Denilson knows firsthand the pressure that comes with world-record transfer
The scene was in itself a carnival of ironies. After being nutmegged by an opponent, Denilson body-checked him and reacted furiously to the referee's decision to award a foul -- from which, by the way, the opposition scored the winning goal.
"It seems that the referee wanted go home bragging that he didn't blow the whistle once when I was fouled. Congratulations," Denilson said while still on the pitch.
Famous for trickery in his playing days, the Brazilian was the star of an otherwise innocuous tournament contested by teams from media outlets in the state of Sao Paulo. Nothing could look more out of place for someone with a World Cup trophy on the CV, let alone someone who once held the "title" of world's most expensive player. But that is not even the strangest thing that happened to Denilson.
"Nobody can say that I have not lived a life in football in what concerns experience about a lot of aspects in the game," the Brazilian said over the phone. "And I have no problem talking about the mistakes I made along the way. They helped me be a better person."
After a prematurely ended career that never lived up to promise and featured a procession of clubs, including a weird cameo in the Far East, Denilson has reinvented himself as a TV pundit. Since 2010, he has been working as a pundit for Band Esporte, a Brazilian TV channel whose programs are drenched with banter and colorful commentary.
Along the way, the Brazilian was mistreated and misled -- something that never went through his head when, in July 1998, it was announced that Real Betis had paid Sao Paulo £21.5 million to sign the promising 20-year-old, perhaps the last of a breed of classic Brazil wingers. It was an astonishing transfer not only because of how it beat the world record established the year before, when Inter Milan had forked out more than £19 million to take Ronaldo -- already a winner of the FIFA Player of the Year award -- from Barcelona.
These days, the fee doesn't even earn him a place among the top 100 deals of all time, but in 1998 it was big bucks. Sao Paulo were able to renovate their Morumbi Stadium with the funds recouped.
With all due respect to the green-and-white half of Seville, Betis was hardly the kind of club people expected to make that kind of move. And despite being a hot prospect who enthused fans and media alike, Denilson hadn't established himself with the Selecao and had few chances in the 1998 World Cup. Worse, the player had actually been entertaining the idea that his move to Spain would have the Camp Nou as the final destination. Barcelona and Sao Paulo had even agreed to terms before the deal stumbled upon tax issues: Denilson famously joked that he went to sleep dreaming of Barca and woke up in Seville.
"Betis wanted to be a contender in Spain, and the club invested a lot to try to make it happen," he said. "Of course, I knew they paid a lot of money for me, but I think the whole 'most expensive player ever' thing got way out of hand. People suddenly thought I was going to arrive and be La Liga's top scorer. So the whole price tag thing did not help me at all."
The reality couldn't have been more different: In Denilson's second season at the club (1999-2000), Betis were relegated, and the winger was hastily loaned to Flamengo in Brazil, where he played only 19 games in six months. To make matters worse, he found out that the agent responsible for his ground-breaking transfer to Spain had siphoned away his share of the money.
"It was a horrible moment for me because things were already complicated on the pitch. My head was all over the place. These days, I look back and actually feel that being betrayed taught me to be more aware of business and people around me."
He went back to Betis and was one of their main players in their return to the top level, but by the time he was sold to French side Bordeaux in 2005, the Brazilian was already a peripheral player in the squad. He left Andalusia with 150 games and more yellow cards (29) than goals (11). The hope of using Betis as a springboard for higher adventures in La Liga was all but over, despite the fact that another cameo campaign for Brazil ended up delivering a World Cup winners' medal in 2002.
"The irony is that my season in France was probably the best I had in Europe. Bordeaux had a great championship and finished second at a time nobody could beat Lyon for the title. I was happy and there was the chance to play the Champions League," he said.
Instead, Denilson headed to Saudi Arabia, attracted by a fatter paycheck, but not before an apparent attempt to enter the Premier League via minnows Portsmouth ended following a failed trial. He played merely 15 games in the Middle East before signing with FC Dallas of Major League Soccer for another brief spell marked by disappointment on both sides.
He returned to Brazil once again in 2008 in search of a club and had his heart broken by former club Sao Paulo, as directors refused permission for him to practice with the team to keep fit. Denilson crossed town and joined Palmeiras for a couple of months before joining Itumbiara, a team from the Brazilian Highlands that had briefly risen to fame after becoming state champions, thanks to some controversial support from the city mayor, a cattle rancher who was accused of siphoning public funds to bankroll the team.
By that time, Denilson's knees were troubling him enough for him to contemplate retirement, but then came an offer from Vietnam. At one point in the past decade, the Asian nation had more Brazilian players than England, but none was remotely as known as Denilson.
"I accepted because I was promised enough structure to heal my knees, but the club had nothing," he said. "I wanted to leave, but the president refused to let me because he feared the embarrassment and a riot. I played 45 minutes, basically dragging myself across the pitch, despite the fact I scored a goal."
Denilson still tried a comeback in Greece at AO Kavala before finally calling it a career in 2010. He was 32. That year, he took part in his third World Cup -- this time behind the microphone.
"I don't regret anything because many people dream of playing football and never get to the top level," he said. "I had a career in Europe and played for my country, becoming a world champion. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Even if I did, you journos never let me forget that I once was the most expensive player in the world. Every time the line moves, someone calls me."
But Denilson is all seriousness when talking about the new kid with the tag. Although he reckons that Neymar's situation is different from his, he believes there are similar basic risks.
"Listen: He spent four years at Barcelona before making his move and is a much more experienced guy than I was. But he is taking a big risk going to a club where he will be totally under the spotlight. No disrespect to guys like [Edinson] Cavani, but Neymar will personify this PSG team, and a lot of people will expect him to do things to justify the money paid for him. I am under no doubt he has the potential for that, but the pressure will be immense."
On the other side of the line, a voice warns Denilson that he is due in the makeup room prior to going on air. During the whole conversation, it is striking how frankly and unguardedly the former £21 million man approaches a career marked by much promise and little fulfillment. But the tone is not of resignation but of subdued gratitude.
"Brazil apparently has 73 world champions still alive. I am one of them, and people still recognize me on the street. This won't cease to be an honor. I am always thankful when people remember who I am."
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.