Deco: The master behind the magic of Barça

Deco left Brazil in search of recognition for his talent. Ahead of tonight's European Cup final, he tells Sam Wallace how he has found it as the driving force behind Barcelona
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The Independent Football

At one of the greatest football clubs in the world, in a beautiful city, it seems like the perfect job: the playmaker to the Barcelona forward line. When Deco glances up from the ball against Arsenal tonight he will be able to pick his pass from a stupendous choice: Ronaldinho or Samuel Eto'o. This is life at Barcelona but, says Deco, it is only part of the story.

We are talking in the Barcelona suburb of Gava, in a sports shop where, for the last three hours, Deco has signed an autograph for what seems like every person in the area. They are Barcelona fans and some of them are already holding cardboard replicas of the European Cup; for all of them the result of tonight's Champions' League final seems a foregone conclusion. They cannot envisage anything but a victory over Arsenal, and it is that expectation which bears down heaviest on Deco.

Those who deal with Deco regularly say he is a serious person, as serious about his football as any player born in Brazil, although not so austere that he does not mind munching through a McDonald's meal before we start talking. One day the team he plays in will come to be remembered as one of Barcelona's greatest, although Deco would prefer that they be regarded as such in the present day.

"I think that it's good but the pressure is that people think that you are going to win every game by two or three goals," Deco says. "I think that perhaps they forget that there other good sides out there too. So maybe they don't value you as much as they should.

"It's like when we beat Milan [in the semi-final], after the 1-0 win over there, everyone thought it was job done, as if Milan were just a no-mark team. Similarly, beating Benfica [in the quarter-finals] was almost just a given. The big problem with all this is that it begins to create the kind of feeling that simply winning is no longer enough. But we the players just carry on enjoying ourselves in the same way and that's the most important thing."

At 28, Anderson Luis de Souza is the diminutive force who drives Barcelona and the man Arsenal will be required to stop tonight. He does not share the status of Ronaldinho or Eto'o but, for those who know how the Spanish champions work, his influence cannot be overstated. He has played a central role in teams managed by Jose Mourinho and Luiz Felipe Scolari, changed his nationality from Brazilian to Portuguese, has been fouled more often than anyone in La Liga and been accused of diving by Sir Alex Ferguson.

It is an unusual football story, and it has made him a footballer unafraid of the biggest reputations. Where would Thierry Henry fit in at Barcelona should he join this summer? "The way we play, we always have three forwards, Ronny, Messi and Eto'o," Deco shrugs. "If Henry comes here it will be difficult to know where he's going to play, but I also think that you always find room for players like him. Whether or not he comes to Barcelona, it will be after this final, and so the game is very important for him. If I were in his shoes, I would want to come to Barcelona as a Champions' League winner, so I don't think the fact that he might be coming to Barcelona will change his way of thinking or how he plays.

"Apart from being a quality player, Henry also has a lot of experience, he's not a young lad who's just turned 20. He's a player who's been used to playing at the top level for a good number of years, and so when it comes to advice, I don't really have any for him. He'd be signing because of what he's achieved, so he should carry on doing more of the same."

Deco will be the only player on the pitch tonight who has won a European Cup, with Porto in 2004, and he was close to following Mourinho to Chelsea before he signed for Barcelona that same summer. "For me Arsenal play the best football of all the English teams I've seen in recent years," he says. "You could perhaps take out the last two seasons where they have been rebuilding their side but I think they have remained the best footballing side in England. So I hope it will be a game where two great sides are going all out for victory."

Deco has long been regarded as a Mourinho protégé but was at the club three years before the Chelsea manager, having arrived on a route that took him from Brazil to Benfica, who failed to spot his potential, and he was then farmed out to Alverca and Salgueiros. A very good player before Mourinho arrived, he was a part of the Mourinho revolution but not transformed by it.

It has been a long journey from his birthplace, São Bernardo do Campo, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, to Corinthians Alagoano, who have always done a brisk trade in selling to Portugal players deemed sub-standard in Brazil. Deco arrived in Europe in 1997 and on 29 March 2003 he played his first international as a new citizen of Portugal. He scored the winner in their first defeat of Brazil in 37 years.

Tonight Deco faces Gilberto Silva, the man who occupies the same midfield role for Brazil. Back home in Brazil they will be able to judge definitively whether they were right to reject Deco's credentials. But the Barcelona player will also face Arsenal's Catalan teenager, Cesc Fabregas, who, like Deco and Brazil, was forced to leave Barcelona to find recognition elsewhere.

"Fabregas is very young, and perhaps he's had to leave in order to enjoy success elsewhere," Deco says. "It was similar to what happened with me, I also had to leave Brazil at that age, so I'm pleased for him because it's not easy to leave when you're that young and then do so well in somewhere as difficult as English football."

Deco recognises that he is in a team with one extraordinary star in Ronaldinho, but he does not accept that Barcelona are defined by one man.

"I think that we are lucky to have Ronny, but he is also lucky to have this team," Deco says. "Ronny has been fortunate enough to come to Barcelona and played a part in shaping their history because he's a great player. But he must be happy that he's here at a time when Barcelona have managed to put together a great side. You could say that we need Ronny just as much as he needs us. Maybe Barça would not shine so brightly without him."

If Arsenal appear to have come on a momentous journey to the final, then it is the same for Deco and Barcelona, who beat Mourinho's Chelsea at the second time of asking. As his former coach needled Barcelona, Deco's was the first voice to point out that this was a typical tactic and was best ignored. Despite those episodes he feels no animosity towards his former manager.

"I would play for him again, I loved working with him, but I've never chosen where to play just by who is the manager," Deco says. "He's a great manager who paid great attention to every detail, who always wanted to win. He studied the game a lot and was aware of every detail about the game and the opposition and was always very meticulous in his preparation. I think he's a great, great manager and we can see that with all that he's won.

"There wasn't a big celebration when we beat Chelsea. The real joy is winning the Champions' League, it's not worth beating Chelsea, and then not winning the competition - then the result won't matter to us."

By the end we are talking about Scolari, to whom Deco will report, along with his Portugal team-mates, once the Champions' League final is over. He is surprised that the Brazilian is regarded as such a tough character - "he's good fun with us," says Deco - although he is baffled as to why anyone thought he would definitely take the England manager's job. He says that Scolari had bound Portugal's players together so that they are " really strong and close knit" and he sees a lot of that in Arsenal.

"Football is a team sport, and as far as I know, Henry plays football, not tennis or any other individual sport - Arsenal are in the final because they have a great team," Deco says. "They've got a great defence and a keeper with a lot of experience. They're in the final because they have a strong team with a top manager and lots of great players, one of whom is Henry."

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