Nine years have passed since Denílson realised something had to change. The loneliness was weighing him down, his football was suffering and he was too uncomfortable to talk about the sadness stopping him from shining for Arsenal. “When I left Arsenal it was because of personal reasons,” Denílson says. “My mind wasn’t in the right place.”
The Brazilian was living on his own, thousands of miles from his family, and he was desperate for a fresh start. Big things were expected from Denílson when he left São Paulo for Arsenal as an 18-year-old in 2006 but the midfielder’s homesickness made it impossible for him to realise his potential. He had nobody to lean on, even though Arsenal tried to help Denílson adjust in a strange new land, and the only way out of the darkness was to tell Arsène Wenger of his wish to return to Brazil at the end of the 2010-11 season.
At Arsenal they remember Denílson, who has been without a club since injury problems prompted Botafogo to release him in April 2019, as a nice kid. Yet although he looked accomplished in possession during his early outings, he was never capable of holding down a regular spot. His level dipped, the pain deepened and he barely featured towards the end of his time in north London. “I was living by myself in a different country and found it very difficult,” Denílson says. “Towards the end I really felt alone. I started to feel not right mentally and physically. Being alone affected my mind and my football. That’s when I realised it was time to go back to Brazil, where I had family and friends, in the hope it would lift my spirits.”
Denílson was substituted at half-time when he made his final appearance for Arsenal in a 2-2 draw with West Brom in March 2011. He had bottled up his emotions – he admits that was a mistake – and he welcomed the chance to return to São Paulo on loan in the summer of 2011. “Going back to Brazil meant I could speak openly with my dad about what I was feeling,” the 32-year-old says. “It helped a lot.”
Denílson is content now, even though he has endured more hardship since returning to Brazil. He joined São Paulo permanently after Arsenal cancelled his contract by mutual consent in 2013. In 2015 he went to play in Abu Dhabi. He was signed by Botafogo in 2019 but was restricted to one cameo appearance for because of a knee injury and is desperate to revive his career.
“I still believe I have another five years in me as a professional player,” Denílson says. “I’ve been training and I can still play at a good level. I don’t want to look back. I want to prove that I still have the talent I was given.”
There are reasons to be optimistic, even if the search for a new club has stalled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Denílson is with his family, he has a son and he has a purpose. He is an ambassador for Koi Sports, a company generating funds for grassroots sport in the United Kingdom, and he is launching an academy in his father’s home town, Alagoa Nova. In a surprising twist of events a close friend back in England has convinced him to twin the academy with Gillingham Town, a non-league club in Kent.
“A friend told me how Koi were helping grassroots football,” Denílson says. “I enjoy helping the young generation and people in need. I do the same in Brazil. I still feel England is like my home and I’d like to help people there.
“My dad had his own football academy when he was playing professionally in Brazil. He helped a lot of professional players who are playing today and I wanted to do the same again. The academy will launch next January and I really want to introduce the English football mentality into it. That’s where the partnership with Gillingham Town will help because coaches from there will go into my academy.
“I also want to bring some of my players to England to train and have friendlies against other football clubs. Hopefully it will open up chances for scouts to look at my players. I learned a lot from the English game during my time at Arsenal: how to be a professional on and off the pitch and how to be punctual. The Premier League is very serious and I want young players to know how to behave if they ever make it to England.”
Denílson, whose mother died when he was 10, has a close relationship with his father, José Pereira Neves. He grew up in Jardim Ângela, a deprived favela in São Paulo, and wants to give something back. He will warn youngsters at his academy to speak up if they are struggling emotionally.
“I want to help kids in my academy with everything I went through,” he says. “I want to show them there will be hard times and good times. I lived so much at Arsenal and my other clubs, so I want to share my experiences with these kids. They need to be mentally prepared. What I really want to do is help these kids to become a football player or to become a person in terms of education. Help them develop as a human being. If he doesn’t become a footballer, maybe he will become a doctor or a nutritionist.”
Denílson is planning for future but he does think about his past. “One thing that hurts me the most is that not winning a medal with Arsenal,” he says. “We got to two cup finals and lost both. I would look at the big rival, which was Manchester United, and believed we played a more beautiful game. My teammates were so talented: Thierry Henry, Gilberto Silva, Jens Lehmann, Cesc Fàbregas. Arsenal played the true beautiful football. I can’t understand how we didn’t a medal and what went wrong. I can’t explain it, having that talent, playing so beautifully and not winning anything.
“Wenger’s vision was the right one. If there was anyone to blame it was the players on the pitch. There were little mistakes that led to goals. Arsène Wenger was one of the best managers I played for. I can only thank him for what he did for me.
“He was amazing to me. He would always ask me how I was doing off the pitch. He helped me personally. He would always ask how I was. He was a very serious person. If he had to tell people off he would. If he had good things to say he would say them. He was a great manager and a great mentor. I learnt a lot not just as a footballer but as an individual. It probably made me what I am today.”
No wonder Denílson wants Wenger to spend some time at his academy. “That’s the dream,” he says. “One day I hope I can make it true. And one day I hope to come back to London and watch Arsenal play. I haven’t been back since 2011. I want to watch Arsenal and support them. They’ll always be my team.”