I am a fan of Real Madrid, but talent knows talent. Everybody and their mother has written gushing prose about the Spanish tandem of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona. Yes, the Furia Roja were Kings of Europe and the World, along with FCB, for almost a decade. However, Barca’s resurgence in the mid-2000’s was more than just the cool demeanor of Frank Riijkaard and the magical panache of Ronaldinho.
At the heart of the Catalan resurgence beat a very different midfielder: Anderson Luis de Souza, better known as “Deco.”
When we talk about box-to-box midfielders, we speak of gladiators, athletes, Bryan Robsons. We envision a tall and muscular manly man who dives into tackles with studs up and throws vicious elbows when contesting headers. Yet in this world of Keanes and Vieras, an anomaly appeared: the five foot nine Deco.
Born in Brazil, he was groomed for greatness in Portugal. After unsuccessful stints at Benfica and Alverca, he arrived at Porto in 1999 and came into hisown a few years later when Jose Mourinho became head coach. Porto won the UEFA Cup in 2003, but the following season bore even greater fruit: a Champions League and domestic league double. Nobody could take their eyes off Deco.
The stats paint a decent picture of Deco the player. He was filthy, both defensively and offensively. For example, in the 2003 season he accumulated 17 yellow cards and a red card. He fouled petulantly and frequently. Yet he also scored 10 goals in 30 league games. He bamboozled defenders with flicks and feints and chipped keepers with headfakes and panenka shots. Even more impressive, a year later he provided the most assists in the Champions League and also suffered the most fouls.
Deco was slight of stature, but his work rate and tenacity more than compensated for his lack of height. He was brilliant with both feet, could stop and swivel on a dime, and possessed a deceptively fast first step. Watching juggernauts like Michael Ballack try to pick the ball off him was amusing. He was a motorcycle blazing through a redwood forest; Deco would be two steps away by the time a giant holding mid could lift his leg.
Deco’s audacity was his best asset and wreaked havoc in the opposing half. He often dribbled into and thru double-teams in the heart of midfield, skipping by or bouncing off challenges. And then he would still possess the patience and craft to play a perfectly weighted final ball for a teammate. Like a dagger, he knifed through defenses in a way that recalls the Brazilian Ronaldo and Messi.
Deco’s first two seasons at Barcelona after moving from Porto were stunning. The Cules won La Liga that first year in 2005 and he was named their player of the season, ahead of Ronaldinho. At Barca he found his shot. From 25 yards out, he never needed more than half a second to unleash a rocket. While a good chunk of his goals came from deflections, he also scored some lovely bending chipped goals from distance. At times he was lucky, but he could also be brilliant.
In the clip below of a game vs. Real Madrid, you can see what made Deco so maddeningly effective in midfield. He mostly stuck to the center circle, but committed a series of soft fouls that frustrated the merengue’s offense but only lead to verbal warnings from the ref, not cards. Deco also anticipated the game beautifully, spraying first-touch passes whenever he could. He could nick the ball of you, but you had zero chance dispossessing him.
After two Champions League titles in three years and countless games, Deco’s club career nosedived. He suffered injuries, fell out of favor in Barcelona, and his move to Chelsea went nowhere. Still, you only have to see the smiles of his past teammates at his 2014 testimonial to realize what a special player he was. In particular, Messi looks elated to be on the field with him again:
Deco was a superb individual player, but also had the best trait of any great midfielder: he made the team play better as a whole. He was oil to the offensive motor, but also an emergency brake for the defense. For soccer fans, his star stopped shining too early, but shined hella bright while it lasted. Even a rival had to admire him.
Elliott yells about soccer on Twitter. You can find out about his forthcoming soccer novel here.