Now 34 years of age and imbued with the self-assurance that a staggering 21 winners’ medals spanning four different countries brings, Brazil-born former Portugal midfielder Deco is clearly comfortable with being interviewed.
On the agenda for the two-time UEFA Champions League winner’s conversation with FIFA.com were subjects including his fine 2012 form for Fluminense, comparisons between Brazilian and European football, former team-mates Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and a player he feels can already match that illustrious pair in terms of technical ability: Santos starlet Neymar.
FIFA.com: After spending 13 years in Europe, you’re now going into your third season at Fluminense, something you’d only previously done at FC Porto and Barcelona. Do you now feel totally at home at the club?
Deco: Listen, at first I found coming back to Brazil very tricky. That was mainly because I had a string of injuries, which made it tough for me to settle, but there were also issues in terms of the infrastructure. Of course things are different here, particularly because I’d been used to the highest standards possible at FC Porto – the club with the best infrastructure in Portugal – and at two massive clubs, in the cases of Barcelona and Chelsea. But I’m totally settled and happy now.
That run of injuries you mention even made you consider bringing your career to a close, didn’t it?
Yes, that’s right. Physically I've felt fine, ever since I came back, but those successive injuries really hit me hard. That’s because at that stage of your career, after so many years of training and travelling, you get your motivation from playing and competing. And without that, I started to wonder if it was really worth carrying on. When you’re starting out in your career you know that you’ve got your whole life ahead of you but, at that time, I found it hard to see the point in keeping going when I wasn’t able to get on the field.
Though assist statistics are not always recorded, would you agree that over your career you may have set up more goals than you’ve scored?
There’s no ‘may have’ about it, I think I definitely have! (laughs) Of course I enjoy scoring goals but I’ve never been obsessed by it. What I really enjoy is the playmaker’s role – knowing that the team’s tempo depends on me. I thrive on that responsibility.
Have you always felt that way, even as a young player?
Always. Even on a personal level, I’ve always been just as pleased with building a move that ends in a goal as when I score myself. Of course, over time, I’ve also changed my style. Not only because I lost some of my physical explosiveness and acceleration but also because I’ve learned so much about how to play as a team. Barcelona are a good example: they’re a side that are always packed with great players but none of them dribble for the sake of it, only when they need to.
Now that you’re back in Brazil, do you think the prevailing attitude is very different to Barça’s approach?
However much talent we’ve had here, Brazilian football’s always been about touch and passing but, unfortunately, I think that’s coming to an end slightly. The prevailing attitude here now, generally speaking, seems to be the idea that individual talent alone is the solution to every problem and that having one or two superstars in your team is enough to see you through.
Why do you think this change has come about?
I don’t think we’re doing the right things at youth level: I get the impression that people are more concerned with winning titles than they are with developing complete players. As there’s so much talent here, we can be fooled into thinking that players appear out of nowhere. And of course the likes of Neymar, Ganso and Lucas prove that talented youngsters are still emerging, but we could produce even more and even better players. Another factor that has an impact is the number of players that leave Brazil very early. A lot of youngsters have been leaving for places like the Ukraine or Japan for years and, with all due respect, you’re not going to be playing against top-level opponents every week in those leagues. Ideally, a player would stay and build a name for himself in Brazil or, if he were to leave, he’d go to a stronger league.
Barcelona under Pep Guardiola became the archetypal exponents of the passing football you referred to. How much of that team can you trace back to the Barça side you played in under Frank Rijkaard?
Barcelona are a club where the teams change, according to the players they have, but the culture remains the same. Guardiola was able to perfectly hone that passing style, as he’s someone who’s immersed in that culture. The biggest difference between this team and ours is that this side has players with those characteristics in every position, whereas we only had four or five. It’s incredible, even when Barça’s most skilful players look likely to lose possession they still prefer to try and pass the ball, rather than taking someone on. And to do that you don’t just need quality, you need the right mentality too.
You played alongside Lionel Messi at club level and Cristiano Ronaldo on the international scene. How does it feel to have seen from afar what those two have been achieving in recent years?
They’re both incredible players, the two best in the world by a distance. Their styles are different but they’ve got that same ability to catch opponents by surprise. What Cristiano has is incredible power and an extremely competitive nature, while Messi is sheer quality, with those movements he makes which seem to be always the same but that nobody even comes close to stopping. What surprises me is that they’ve become players who create a lot for others, as well as scoring so many themselves. Of course when they were younger I could already see that both of them were a cut above, but I’ve been really struck by how they’ve managed to maintain their standards for so long without ever resting on their laurels. They’re always breaking new records, some of which seemed impossible.
And nowadays, you’re witnessing first-hand Neymar’s rise in the Brazilian game. In your opinion, how does he currently compare with world-class players like Messi and Ronaldo?
Neymar, in my view, is now at that same level. Something he has in common with those two is the ability to score so many goals without being an out-and-out centre-forward. I think that if he was at Real Madrid or Barcelona he’d be even more effective than he is now, because he’d have better players around him and a better support structure. What you need to take into account are the proportions: on the one hand the technical standard in Brazil clearly isn’t as high as in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, but on the other there are different problems to tackle. It’s not easier or harder: it’s just different. In my view, speaking in terms of technique alone, Neymar is on a par with Messi or Cristiano.
As someone who has two Champions League winners’ medals, how does taking part in the Copa Libertadores compare?
They’re two completely different challenges. But, speaking honestly, it’s harder for a big club like Fluminense to win the Libertadores than it is for a big European club to win the Champions League. It’s a simple matter of probability: there’s not much to choose between Flu and the likes of Corinthians, Santos, Internacional, Boca Juniors or Universidad de Chile. There are at least ten teams that are clear contenders for the title, whereas in Europe there are only five or six. Of course, particularly in the latter stages, the technical standard in the Champions League is higher but, for a big club, the Libertadores is harder to win.
Having enjoyed so much success on European soil, do you feel that you’re treated with a certain respect now you’re back in South America?
Yes, to be truthful, I do feel like I get respect. That’s because in recent years here in South America people have been following European football more closely than they do in Europe. (laughs) I know that people admire the career I carved out for myself abroad, but I also know that admiration only lasts until it’s time to take the field. Once the ref blows his whistle, everybody forgets everything else. (laughs)