Denílson: The rubber-legged sultan of stepovers who almost moved to Bolton


Pass notes

Grinning, rubber-limbed menace, waltzing down the wing with an entourage of markers in tow, like some real-world approximation of the Pied Piper. Lads, give it up. You're not catching him. He's literally laughing at you. 

The sultan of stepovers was the bane of football's less-is-more crowd, always willing to take a detour around another defender before meandering towards goal. He was also, according to official government data, solely responsible for at least 70% of grazes suffered in school playgrounds during the summer of 1998. 

 

Career in five steps

1. Denílson was a callow 17-year-old when he broke through at São Paulo, but it didn't take too many steam-train forays down the left wing to convince the Tricolor fans of his quality. He was raw at first but slowly added more end product and would score 58 times in four years for the Morumbi club, winning the Copa CONMEBOL and the Paulistão in the process.


2. The winger's form and flair made his progress into the national side an inevitability. Denílson made his Brazil bow in 1996 and would amass 61 caps over the seven years that followed, playing in two World Cups, despite often being reduced to a supporting role.


3. Can you hear that? That's the sound of Real Betis' cheque book calling to us from the history books. In a sequence of events that stunned football fans around the globe, it was the Seville club who won the race for Denílson's signature, gazumping Barcelona to secure a $32million (£21.5million at the time) deal for Brazil's second-hottest property in 1998.

Legend has it that Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, then the Betis president, spent an hour on his knees at church before committing to sign the 20-year-old. But if his prayers had been answered, Denílson was more ambivalent. "I went to sleep thinking that I had signed for Barcelona and woke up and found that I had signed for Betis," he later said.


4. That would not be the end of the disappointment, either. It took Denílson until February of the 1998/99 season to score his first goal, by which point recriminations from the stands were beginning to swirl. Betis were relegated at the end of his second season, and while he eventually got to grips with life in Spain, the colossal potential of his youth never really came close to being fulfilled.


5. A memorable second-placed finish in France with Bordeaux followed ("The only regret I have from my career is leaving them," he lamented recently) before the start of the Nomad Years, which took Denílson to Al Nassr, FC Dallas, back to Brazil with Palmeiras – after São Paulo broke his heart by not allowing him to even train with them – and then aborted spells with clubs in Vietnam and Greece. He also found time to turn down Bolton Wanderers, which... well, our loss.

 

The best of times

A World Cup winners' medal takes pride of place on his CV, but arguably Denílson's finest hour in the canary-yellow jersey of Brazil came at the 1997 Copa América. He was initially a doubt for the tournament after suffering a nasty cut to the face in the win against England at Le Tournoi de France, but recovered in time to fight his way into the side as the competition progressed.

He played 90 minutes in all of Brazil's knockout games, opening the scoring in the electrifying 7-0 semi-final win over Peru and setting up two goals in the final against Bolivia. "That was special for me," he said recently. "I appeared in nearly every game, scoring and playing well. It was a squad full of winners, so it was an affirmation for me as an individual."


 

The worst of times

His transfer to Betis made Denílson the world's most expensive footballer, but it did not make him rich. Instead, the actions of a rogue agent left him in a financial hole soon after he arrived in Spain.

Denílson and his family had been nurturing suspicions about his agent, who had "access to everything" and took care of all the winger's accounts. But the penny dropped when the winger was told he didn't have enough cash to invest in a property in Rio de Janeiro – and the agent refused to produce a summary of Denílson's financial position.

"I had to start again from zero," he recalled in an emotional interview in 2012. All that I had earned, all that I had saved up for my parents... To see my mum and dad cry really got to me.

"He was my friend and I trusted him so much. It's hard to believe it happened."

 

Nickname rating

As a kid, Denílson was known to his friends as Gaginho – Stutterer – because he would often struggle to get his words out. That was no longer a problem by the time he arrived at São Paulo, but his replacement nickname there wasn't a great deal kinder. Upon seeing the youngster's spindly body in the changing room, Cafu christened him Morcego – the Bat. "If he'd been hanging upside down, nobody would have thought anything of it," the full-back later said.

His main nickname, though, was always Denílson Show. As in, "Welcome to the...", which was wholly appropriate for such a natural entertainer. 7/10

 

Extra-curricular activities

Until settling down with actress Luciele di Camargo in 2010, Denílson was something of a Casanova. He claims he slept with five Playboy Brasil cover stars over the years and courted controversy in Spain when he pursued a relationship with the ex-wife of a beloved bullfighter.

With that out the way, let's dip into the adverts. You'll no doubt remember his contribution to some of Nike's greatest hits – including that airport ad – so here are a couple that didn't make it out of Brazil.

First, Denílson vs tennis star Gustavo Kuerten for Pepsi:


And here he is in a frankly bizarre clip for Fiat:


 Key quotes

On his off-the-pitch habits: "I have never drunk, never smoked, never used drugs. My mum says my only vice is women."

On being a reformed ladies' man: "I was a tsunami. Now I'm just a bit of drizzle."

On that Betis transfer fee: "It didn't freak me out because I had no notion of how much it was."

Former Brazil coach Mário Zagallo: "Denílson is a remarkable player, someone who can do the unexpected and damage the opposition suddenly."

 

Last seen

Denílson is now a much-loved commentator and pundit on Brazilian TV channel Bandeirantes. He's prone to the odd teary interlude, and not averse to the odd rant either...


Did you know?

Denílson was nursing a knee meniscus injury when he was named in Luiz Felipe Scolari's 2002 World Cup squad and had to cover it up throughout the tournament. "We'd do shooting practice with the right foot only and I'd have to keep cutting back onto my left," he later revealed. "Scolari would shout at me. When I really did have to use my right foot, I had to hold back tears and swallow the pain. Only my parents knew about it."