The MSR advent calendar: Our favorite signings that never happened: Door 11 – Deco
Favorite non-transfers, what a strange mental exercise. Sure, if one simply let their imagination run wild in an alternative football reality, a great many transfers come to mind easily, especially in the gloomy oughts. Who has not assembled an all-star team at their favourite club in a football manager game at one time and then been “unbeatable for years”?
A bit more exciting are transfers that just failed like that of Kevin de Bruyne, but the craziest thing is when during research for such a counterfactual ‘what if?’ series, you come across specific rumours about world-class players who certainly belong to the all-star category and who actually seemed within reach for Bayern at one point.
Anderson Luís de Souza alias Deco experienced probably the most exciting year of his career in 2004. He had already won the ‘minor treble’ of championship, domestic cup and UEFA Cup (which was then still more valuable than today) with FC Porto the year before, but in 2004 the club caused an absolute sensation. Under coach José Mourinho, they knocked the great Manchester United out of the Champions League in the round of sixteen and went on to take the crown of the best club team in Europe in the famous clash of small clubs against AS Monaco in Gelsenkirchen.
Porto would remain a fixture of international football for a little while longer yet. A few days later Portugal opened the 2004 European Championship in Porto, where it finished a month later, too. Both times they suffered a defeat at the hand of Otto Rehhagel’s sensational Greeks, but, oh well, not everything can work out. The newly naturalized Brazilian-born Deco joined the starting eleven after the opening defeat and relegated the long-time world-class conductor at the heart of AC Milan’s midfield, Rui Costa, to the bench for the rest of the tournament.
2004 was nothing less than Deco’s breakthrough to world class status, with a slew of high individual honours to follow in the summer. He was awarded the honor the best midfielder and best club footballer in Europe, and by the end of the year, at the Ballon d’Or, he even got six votes more than Ronaldinho and finished second.
And indeed, this player had already been on the verge of signing for Bayern at one point. This was at a time when Bastian Schweinsteiger was still considered a nimble winger and Bayern came out of a season in which they won nothing at all having to witness Werder Bremen winning the domestic double.
The then president of FC Bayern, Franz Beckenbauer, revealed as a TV expert during the Champions League final in which Deco played for Porto that his club was in negotiations with the player and did his utmost to say as little as possible about the performance of the Portuguese midfield artist. He said with a straight face that the player had been invisible for long stretches of the match and that he would rather withhold final judgement.
The supposedly invisible Deco, however, had prepared the first goal in his team’s 3-0 victory minutes earlier, scored the second goal himself, only to be replaced five minutes from time to thunderous applause from more than 20,000 Porto supporters who had made the trip to Gelsenkirchen, before, to top it off, he was declared the final’s man of the match. Obviously, der Kaiser had been under a thorough gag order by Uli Hoeneß.
But leaving this anecdote aside, was Bayern really close to completing the deal? Yes! As admitted by no one less than the player himself years later in the book “The godfathers of the league”:
“I wanted to leave Porto and I had two offers, one from Bayern and one from Chelsea FC. I was sure that I did not want to go to Chelsea. My coach in Porto, José Mourinho, moved to Chelsea and wanted to take me with him. I enjoyed working under him, but it was time to make my own mark. That’s why it was going to be Bayern. My agent told me what they wanted to have me. Everything sounded good. I already saw myself as a Bayern player.”
In the end, the deal fell through because the player’s agent, Jorge Mendes, decided that he preferred a deal with Barcelona and coaxed the then president of the club into shelling out €21m for Deco with pre-recorded fan chants from Porto supporters (“Oh Deco – you are the best player in the world”). Sometimes the football world appears more childish than you would believe from this multi-million dollar business.
It is indeed interesting to consider whether the signing of another central playmaker like Deco by Bayern would have initiated a chain reaction at the club. Media reports at the time speculated in view of the apparently imminent Deco signing whether Michael Ballack was going to leave the club as a result (ironically, to FC Barcelona of all clubs), especially as Franz Beckenbauer reportedly also thought the combination of Deco and Ballack would not have been ideal. However, this might have been just another negotiating tactic.
I, however, do not believe in a premature sale of Michael Ballack. FC Bayern still saw themselves as the center of the football world at that time, even though they in truth no longer were. It is for this reason that they were so angry about Ballack’s perfectly logical decision to move up a level by moving to the Premier League later. In view of Bayern’s outrage it seems rather unlikely to me that the then best German outfield player would have simply been given the boot two years before his contract ended just because of Deco.
No, it is more likely that both midfield powerhouses would have played together. But if Ballack had still left the club two seasons later (as he did), Deco would have been there to fill the creative gap in Bayern’s midfield much better than it (didn’t) happen(ed) in the end.
Unlike Beckenbauer, I don’t think the combination of Deco and Michael Ballack would have been a great problem either. Basically, Bayern played in the classic 4-4-2 of the oughts, either flat or with a diamond. But this did not mean that the wide positions were always necessarily occupied by wing players.
While the new coach Felix Magath mostly relied on Martín Demichelis and the Capitano in the centre, the situation on the flanks was sometimes quite wild. Instead of Deco, Bayern signed Torsten Frings from Dortmund shortly afterwards. Frings is not wrongly considered one of the many Bavarian transfer flops of that era, but that does not change the fact that he still played quite a lot. Frings played 29 games in the league that year alone, many of them nominally in the wide and half positions. Other not truly wide players like Sebastian Deisler or Owen Hargreaves had a similar yield.
What did Deco have that all these players did not? He was simply far better than all of them (well, you may argue with Deisler, but he was fighting other demons at the time). Deco was technically gifted, had an excellent passing game and always radiated a goal threat in the final third. In the run-up to his debut with FC Barcelona, some wondered if he and a free roaming Ronaldinho playing together would be too much of a free spirit on the pitch, but the Portuguese surprised as a number eight with a good work ethic against the ball, and there is no reason to doubt that he would have done the same at Bayern.
Setting aside the likes of Pirlo and the great Spanish midfielders at the end of the decade, in Deco Bayern would almost have hired perhaps the best classical creative midfielder of the decade in his prime. Felix Magath is certainly capable of a lot, but perhaps his tenure would not have been quite so abject on the international stage with that certain Brazilian-Portuguese touch in his side.