D enilson, was motivated by two things. Making as much money as he could and entertaining the masses. Deep down he knew he would never be the best player in the world, but he knew he could do enough in games to convince people he could be the most exciting. He was in many ways, football's ultimate con artist... a street hustler who was all style, no substance.
Raised in Diadema, Sao Paulo - one of the poorer neighbourhoods and with a large household crammed into very limited square footage, Denilson’s beginnings tick most of the boxes for the first part of the “Rags to riches” storyline so common when we are discussing South American footballers who make the journey to Europe, in search of life-changing sums of money and the ability to showcase their talents on a global stage.
In this article we provide the inside track on the rise and fall of the former holder of the world’s most expensive player title and who would become an icon of the game for his flamboyant and exuberant relationship with the ball, making it talk in a way only few footballers are blessed with. At one stage he was seen as a genuine competitor for Rivaldo and the heir to Rivelino.
Whilst he fell far short of those lofty heights by the end of his playing days, his career remains a riveting case study into which players have what it takes to put their skills to the greater use of their team and which players are to ultimately be remembered as 'circus acts' albeit of the highest order...
Denilson had a very bright beginning to club football, assisting a goal every other game for Sao Paulo on their way to a top flight championship in Denilson’s last season for the club. In Brazil, an early years Denilson performance was very similar to Neymar whilst he was at Santos, with defenders seemingly unable to limit the effect of his skills, and it made him one of the most exciting players in the country.
In 1998, relatively small time Real Betis paid £21.5 million to secure Denilson’s services, largely off the back of a series of incredible performances in Le Tournoi, the precursor to the 1998 World Cup in France. Despite it being a 'friendly' tournament, it boasted incredibly strong sides from France, Italy, England and of course Brazil. Denilson did not look out of place.
By the time he had arrived in Andalucia, Denilson was heralded as a star performer, His 10 year contract was viewed as a emphatic power move from Betis who had been investing heavily in their academy, and saw the transfer as the next necessary step in their quest to do something to break into the La liga Duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
So how did a team like Betis - whose only La Liga title came before the Second World War effectively sign this potential generational talent unopposed? Firstly, the president of Real Betis at the time was tired of Betis living in the shadow of their more illustrious Andalucía neighbours, Sevilla. This fierce ambition meant he was prepared to blow rivals out of the water when it came to preparing a financial package for Denilson.
Secondly, as is often the case at top clubs, international colleagues were sounded out about potential transfer targets to avoid signing 'duds'. Brazilian players already established at European clubs warned their decision makers against signing Denilson, as they had seen up close in training and matches that all wasn’t as it seemed when it came to his potential.
Denilson was even reported to have joined in on the joke when the Brazilian squad started giving Ronaldo a hard time because he cost Inter Milan less money than Denilson cost Betis. The reality is that no-one was as shocked as Denilson, who took his new found stardom in his stride, knowing deep down he would never live up to the billing.
Whilst the decade long contract plus the huge salary for Denilson successfully raised the profile of Betis - Denilson led them further down the table, into financial difficulties, turning them into a selling club. Ultimately he would amass an embarrassing grand total of 13 league goals across 7 seasons with the club.
At his peak, he once did to Carlos Puyol what Lionel Messi did to Jerome Boateng, and whilst mind-blowing moments of magic still appeared and got people off their seats, it was Denilson’s face from the substitutes bench that told the story better than any writer ever could; To compound matters, Denilson simply was not bothered that he was a sub.
His relegation to the bench was something he knew would come. He discovered very quickly after moving to Spain that he would get less time on the ball and less patience from teammates and coaching staff. He was so one footed it made Arjen Robben seem ambidextrous.
Rumours had been around for decades that players at lesser clubs in Brazil allow “The next Pele” more time on the ball to dupe European clubs into paying copious amounts of money thus keeping the Brazilian leagues flowing with enough cash to enable the league to prosper. Never has that rumour been so believable than when you compare a Denilson performance in Brazil to his ones in Spain.
One can assume that mentality played a huge part in Denilson’s demise. The weight of being the world's most expensive player probably affected him more than any other who held that title, but in truth it was a mixture of his technical limitations, and the evolution of the role of the winger that ultimately led to his failings to live up to expectations.
Denilson’s favourite move was to dribble towards the touchline/by-line and draw in defenders, then perform a heel chop around them, emerging on the other side with space to run into. But as Denilson reached peak age, football began to experiment with left footed players on the right, and right footed players on the left, and as such, Denilson’s skillset simply became outdated.
Real Betis in the early 2000s had the perfect players for an early 90’s 4-3-3 in Denilson and Joaquin, who was tipped as the next big Spanish player following a one man demolition job against Barcelona. In 2002. However, both players suffered from the almost universal change in football tactics, as their impacts lessened and managers decided to experiment with what became the new normal.
7 years into his contract, Betis and Denilson agreed to end their relationship, and after an attempt to resurrect his potential at Bordeaux, Denilson decided to do what those closest to him knew he always would, chase the money. A lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia followed, and then a designated player contract with FC Dallas saw him earn millions more. It would prove the final nail in the coffin as the MLS team chose to part ways after 8 appearances and a 1 goal return.
It admittedly feels a bit wrong to even consider criticizing the career of a World Cup winner. Yet the narrative surrounding Denilson is that he is one of the more notable players who did not live up to his potential, and he features in most top 10 lists with that title. Now a social media star on instagram and host of one of Brazil’s most popular shows, Denilson has no regard whatsoever for any interpretation of how high his ceiling.
Deep down he knows that in reality, he more than exceeded his actual potential. It says a lot about a footballers impact on the field when he is more remembered for his performance in a Nike commercial than in any meaningful encounter on a full size field.