The peoples of northern Germany are not generally renowned for their hot-blooded temperament or spontaneous outpourings of emotion. But the fans of Werder Bremen are current testimony to the fact that this is no unbending law of nature, as they roar their team on from one success to the next. A 3-1 win over the mighty Bayern Munich has propelled last season's runners-up to the top of the Bundesliga, while in the UEFA Champions League, Bremen are still very much in the running for a place in the last 16, despite being in a group that includes title holders Barcelona and English champions Chelsea.
The club's tremendous current form is due in no small part to the performances of Diego Ribas da Cunha - known to the fans simply as Diego. Bremen brought the 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder from Porto in the close season as a replacement for Johan Micoud, who has returned to his native France to play for Bordeaux. The six-million-euro transfer fee made Diego the northern port side's most expensive signing, and in Micoud he had a decidedly classy act to follow. For four years, the Frenchman was the guiding force behind Bremen's forward game, and in 2004 he led them to a league and German Cup double.
Expectations were accordingly high ahead of Diego's arrival, but the young playmaker has already shown that he is more than a mere replacement for his illustrious predecessor. Only weeks into his Bundesliga career, he was named Germany's player of the month for August, and his first eight games in Germany's top flight have produced four goals and eight assists. He found the net in spectacular fashion against Bayern last Saturday, adding to his strike in Bremen's 2-0 UEFA Champions League home win over Levski Sofia on Wednesday.
Attractive as well as effective
But there's more to Diego's game than bare statistics can reveal. The Brazilian has been wowing the fans with his pinpoint passes, back-heelers, overhead kicks and a whole box of other tricks, adding a breath of fresh air to Bremen's often routine footballing scene. The club's general manager, former German international Klaus Allofs, ascribes "extraordinary ability" to the 21-year old midfielder, whose progress he had been keenly charting for some time prior to finally capturing him for Bremen in the summer.
Diego's precocious career began, aged five, at Sao Paulo side Comercial FC Ribeirao Preto. After a short stint at Paulistinha Sao Carlos, he joined FC Santos in 1996 - the hometown club of the legendary Pele. By the age of 18 he was captain, and he helped the team to two Brazilian titles, in 2002 and 2004. Pele described the teenage sensation as a "worthy successor" to his own inheritance. Perhaps with that in mind, Diego decided the time was ripe to seek out fresh horizons. In 2004, he headed across the Atlantic to Porto, for eight million euro, as a replacement for the Barcelona-bound Deco.
But the move to Portugal turned out to be fraught with difficulties. Porto coach Co Adriaanse demanded Diego carry out his share of defensive duties - a role the creative midfielder was unused to and unhappy with, and which eventually led to him losing a regular first-team place. By contrast, Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf allows Diego the closest thing possible to a free hand, for which he has so far been amply rewarded. The young Brazilian says: "I have the feeling that Werder are just the club for me. Thomas Schaaf's offensive strategy allows me to make the most of my creative game."
Dreaming of the Selecao
And, of course, Diego's creative game has not gone unnoticed by the opposition. Bayern Munich President Franz Beckenbauer recently praised him as "a player who can make the crucial difference". Bremen's flying start to the season has left them nursing hopes of another Bundesliga title, to which their playmaker says simply: "I'm here to win the title." But Diego also has another dream - to be given the chance by Brazil coach Carlos Dunga to add to his 14 international appearances.
"Because we have so many good players in Brazil, and because things weren't going too well for me at Porto, I was dropped from the squad the year before the World Cup finals," he says. "Dunga knows how well I'm playing at Bremen, and it would be a dream come true to play for my country again."
And if Diego continues to weave his magic spell for Bremen in the Bundesliga, it can only be a matter of time before his wish comes true.