France '98: Denilson The Menacing

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The Independent Online
After the tournament he will become one of the richest players in the world. But Andrew Longmore hopes

the leader of a new generation of brilliant Brazilians will be given the chance to display his extravagant gifts

IN Sao Paulo, they still talk of a legendary player called Canhoteiro or the "left-footed one". No one knew his real name nor why he had a right foot. In Denilson, or Denilson de Oliveira to give him his full title, the new generation of Sao Paulo supporters have found their own Canhoteiro, a boy who treasures the art of dribbling and who regards his right foot merely for balance, the means to an end. Denilson cannot remember when he last scored a goal with his wrong foot, the one not insured for pounds 1m, though he professes a deep commitment to using it for more than standing on in future.

Given that the left half of the 20-year-old has just been sold for pounds 21m to Real Betis, the world's stock exchanges can but wonder at the cost of the whole 10 stone of him. Denilson's explosive pace and close control were the only highlights of a largely sterile encounter with Germany in Stuttgart in March. Afterwards, Denilson not Ronaldo was the object of press attention. It is reported that Real's president, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, spent the hour before signing the 20-year-old Brazilian on his knees at Los Salesianos de la Trinidad church in Seville. Whether praying for forgiveness or goals is open to debate.

Mario Zagallo, the coach of the 1998 Brazilians, might have sought similar guidance in the hours before he announced his XI for the defending champion's opening World Cup match against Scotland. Forget the furore over a washed-up midfielder from Middlesbrough, Zagallo had to wrestle with the prospect of omitting the world's most expensive footballer and the universal opprobrium of a nation for whom winning with style is a constitutional right. Denilson is the most gifted winger to emerge from Brazil since the days of Jairzinho and the bow-legged orphan, Garrincha, and his absence from the team picked a full month before the players line up in the Stade de France revived the philosophical debate which has raged in Brazilian football since the Fifties.

To the purists, Denilson represents the true spirit of Brazilian football, a kid rescued from the streets who just loves to dribble and shoot. His early career was marked by dazzling feet and a selfish mind. To an extent, the criticism still holds good. But Zagallo's initial refusal to blood him against the stolid Scots smacks of the Euro-rhythms which tend to drown the samba beat as soon as the Brazilians cross the Atlantic.

"I know that many people in Brazil believe it is a mistake to leave out somebody with so much ability," he said. "Denilson is a remarkable player, someone who can do the unexpected and damage the opposition suddenly. We will use him when we think he will have most impact. We cannot win the World Cup with just 11 players." Not losing rather than winning is the art in the opening stages of the World Cup. Denilson was destined to start his World Cup from the sidelines watching the Brazilian three Rs - Ronaldo, Romario and Rivaldo - but the withdrawal of Romario through injury has shifted the balance of the attack. Most believe the Scots will receive an elementary footballing education anyway.

Zagallo's influence has spread across four decades, during which he has won the World Cup twice as a player, in 1958 and 1962, and once as a coach to the all-conquering 1970 Brazilian side which defeated England 1-0. Most regard him as the power behind the throne in the return of the World Cup to its rightful quarters in 1994, a side nominally under the control of Carlos Alberto Parreira. Zagallo was technical co-ordinator, a role now controversially filled by Zico after the personal intervention of the son of Joao Havelange, the outgoing president of Fifa. The great Brazilian midfielder, who played alongside Falcao and Socrates in the 1982 side, has been installed to balance the pragmatic tendency of the ageing Zagallo.

Ironically, as a left-winger himself, Zagallo admits that he would not have played in either of his two World Cup sides had Denilson been born 50 years earlier. Instinctively, you sense, Zagallo would love to play Denilson - "a throwback" as he says - every game; tactically, with Roberto Carlos a natural attacking force down the left and Rivaldo also predominantly left-footed, his options are limited even allowing for the absence of Romario. While Sao Paulo, whose form has not been good, use Denilson as an out-and-out winger, Brazil have played him on the left side of midfield, a sort of Brazilian Ginola, with defensive instincts to match. "Something I still have to work on," he says.

