Manuel Veth –
When Diego Ribas da Cunha, more commonly known as Diego, arrived at Werder Bremen in 2006, the playmaker was instantly considered one of the most promising players in the Bundesliga. In his first few games with the Grün-Weißen, his talent and vision was immediately obvious.
Werder had paid €6 million to secure the Brazilian from FC Porto. At Porto, Diego was never quite able to fill the void left by the Portuguese national team player Deco, who had left Porto for FC Barcelona after winning the UEFA Champions League in 2004.
But without the tough years at Porto, Werder would have never had the chance to land the then 21-year-old playmaker. Indeed, at the time, Diego was part of a trend that saw the revival of the classical playmaker in German football.
In his Three Years at Werder Bremen Diego Became a Bundesliga Sensation
In his three years at Werder Bremen, Diego become a Bundesliga superstar, a gifted playmaker, who also knew how to score goals. In 84 games with Werder Bremen, Diego scored 38 goals. Furthermore, he inspired the rise of another gifted playmaker, the young German wunderkind, Mesut Özil.
Özil joined Werder Bremen from Schalke 04 in January 2008 for €5 million. The product of the highly successful Schalke youth academy had fallen out with the leadership in Gelsenkirchen over the terms of his contract.
In his first one and a half years at Werder Bremen, Özil played off the wing to support playmaker Diego. But even today, it is evident that Özil has learned much from the mercurial Diego, as Özil’s play is reminiscent of the old Brazilian playmaking school.
In their final season together at Werder Bremen, the club struggled in the league and eventually finished in tenth place. But the trio of Diego, Claudio Pizarro, and Mesut Özil still dazzled the crowds at the Weserstadion, as the club reached the final of the UEFA Cup against Shakhtar Donetsk, where they lost 2-1 in overtime without Diego, and won the DFB-Pokal against Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 with Diego assisting Özil’s game-winning goal.
Diego Believed he had to Leave Werder to Become a Regular at the Seleção
Despite the fact that Werder once again reached the UEFA Cup, or Europa League as it was called from then on, Diego wanted to leave the club that had turned him into one of the best players in the Bundesliga. Diego had a dream, which was to become the main starter for the Brazilian Seleção.
Diego was part of the team that won the 2004 Copa América, but was not included in the 2006 World Cup team. In 2007, however, Diego once again won the Copa, and then participated in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But Brazil also had Kaká who, at the time, was one of the best central midfielders in the world—he won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the year award in 2007.
Hence, Diego believed that he had to play regularly for a big European club in the UEFA Champions League. Rumours had him linked to Bayern Munich—a club with a history of stealing the brightest talents from its Bundesliga competitors—and to the Italian club Juventus Turin.
Bayern Munich’s Frank Ribéry was strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid at the time, and the Bavarians were looking at Diego, as a potential replacement. In the end, however, Bayern Munich was a ruse by Werder manager Klaus Allofs to attract higher bidders from abroad and, in the end, Diego left the club for Juventus for €24.5 million.
Diego Would Never be the Same After Leaving Werder Bremen
With Diego’s move away from Werder Bremen, he began a long decline. Diego made a fantastic impression at first, but the strong focus on tactical football in Italy, and the more defensive approach of Juventus Turin ill suited Diego. His style of football was also often confused with apathy, as Diego’s body language, much like that of Mesut Özil today, could often be misinterpreted as that of a player, who didn’t want to work against the ball.
Hence, after just one year in Italian football, Diego returned to Germany to play for Steve McClaren’s VfL Wolfsburg. Wolfsburg had won the title in Diego’s last season in the Bundesliga, but was struggling to regain their championship form from two seasons earlier. McClaren, who had won the title in the Netherlands with Twente Enschede in 2010, was expected to rebuild Wolfsburg.
But the English manager’s abilities were unsuited to Bundesliga football, and Wolfsburg soon descended into chaos as the club fell towards the relegation position. Diego often clashed with Steve McClaren, and the Brazilian was fined €100,000 for failing to follow instructions.
Toward the end of the season, McClaren was replaced by Felix Magath, who suspended and fined Diego €500,000 for failing to show up for Wolfsburg’s last game of the season against TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. Wolfsburg won the game and managed to survive in the league, but Diego’s time in Germany seemed to be over.
Diego was then loaned to Atlético Madrid for the 2010-11 season but, despite good performances in Spain, Atlético was unable to complete the deal due to financial difficulties. Hence, Diego returned one last time to Wolfsburg to play for the club from the summer of 2012 to the winter of 2014.
Diego Made one Last Mark at VfL Wolfsburg
When the player first returned from Spain, Wolfsburg’s manager, Magath, placed the Brazilian playmaker in the reserve side, but the Brazilian was adamant that he wanted to fight for a place in the first team. Wolfsburg struggled under Magath, as the club only managed eight points in their first five games.
The end of Magath’s time at Wolfsburg marked the last high point of playmaker’s career when the Brazilian once again became an attraction in German football. His skills and technique made Wolfsburg a desirable team to watch, and he became the club’s top scorer in the 2012-13 season.
Once again, Diego became a valuable target for bigger European clubs, and he was linked with a move to his home club Santos FC. At the time the Brasileirão was flying high, as the strong Brazilian economy meant that Brazilian stars could earn big money in the Brazilian Serie A.
Failed World Cup Dreams
Diego also hoped to make the Brazilian national team for the 2014 World Cup, which was scheduled to take place in Brazil. In January 2013 Diego told the press: “I want to play there, and I believe I could. I also want to stay in Wolfsburg, and perhaps even extend my contract.”
Yet, Wolfsburg failed to reach an international competition, as the club finished eleventh in the 2012-13 Bundesliga season. Hence, Diego decided that he needed to move on to play Champions League football, in order to make Brazil’s World Cup squad.
In January 2014, Diego moved once again, this time to Atlético, where he helped the team to reach the final of the UEFA Champions League—which the club lost to Real Madrid—and win the Spanish La Liga title. But his gambit to make the Seleção failed because Diego was not a regular starter in Spain, and he consequently could not convince Luiz Felipe Scolari to call him up to Brazil’s World Cup squad.
Disappointed, Diego left Spain for Turkey to play for Fenerbahçe Istanbul. The move to the Turkish Süper Lig was a mixed bag, however. The competition often offers players high salaries, but at the same time the payment of teams in the competition is poor, and Diego soon complained that he hadn’t been paid.
The move to Turkey also meant that he was no longer on the radar for the national team, which effectively ended his hopes to ever play for the Seleção again. Hence, after two years, Diego decided to end his time in Europe. There was still interest in the player, especially in the United States, as several Major League Soccer teams wanted to land the playmaker.
Return to Brazil
One possibility was the North American Soccer League team Miami FC, which wanted to add Brazilian talent in order to attract Miami’s large South American population to the newly established franchise.
Instead, Diego decided to move back to Brazil, where he joined the famous Rio de Janeiro based club, Flamengo. At Flamengo, Diego has signed a two-year contract that will earn him $2.5 million and $3 million per year after taxes.
Some people suggest that Flamengo are Brazil’s most popular club (although fans of the São Paulo based Corinthians might disagree, despite the fact that the club hasn’t won a national championship since 2009). Flamengo’s last title dates back to 2013, the Copa do Brasil, and Flamengo supporters now hope that Diego can bring back some glory to the Estádio do Maracanã.
There is a feeling that the Diego has not quite fulfilled his potential, and has fallen short of becoming a true global superstar. Indeed, a title in Brazil could provide a happy ending to Diego’s career.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.