No single player has sparked more dramatically conflicting opinions in recent Bundesliga seasons than Brazilian striker Ailton, now back in Germany with Hamburg and determined to prove his critics wrong after an unhappy interlude with Besiktas of Istanbul.
Besiktas boss Jean Tigana was not exactly complimentary after a few months with his club's summer purchase: "Too fat, too old, too slow," the French supremo sneered. This is the same player frequently castigated in Germany as egotistical and arrogant, even if his goal-scoring ability has never been in doubt.
The Brazilian has netted 102 goals in 198 Bundesliga appearances, the majority for Werder Bremen between 1998 and 2004. A 28-goal tally in 2003-4 contributed hugely to the northern club's championship triumph that season, and he became the first foreigner to be named German Player of the Year.
However, a switch to Schalke 04 proved an unfruitful move for both parties, despite Ailton's 14 goals in Royal Blue last term. In truth, the player did himself few favours with a series of derogatory comments about the city of Gelsenkirchen in an interview before he even arrived.
The striker grabbed five goals in 14 appearances for Besiktas, but that alone was not enough to silence critics and fans, nowadays accustomed to team-oriented graft and front men who defend when necessary. In the end, Ailton's €3 million switch to the Bosphorus in July 2005 turned out to be a brief 188-day Turkish excursion.
Now though, the player is determined to make his mark with high-flying Hamburg after joining on a €450,000 loan deal until the end of the season, with the player's salary estimated at half a million Euro. The contract includes a €1.75 million option to purchase in the summer.
Determined and resolute
So is the man christened "ball of lightning" by the German press a spent force, or is he the answer to Hamburg's troubling lack of goals? Characteristically, opinion in the northern port city and elsewhere is sharply divided. Ailton certainly did his reputation a power of good with a hat-trick in a winter friendly as Besiktas defeated former club Werder 3-2.
The 32-year-old looked short of match sharpness in his first two Hamburg starts, away to Nuremberg and at home to Bielefeld, but a pair of solid displays hinted at a lower eccentricity quotient than in the past, although that may be down to Hamburg's tight-knit and collectivist style.
Boss Thomas Doll's man-management skills could be pivotal. Certainly, lessons are there to be learnt from the player's stint in Bremen, where the Brazilian appeared at ease in a trusting, family-like environment.
Doll consulted his senior players before giving the green light to the winter deal. Bosnia stalwart Sergej Barbarez insisted the new recruit would not disturb the dressing-room harmony: "We're a band of brothers, and no one individual can change that."
"Hamburg are a big name and a great club. I'd love to make a comeback in the Bundesliga," Ailton declared ahead of the switch. The northern outfit spent the winter break in a desperate hunt for a striker, against a background of Emile Mpenza leaving to Qatar, Benjamin Lauth afflicted by a form crisis, and Naohiro Takahara seemingly destined for Eintracht Frankfurt.
Hopes rest on van der Vaart
Ailton was not Hamburg's first choice, but the club were frustrated in their pursuit of Dagoberto from Brazil cracks Atletico Paranaense, 2.02-metre giant Nikola Zigic of Red Star Belgrade, and Fiorentina prodigy Valeri Bojinov.
All the same, Hamburg director of sport Dietmar Beiersdorfer is happy with his new year capture. "Ailton is the best solution at the present time. He's determined to prove a point in Germany. I don't believe he's past his sell-by date."
The striker comes across as resolute and motivated. "We have to work together as a team, although obviously my job is to score goals. I like playing in a 4-4-2 system. That's what we used in Bremen," he declared, before adding with a grin: "But I won't get close to the 28 goals I scored for Bremen, not this season at least."
The situation is nothing if not intriguing, although Ailton's true ability may only be released with the return of midfield inspiration Rafael van der Vaart from a long injury lay-off. The Dutch starlet should be fit in approximately a month, and will be tasked with providing assists. "I believe we'll work very well together," the Brazilian remarked.
Unfortunately, Ailton will have to wait before he will meet the Dutch midfielder on the pitch. In a Bundesliga match in Hanover last night, the Hamburg number 24 broke his jaw and will be out for six to eight weeks.