Denilsons are well-known in Brazilian football circles. One, a rangy, destructive former Fluminense and Seleção midfielder, was described by Pele as one of his toughest all-time opponents. Another, renowned for his hypnotic, hypersonic step-overs, became the world’s costliest footballer when he joined Real Betis for £21.5m in 1998. Then there is the 21-year-old Arsenal prospect, who has captained his country at every sub-senior level and whom Arsene Wenger believes will become one of the finest midfielder on the planet.
Denilson Martins Nascimento, by contrast, was largely anonymous to his compatriots heading into the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. He had not played at a higher level than the Baiano state championship in his homeland. He had spent the last decade turning out on the camouflaged fields of the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and Korea Republic. He had turned 33 in September.
The Salvador native was, by ignorant assumption, a semi-rate journeyman whose best years were behind him. Profiles can be deceptive, however, and this has been definitively discovered by followers of UAE 2009, including the Brazilians who have watched Pohang Steelers play live on television.
Denilson introduced himself to his countrymen vociferously. First, he scored both Pohang goals as they roared from behind to edge TP Mazembe in a three-goal quarter-final. Then, he radiated in a 2-1 semi-final defeat by Estudiantes, posting his team’s goal and proving an incessant torment to the Argentinian giants with his strength, movement, subtle touches and purposeful dribbles.
“Coming into this tournament, nobody in Brazil knew who I was,” Denilson explained to FIFA.com. “In Asia, everybody knows who I am because of the success I’ve had there. But the people in Brazil don’t follow Asian football. The Club World Cup has changed all that.”
Denilson’s exploits, indeed, have been featured on Brazilian television, and been covered by the country’s major sports websites and newspapers.
“I’m a humble person and fame means nothing to me personally,” said the Pohang No10. “But I’m pleased with all the attention I’ve been receiving back home because it’s great for my family and friends. I have a huge family in Brazil and they’re all very proud. It will stay in their memories for a long time.”
Denilson’s celebrity will enhance if he ends UAE 2009 as its leading marksman: his three goals currently have him atop of the chart, one clear of Estudiantes playmaker Leandro Benitez, who also has one appearance remaining.
“It’s would be a huge honour to finish as the top scorer in a FIFA competition,” Denilson said. “I will try to score one or two against Atlante, and hopefully that should be enough. But all that really matters is helping Pohang win the third-place play-off.”
Standing in the way of Sergio Farias’s side are Atlante from Mexico, where Denilson spent a brief, abortive spell in 2005. “I played for Atlas but I didn’t really get a chance. You can’t show what you can do from the bench,” said the Salvador native.
“But I don’t feel I have anything to prove to the Mexicans. I’m only thinking about doing my best for Pohang. It will be very difficult for us, because we’ve had a long, tiring season, we’ll be without key players, and they are a very good side. But the pressure is all on Atlante and I believe this could work in our favour. If we take our chances, we can do it.”