claim the Golden Ball at the 1997 Confederations Cup.

So far, so good.

Denilson then step-overed his way into the 1998 World Cup squad and was tipped, by Ronaldo no less, to star at the tournament.

It didn’t quite work out like that, though, even if the 20-year-old did feature in every game including the final, which Brazil lost 3-0 to France.

Starting just once – a group-stage defeat to Norway where he crossed for Bebeto to nod home – Denilson showed flashes of his undeniable talent during the competition, especially against the tournament hosts.

Introduced as a half-time sub against France, he immediately bundled past a host of players, showing physics-defying shifts of direction and lightning quick feet. He even kissed the top of the bar with a trademark powerful drive with his left foot.

However, one passage at the Stade de France neatly summed up the reputation that he found difficult to shake during his playing days.

Picking the ball up by the left touchline, Denilson found himself tightly marked by Lilian Thuram.

An outrageous round-the-back drag created some separation between him and the defender, but instead of firing off a shot or cross, he just had to throw in a few more step-overs before turning back into trouble.

No doubt his almost comical lack of a right foot – a flaw that would haunt him in Europe – contributed to his decision to try more tricks too.

It all ended with a meek pass that was easily cut out by the France backline.

This was Denilson all over. He’d keep you on the edge of your seat with his brilliance, before thrusting you firmly back in frustration after a poor decision in the final third.

Despite an ultimately unsuccessful World Cup, Betis did not waver in their determination to bring him to Europe.

Such was their confidence in his sky-high ceiling, they even handed him a 10-year contract. There was to be no decade of Brazilian dominance in Andalusia, though. Far from it.

The numbers he posted in his maiden season in Spain make grim reading: two goals in 35 La Liga appearances.

Campaign number two was even worse, with Denilson failing to prevent Betis’ relegation in a strange campaign which also saw Sevilla and Atletico Madrid demoted, Real Madrid finish fifth and Deportivo La Coruna win the title.

Despite these struggles at club level he continued to feature – although mainly as a sub – at international level.

Unable to resist Denilson’s enduring charm, Luiz Felipe Scolari even selected him for the 2002 World Cup.

Meagre returns did not prevent Scolari continually turning to him as an ‘impact’ sub throughout the tournament – like that enchanting but unreliable ex-partner that you just can’t seem to cut out of your life, even though you know you’d be better off without them.

His most memorable contribution to Brazil’s World Cup redemption came in the semi-finals against Turkey. Brought on in the closing stages with his side 1-0 up, he produced one of the most chaotic cameos of the competition.

Some of his best/worst bits included failing to lob a wandering Rustu Recber from just outside the box, guiding a completely unnecessary side-of-the-foot flick to absolutely no one when Brazil were threatening to score, and tickling a pee-roller straight into Recber’s grasp when under no pressure.

The cream of the crop came on the stroke of 90 minutes when Denilson maddeningly took the ball to the corner, where he was eventually fouled by Muzzy Izzet, instead of rolling a 10-yard pass across the box to the unmarked Luizao – who surely would’ve have put the game to bed.

As always, a man who played by his own rules.

He would finish the tournament with a winners’ medal, even enjoying a few seconds in the limelight during the final, but international appearances would be at a premium thereafter as his career began its descent into farce.

Denilson went on to see out seven years of his decade-long contract at Betis before leaving in 2005.

An equally ‘meh’ spell at Bordeaux followed before he departed Europe for Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr.

Vietnam and Greece passport stamps appeared towards the tail end of his career before he suffered the ignominy of being turned down by Gary Megson’s Bolton Wanderers following an unsuccessful trial.

After a period of silence in the 2010s, Denilson came out of retirement to play for Ibis – popularly known as the worst team in the world. They even have a mascot called Derrotinha, or Loser in Portuguese.

It was a frankly bizarre end to a thoroughly strange career that promised so much but ultimately delivered so little.

Still, at least we’ll always have the stepovers.