Dener: in the shadow of Brazilian greatness


Alongside Ronaldo and Maradona, Ronaldinho places Dener on a pedestal as someone who played football beautifully. Robinho, another player synonymous with the idea of performing for our own aesthetic pleasures, also claimed Dener is his muse. “It’s a shame he died so young. He was a craque“, Robinho adds.

This is the story of Dener. Born in 1971, died on April 18 1994, 13 days before the day much-adored Formula 1 great, Aryton Senna, died.

Dener, with his cartoonish eyes and brisk build, was a player that epitomised Gautier’s l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake) in the modern world: fearlessly streaming past opponents, playing football for football’s sake. Although he was a short player at 5’7, he stunned opponents with his power as he took the ball forward. He is most notable for his arrancadas, which is when a quick player hooks the ball forward from deep with his/her dribbling. Dener’s arrancada and dribbling skills are unfortunately unnoticed and forgotten by the footballing community due to the fatal car crash in Rio de Janeiro that cost him his life, and the world of a dazzling talent.

Dener grew up in a northern district of São Paulo, Vila Ede. Like many other Brazilian greats, he played futsal, starring for Colégio Olavo Bilac. He also played for his local team ‘Vila Maria’, at which he was spotted by Portuguesa in a friendly match against them. It should be recognised that getting talent-spotted often comes down to fortune, particularly for players coming from humble backgrounds. Just look at stories such as Richarlison, who got rejected from multiple clubs, before he got accepted at America Mineiro after buying a one-way 600km ticket to Belo Horizonte. Yet, becoming a success is an even harder ask.

Dener had a one-week stint at São Paulo, but things didn’t go to plan there. Portuguesa was set to be his home. Two years before Dener burst onto the scene, Antônio Lopes, manager of Portuguesa between 1989 and 1990, was alerted of the talents in the youth academy. He recalls the first time he saw Dener play football, 2 years before Dener announced his ability to the rest of Brazil: ‘It was one of my first days at the club. An advisor called Mário Fofoca told me “there’s a kid who is in danger of leaving, because he has married a girl, he is in a difficult situation, but the kid is really good.” I sent him to train (with us), for us to see the boy in the team… The first time he received the ball, Dener nutmegged Vladimir, who was a strong player, difficult to get past. After, he did a sombrero flick over another guy’s head… I went to the club president and order for him to hold on to Dener.’

Dener reportedly had issues with the police, and with behaving problematically. Sinval, a teammate, remembers how Dener would be ‘very rebellious’, and often ‘receive advice from coaches and colleagues’. That aspect of Dener’s personal life seems especially reminiscent of one his admirers, Ronaldinho. It was a trait that cost him opportunities early in his career.

In 1991, Dener made his name at the famous U21 tournament called the ‘Taça São Paulo de Futebol Juniores’, or otherwise known as Copinha, which Portuguesa won. Dener’s most important goal came in the final against Gremio, 10 minutes in. Just as Gremio attempted to break away and counter attack, Dener quickly retrieved the ball and quickly gave an arrancada to then score the goal, albeit with a slight bit of fortune as the ball is deflected off the opposition player to fall back into his path. Portuguesa emphatically won that final 4-0. Dener was the player of the tournament.

His debut for Portuguesa came in 1989, but it was after his Copinha performance that he established his place in the team. His performances at Portuguesa were so promising that the manager of the Seleçao, Falcão, selected him in 1991. He was substituted on for a game against Argentina, which ended 3-3, helping create Brazil’s third goal. His other appearance for Brazil came in 1992. He was not in Parreira’s plans for the 1994 World Cup, for he was considered to still be a young player, and too problematic off the pitch. This would be a topic of discussion for Brazilians in the years leading up to 1994. At the beginning of 1994, the well-known journalist Matinas Suzuki Jr. was calling for Dener to be selected for the 1994 World Cup. Unfortunately, Dener’s death in April only lets us dream of his participation in the 1994 World Cup. 17-year-old Ronaldo was selected, pre-empting his later successes.

Dener was given the opportunity of facing greater challenges, moving to Gremio in 1993 for a 3-month loan spell. There, he won the state championship, his first title at top level.

In 1994, he moved to Vasco for another loan spell. It was here where he possibly scored the best non-goal in 1990s Brazil. Against rivals Fluminense, Dener takes the ball, glides through three Fluminense defenders and slots it into the net. The three Fluminense defenders are left in a tangle, baffled as to where the ball went. Minute 4:11 in the video below shows the moment this happens.

Perhaps the most memorable moment for Dener came in a friendly against Newell’s Old Boys, who dominated South America in the early 1990s. The team Dener faced had players such as Mauricio Pochettino, and none other than Diego Maradona. In one play, Dener takes the ball from the flanks, cutting in and quickly changing direction again, strolling past Newell’s defenders. The goalkeeper was able to stop Dener’s eventual shot. Cameras in the stadium caught Diego Maradona himself smiling.

Dener was on the verge of a move to Europe. He attracted the likes of PSV (where Romario and Ronaldo played in their careers), but VfB Stuttgart were closest. Reportedly, there was a verbal agreement just days before the car crash in Rio, for 3 million US dollars. That is what the then-president of Portuguesa, Manuel Pacheco Gonçalves, claimed. In fact, at that time, the World Cup winning captain, Dunga, played for Stuttgart in Germany. It is only possible to imagine what Dener could have achieved had he moved to Europe.

Dener was not the driver when his car crashed in the Lagoa area in Rio. His friend, Oto Gomes de Miranda, was driving the car, suffering severe injuries to his leg. Dener died as the seatbelt suffocated him. Oto Gomes de Miranda died a few years later. It is reported that Dener’s friend’s death was caused due to drug trafficking issues.

Dener’s legacy today is restored by his family, in particular his son Dener Matheus Gabino. In the Instagram post below, Gabino reposts Esporte Interativo’s edit, which only speculates the career Dener could have had.

Dener’s tragic story prompts the memory of other footballers’ deaths- Emiliano Sala, Junior Malanda, those who died in the Chapecoense flight crash, the young teenagers who died in a fire at Flamengo’s youth facilities, and of course, the greats who died in the Munich Air Disaster.

It is impossible to know exactly how good Dener would have been, and what he could have achieved. However, Dener’s impact inspired some of Brazil’s best players of the 21st century. Robinho and Ronaldinho are just the tip of the iceberg.

Dener’s biographer , Ubirajara Nassar, simplifies Dener’s ability, albeit boldly: ‘Dener was much greater than many champions of the world. For his creativity, quickness, improvisation. He did not need to have played at Palmeiras, São Paulo or Santos. From 1990 until today, no one has done this. He is the best player in the world from 1990 until today. Greater than Zidane, Romário, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo Fenômeno. Better than Neymar, than Messi. I saw Pelé play, I know what I am saying’. The strong words here by Nassar might uncover the true talent that was lost in 1994, leaving him only amidst the shadows of Brazilian greatness.

Image credit: Fernando Stankuns 

Content which helped the writing of this article: describe his rise- famous for his “arrancadas”, explosive runs forward with the ball