Few strikers in the history of the German Bundesliga can boast a single season as remarkable as the one Ailton enjoyed in 2003/04. The Brazilian hit 28 goals, the highest tally since Karl-Heinz Rummenigge went one better in 1980/81, en route to becoming the first foreigner to pocket the German Footballer of the Year award.
And although Ailton failed to recapture that scintillating form thereafter, and was in the twilight of his career, it was still somewhat of a coup that little-known Chongqing Lifan lured him to China PR in July. His mission was to save the strugglers from relegation into the second tier. It was one that ended in tears.
FIFA.com caught up with the 36-year-old to discuss a caraer that has taken him to four continents, his experience in China, ambitions for the future, and Brazil's hopes of glory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
FIFA.com: Ailton, you have played for a number of prestigious clubs across the globe. What convinced you to join little-know Chongqing Lifan?
Ailton: There's always motivation to move to a new country and China is the most populous in the world, so it seemed like a good option. Actually, the idea of playing in an unknown environment like China had always excited me. That is why I jumped at the chance when my agent negotiated a deal with Lifan. I turned down offers from clubs in Ukraine and Austria to come here.
How have you enjoyed your time with Lifan?
I had a good start, helping the team in the sensational 3-2 home win over Beijing Guoan. Prior to the last 1-1 draw against Shanghai, which doomed us to relegation, we were in good form, having won three and drawn one of our last four games. I was confident we'd stay up. It was a real pity we got relegated.
The chief reason is that there is no shortage of strikers in Brazil! But it is indeed a pity that I never represented my country.
Your contract with Lifan is due to expire. Do you plan to stay with the club in the Chinese second flight or move on?
I like the club and its people, but the problem is that we got relegated. My agent is dealing with offers from outside China and if all goes to plan, I will return to Germany, possibly with a second-division side.
You have played for several clubs throughout your 16-year career. Which was your favourite?
My lengthy club career has left me with plenty of fond memories, but if I have to chose one then it's Werder Bremen.
You have played in so many different leagues. How have you managed to adapt so swimmingly to new surroundings?
It has indeed been a challenge for me to excel in so many different environments. I've always tried to be positive, learn about the club and become part of the team. Therefore, it has never taken me long to prove my worth.
As you acknowledged, your best years were spent at Werder Bremen. You finished the 2003/04 season with 28 goals, which helped you become the first foreigner to win the German Footballer of the Year award. What was the secret behind your success?
Winning the German player of the year awards was one of the most memorable moments for me. It was a reward for all of my hard work. I always spend a lot of time on the training ground, practicing my skills, and this is a habit that started in Germany. After each training session I would stay and keep working, either by myself or with a couple of good friends. Any player, no matter how good he is, must strive to improve.
You become only the fourth foreigner to score more than 100 goals in the German Bundesliga. But despite this, you failed to make the Brazil team during your peak. Why was that?
The chief reason, I guess, is that there is no shortage of strikers in Brazil! (laughs). We are a country known for producing world-renowned goal-getters, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Adriano to name but a few. Of course it is also up to the coaches to decide who they would like to use to fit the style of play. It is not a question I can answer, but it is indeed a pity that I never represented my country.
Brazil were impressive in South Africa 2010 qualifying. Do you believe they can win their sixth world title next year?
Yes, I believe so. Dunga has got some incredible players at his disposal and he has successfully moulded them into a competent side. They can definitely mount a serious challenge for the World Cup in South Africa.
Did you model your game on any player in particular?
Every player has his own idol and I am no exception. Romario was my role model. Ronaldo is another player I admire. I learn things from watching them but I don't set out to imitate them. It's important to be your own player.