Denilson, from the humble origins of life in Sao Bernado do Campo, one of the sprawling industrial suburbs of Brazil's biggest city, has yet to adopt the airs and graces of the more established keepers of the national passion. Edmundo, Romario's likely understudy, can pout and sulk when the ball does not arrive at his feet appropriately wrapped, Denilson is still an outsider in the squad and, for all his price tag, has to earn his respect. Just 20 and already tagged with the label of the world's most expensive footballer, he has reacted to the burden with commendable humility. But for someone who had to beg, borrow or steal his bus fares across town to get to training, a 10-year contract worth pounds 2m a year has offered wealth beyond imagination even in a profession which routinely transforms rags into riches. His measured approach so far has certainly contrasted with the mercenary attitude of Ronaldo, whose nine-year contract at Barcelona ended with eight years still to run.

"There's no point going to a bigger club if you don't feel their warmth and understanding," he said on signing for Betis. "It's important because football is not the only reason I'm going. I want to make friends. It's a new life for me and I want to make sure it is a good one." Bigger clubs like Internazionale, Barcelona or Real Madrid have a habit of swallowing up bright young talents like Denilson. Betis aim to grow with their new signing.

What the thrusting Spanish club will get for their money is a fledgling international of abundant talent who has studied at the highest tables. Toninho Cerezo, Alemao and Juninho were in the same midfield at Sao Paulo at the time Denilson was given his chance by the former national coach, Tele Santana, in 1995. "I learnt everything from them," he said. "How could I not?" His debut for Brazil came two years later, in November 1997, against Cameroon; some eye-catching performances in Le Tournoi in France last summer alerted the bigger European clubs. Lazio, Barcelona and, reputedly, Tottenham tabled bids before Betis ended the auction.

By the end of the World Cup, Betis will know better whether they have pulled off a bargain or been extravagantly conned. Ronaldo, no less, says that Denilson will be the star of the tournament, which might be the truth or a subtle way of deflecting some of the hype. The thought of a scurrying new Garrincha providing the service for Ronaldo and Rivaldo or breaking from midfield himself is too tempting to ignore, either way. He has pace, strength, near perfect balance, and genius enough in his left foot to inherit the mantle of Garrincha and Canhoteiro.

THREE MANAGERS WHO HAVE TAMED BRAZIL

Terry Yorath

Wales 1 Brazil 0

Cardiff, 1991

"BRAZIL had a few players out, but they were still a fair side. In the first 45 minutes, we hardly got a touch, they completely outplayed us and at half-time, the boys looked a little dazed. In the first half, we played a very British game, hassling them and jumping straight into them. They just passed it around as if we weren't there. So at half-time, I told the players to slow down. I thought we were better off staying on our feet. We played as if we were away from home and Dean Saunders sneaked a goal. Whatever you do, you have to approach them with enthusiasm and belief."

Jack Charlton

Ireland 1 Brazil 0

Dublin, 1987

"I'M not sure we tackled the Brazilians any differently from any other side. We pressed from the back and didn't let them lift their heads. The key is to get as close as you can, so that hanging on to the ball becomes their first priority. Give them time and space and they'll knacker you. I think a number of teams are frightened by the Brazilians; they give them too much respect. You have to respect them, but not change your style for them. We stuck to what we did best and it worked. [The goal came from Liam Brady in the first half.] Any international team can create one chance."

Daniel Passarella

Brazil 0 Argentina 1

Sao Paulo, 1998

"THERE are no real friendlies between teams in South America, so this was a big match for both teams. Sometimes with Brazil, the crowd can work against them as well as for them. They can be very critical if the team is not playing well and that, in turn, makes the players nervous. Tactically, we tried to play very tight, very strong, particularly with Ronaldo, and to cut off the supply of passes from the midfield. He is the key man. You have to keep him facing away from the goal all the time. We did that and when Claudio [Lopez] scored so late in the game, that was perfect for us."

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