“When John Toshack came as manager, he said there was nothing left for me to give at Deportivo de La Coruña, that was it,” Donato Gama da Silva says. “I was like: ‘oh, mate’.” It was summer 1995 and the Brazilian was well past his 32nd birthday. Eighteen months later, Toshack was gone; Donato, on the other hand, was still there. In fact, eight more years went by before he left, during which he won a Cup final against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu on their 100th birthday and Depor’s only La Liga title, 20 years ago this Tuesday.
Nothing else to give, huh? “The door had been open, to [Galician rivals] Compostela,” he says, but that first season under Toshack, Donato played 39 league games. The next season it was 30, then 31, 29, 29, and so it went. By the time he reluctantly retired, he had played more games in Spain than any foreigner, was the oldest goalscorer in La Liga history, and still wanted to carry on. That record-breaking goal against Valencia in May 2003 was his 50th; his most important came on the final day of the 1999-2000 season, a header that earned Deportivo the title. He was 37 and a half.
By then, Donato was signing one-year deals, on the assumption that any day soon, his body would give way or he would give up. But he always fought against the tide and against time. “The first contract at Depor when I joined from Atlético in 1993 was four years. There were protests: how can a player about to turn 31 sign a four-year deal? After that I signed annual deals. It was a war, a fight. It’s not easy being a veteran at a club that often has no interest in a veteran being there. I don’t know why. But the fans supported me always, appreciated me.”
How could they not? On the eve of the final game of the 1999-2000 season, Donato and Víctor Sánchez del Amo had practised corners at one end of Riazor. Three minutes in, their chance came. “When we got the corner, I already knew,” Donato says. First to the near post and the ball, he headed it into the net and pulled up his shirt to reveal the message beneath: he dedicated the goal to Antonio Orejuela, a former Atlético player in intensive care with a heart problem.
The symbolism did not end there. In ’94, Super Depor, the club’s first great team, lost the league on the final day when Miroslav Djukic took the responsibility no one wanted, including him, and missed a 90th-minute penalty. The fear had been palpable. Djukic wasn’t supposed to be taking it.
Donato was, but he had gone off late in the game. “If I had been on, we might have won another league. I don’t know if I would have missed or not but I knew which way I was going and it wasn’t the way the goalkeeper did. I’d practised all week. Left side, left side, left side. Even in the hotel: ‘Left side, left side, left side’. I thought I was going mad. And then when there is a penalty, I’m watching from the bench.”
“I didn’t take the penalty in ’94, and I score the goal in 2000. For me it was like a reward. People loved me already and that goal was the crowning moment.”
It wasn’t the last. The cup came two years later, plus two runners-up spots and a third place. Still in the team, Donato was 40 years and 138 days old when he scored against Valencia in May 2003.
“I started late, aged 18. I was from a poor place, away from Rio and had never had the chance to do trials before so it always felt like it happened fast,” he says. “Later, I renewed year-on-year but it was ten years at Deportivo. And I didn’t renew the final year because there was no interest from the club. I was three appearances off the 50% I needed for an automatic renewal. It’s a pity. It wasn’t me deciding to go, it was them pushing me out. After ten years, it was very, very …”
There’s a long pause. “… bad,” he finally says.
“In my last game the manager took me off on 44 minutes. Me: ‘What’s happening here? What a strange thing to do. Wait until half time.’ It was as if it was a testimonial, but in the dressing room the manager says: ‘It’s not over, I’ll speak to the president’. And I was like: ‘Jeez, I was preparing my leaving speech.’”
“I went to Brazil on holiday and started training for the new season, because a bloke who is 40 can’t stop. After a week, they called from A Coruña and [Augusto] Lendoiro, the president, said: ‘We’re not going to renew you, we want to rejuvenate the squad.’ Like that. And that was my farewell from Deportivo.”
“I said: ‘Oh, ok’,” Donato says. He sounds broken.
“I felt totally KO’d, as if Mike Tyson had punched me. KO. ‘What am I going to do now?’ If I’d gone away knowing I wasn’t continuing at Deportivo, I’d have been looking [for a new club]. I did get calls later but they were second division clubs. With respect, I thought: ‘Me? In the second division at 40?’ My daughter had just got pregnant aged 18 and I decided to stop. I didn’t want to move the family. A little later, a good offer came and I thought ‘actually, maybe’ but my knee began to hurt: it was a message. So that was it. We stayed in A Coruña.”
The city hosted their biggest-ever party 20 years ago this Tuesday, when a 37-year-old who was supposed to be a long way past it – but still had a long way to go – proved quicker, cleverer and better than the rest.