When a defender is in the thick of the action during a vital passage of play, his team will normally be battling to keep the opposition at bay while anxious supporters fidget or chew their nails nervously. However, when the defender in question is Vasco da Gama’s Dede, you’re just as likely to see the fans on their feet with joy or expectation on their faces.

That is because this towering central defender (1.93m) can frequently be found at the heart of or even spearheading attacks. It can start with a deft feint and suddenly he is off with the ball at his feet. He leaves one opponent behind and is too quick for another trying to close him down. Within seconds he can find himself operating on the right-side of midfield or even further forward as he drives his team on. More importantly, it is a tactic that works. Having already bagged the Copa do Brasil this season, Vasco have a triple crown in their sights, as they battle for top honours in the Brasileirao national championship and the Copa Sudamericana.

“He’s the best central defender in Brazil,” Vasco fans never tire of shouting. With his rare combination of stature, speed and skill, the 23-year-old now appears to be operating at another level. For the second consecutive season, Dede finds himself on the three-man shortlist for the accolade of Brasileirao Player of the Year.

In 2010, the other two nominees were attacking midfielders: Bruno Cesar, currently of Benfica, and the winner, Dario Conca, now wearing the colours of Chinese outfit Guangzhou Evergrande. This Thursday, the centre-back discovered he was again in the running, this time alongside two strikers: Santos sensation Neymar and Corinthians' goalgetter Liedson.

Practice makes perfect
“I’ve been joining attacks since my time with Volta Redonda,” the player told FIFA.com. “At Vasco I only started making these forays once I’d secured my place in the side, but I got used to going forward, and scoring the occasional goal, during my formative years [at Volta].”

We could win both competitions or lose both of them, but nobody will take away the competitive edge that Vasco currently have.

Dede, Vasco da Gama defender

His goalscoring habit has also survived the move to Rio. In the current Brasileirao, he has netted an impressive six times. Indeed in November alone, if you count Copa Sudamericana ties, he has already bagged four goals, proving himself to be a real threat in aerial play. He is the only defender among the top 50 goalscorers in the national league, and that includes full-backs. Crucially, his attacking contributions have not been at the expense of his defensive duties. O Gigante da Colina have conceded just 38 times this season, a record only bettered by league leaders Corinthians (36). So just how far can the player go?

“I think if I end up playing in Europe one day, I’ll learn even more. Maybe in terms of positioning or from coming up against the very best players,” he said. “I’ve heard quite a few central defenders, players who have already achieved great things, saying they’ve seen very few players in my position with my kind of speed. And while your pace is something that naturally decreases over the years, the flip side you is that you grow in experience”.

Come what may
Experience is something Dede is getting plenty of at the moment with Vasco. With a line-up that includes Juninho Pernambucano and Felipe in midfield, the team have impressed with their fierce determination as well as wonderful technique. “I don’t know if we’re the most skilled side, but we’re definitely one of them. We’re also extremely competitive, and it’s no coincidence that we’re vying for two more titles,” he said.

Without seeming to weaken their team, Vasco are currently battling on two fronts as they alternate between domestic duties and those of the Copa Sudamericana. In contrast, their main league title rivals, Corinthians (two points ahead of them at the summit) and Fluminense (three points behind them in third), have the benefit of only playing once a week as the race for the Brasileirao reaches a climax.

However, it is something the club have got used to this term, having juggled resources during their successful Copa do Brasil campaign. “We’ve shown our ability to overcome adversity on many occasions, and that’s a positive the players can now draw on. We have different options [within the squad] and we’ll continue to use them,” Dede insisted.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Vasco faced this year was losing their coach Ricardo Gomes. The 46-year-old had to step down in August after suffering a brain haemorrhage that required complex surgery. Fortunately Gomes is recovering well and, while still a long way from resuming his normal duties, has recently been able to support his assistant Cristovao Borges, who is leading the team with the same composure his boss showed.

“It’s been difficult. No one, except us players, thought we could keep it going," said the player. "Going into the final straight, we’ve again been speaking with Ricardo Gomes, which has motivated us even more as we battle for these two titles.

"We could win both competitions or lose both of them, but nobody will take away the competitive edge that Vasco currently have. For a team that was recently in Serie B, things have changed very quickly,” he concluded. And if Dede can continue to make an impact in defence and attack, and thrill the fans in the process, who is to say the best is not still to come for Vasco?