Reflections on Denilson

Friday.

I read a piece in The Athletic yesterday, an interview with former Arsenal player Denilson (£). In it, he talks about how his time in England was difficult and lonely. He felt unhappy most of the time, despite Arsene Wenger’s close attention and invitations to go and hang out with Gilberto at his house.

I particularly enjoyed the detail that he only went once, but when he did it was a party attended by Seu Jeorge – who did those cool David Bowie covers for that Wes Anderson film. Picking your moments, I guess. He told Wenger he wanted to leave because he couldn’t cope with the loneliness any more.

On a human level when you hear someone say something like that, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy. Yes, footballers have nice lives, they have money and nice houses and creature comforts, doing a job we’d all love to do, but it’s another example that those things are superficial really. It doesn’t make them immune from feeling unhappy, sad, lonely, depressed, empty etc.

If you were to talk about Denilson now, he’s kind of a byword for a period of Arsenal underachievement. I’m not going to say failure because – without opening up the whole debate about fourth place being a trophy – Arsene Wenger’s consistency in that regard with some of the squads he had at his disposal appears almost remarkable when you look back at it. Not least after three years outside the Champions League places.

But, it clearly didn’t work out, something he’s open about in the article, saying:

I was there for five years, and it could have been more if I hadn’t been struggling so much away the pitch with emotional and psychological issues. I’m aware of that.

And what I think has been forgotten in the mists of time is how exciting he was when he first joined the club. His arrival was one of those bolts from the blue on deadline day. We did some business that day, with a loan/swap involving Julio Baptista and Jose Antonio Reyes; the Ashley Cole/William Gallas thing happened [🤮]; Pascal Cygan went to Villarreal; and a 19 year old Brazilian midfielder signed.

The dramas of that summer, with the Cole stuff and the second successive summer of The Pursuit of the Beast, meant that all the focus was on those things, so I don’t think there’d even been a whisper of our interest in Denilson. If fact, if I recall correctly, there were rumours that we were going to sign Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, but remarkably they ended up at West Ham.

It took him a little while to make his debut, and longer still to become a regular part of the first team squad, but despite some slight concerns that he and Cesc were similar kind of players, he impressed and there was a general sense of excitement about him. Another example of Arsene finding a diamond in the rough, an unknown, unheard of youngster who was going to make it big at Arsenal. He wasn’t a prolific scorer by any means, but he was good on the ball, and did chip in with a few.

He looked like a player with real potential, but then it started going wrong. At the time you just think of a player who isn’t in good form; then you wonder whether or not he’s actually as promising as you thought; then doubts about his overall quality emerge. You question his commitment and motivation. There were moments which become indelible marks on his career, hanging a leg out lazily to try and make a tackle, and infamously being overtaken by a referee as Man United broke towards our goal in a game at the Emirates.

We discussed that very moment in one of our Patreon podcasts – 2010-2020: A Decade of Banter – but Tim Stillman, with that giant memory of his, reminded us that he’d been suffering from a back injury which, on reflection, clearly played a massive part in that incident. Yet as football fans, our inclination is almost always to make judgements on what we see in front of us in the moment, without too much consideration for why things happen.

I know it’s something I’ve been ‘guilty’ of down the years, despite generally trying to look at things in an objective way as much as possible. Sometimes the emotion and passion of the game gets in the way, and look, that’s also one of the things that makes football as great as it is.

But with this down-time, with his period to reflect on what’s actually important and what’s not, and without the white-hot inferno of the game burning beneath us at all times, it’s a bit easier to think in a more considerate fashion. Denilson was a very good young player whose career didn’t pan out the way he, we, and Arsenal would have liked. He, of course, has to take responsibility for it, but maybe too we have to look at how injuries, loneliness, psychological struggles and off-pitch struggles played their part too.

It’s not to rewrite history, and I’m not suggesting anyone has to change their opinion of him or his time at the club, but so often there are other things at play that we know little or nothing about. I wonder, when football begins again, if that’s a mindset we can maintain, or if the intensity of the game only allows for this kind of reflection when there’s nothing happening, or at some unspecified period in the future.

As time passes, I find myself less cross/more understanding of some of players who have ‘wronged’ us. Perhaps it’s an age thing, perhaps it’s simply a case that you can come to see the other side of events a bit more clearly and with more understanding than when we were in the midst of them. By the way, I’m talking about ones who have left Arsenal, and not the opposition. They will always be history’s greatest monsters. I haven’t gone completely soft here.

As for Denilson, he was a young player whose career didn’t pan out. It’s worth pointing out that there were far more experienced players during that period who also couldn’t cope with what Arsenal expected of them, and it’s also fair to say it was a somewhat unusual Arsenal too. A team that had transitioned from Invincible to something completely different. It almost worked, but when it didn’t the impact on certain players – least of all young a Brazilian – was seismic.

He says he’s still looking for a club after being let go by Botafogo, and at 32 he could still have some time if he can overcome his injuries. He’s happy in Brazil though, no longer stricken with loneliness, and I suppose when it comes right down to it, that’s the main thing.

I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast, chatting football with James Benge followed by some rambly waffle with Jon Ronson. Listen/subscribe below.

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