CARY, N.C. — As Heather O’Reilly blasted a corner kick into the penalty box, no one seemed to be paying any mind to the North Carolina Courage’s No. 10, Debinha.
As the ball fell to the turf, Debinha lingered patiently behind the far post, her club locked at 1-1 in with Sky Blue FC on a recent Saturday night. The ball bounced to the edge of the box, where Cari Roccaro picked it up and played it slightly in front of the Brazilian midfielder.
Two defenders closed in on Debinha, and no one expected what came next. In that situation, some players might have played the ball off to a teammate that was more open. Others might have taken a touch and then fired a hard attempt towards the goal.
But Debinha is different. In this particular moment, with a deft knock from her right boot, she lofted the ball softly in the air. It soared over her teammates, over Sky Blue’s defenders and out of reach for goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan before landing delicately in the back of the net, giving the Courage the go-ahead score.
“There’s a handful of players in the league where you say, ‘Wow. That’s a creative player,’ and I think Debinha is one of them,” Courage fullback Jaelene Hinkle told Pro Soccer USA. “You never know what she’s going to do, and I think that’s what makes her so dangerous. She doesn’t have as many tendencies or things that she’s commonly doing. It’s like, you never know what attack she’s going to bring to the field. That’s what made her so dangerous for Brazil at the World Cup, just her being so creative on the ball. We’re thankful that we have her on our team.
“It’s just a joy to play with her, honestly.”
Indeed, Hinkle and the rest of the Courage defenders are grateful that they don’t have to prepare for Debinha. She causes enough headaches for them in training.
Attempting to predict Debinha’s actions on a soccer field is a fool’s errand, a decision as wise as picking your teeth with a rattlesnake. With her wits and flair, she can make the league’s best defenders look as ordinary as fried bologna.
For the NWSL Championship-bound North Carolina Courage, Débora Cristiane de Oliveira, the 28-year-old known as Debinha, is having a banner season. It’s clear that she is in her prime and she’s playing her best football at a crucial time for Paul Riley’s side.
“She’s awesome. She’s been on fire this year. She’s a key component in our attack,” Courage forward Kristen Hamilton said of her teammate. “In almost every game she’s in, she’s contributing in some sort of way… Paul claims to have Americanized her a bit… She’s so easy to play with. She can win the ball in any situation and she’s going to do something creative with it.”
Despite being controversially left off the league’s Best XI for 2019, Debinha is a finalist for the NWSL’s MVP award. In 18 starts this year, she’s tallied nine goals and seven assists, making her accountable for 16 scores, which is fourth most in the league. She has also racked up a 72 percent success rate on 626 passes, notched 50 key passes and improved on her defensive abilities, getting 19 interceptions and 32 tackles this season.
‘She’s the new Marta, right?’
For Debinha, all of this has happened in a year where she also reached a milestone for her country, featuring in her first World Cup. The native of Brasópolis, Brazil started all four games, put six shots on-frame and tallied one assist.
Through her play there and in other international competitions, like the Women’s International Champions Cup, she has earned respect from opponents around the globe.
“I think she’s just got a great quality on the ball,” said Lucy Bronze, a fullback for the England national team and Lyon. “She’s got good athleticism as well. I think a lot of players in (the NWSL) have that athleticism, but she’s got the quality to match as well, and the intelligence — she’s going to have that because she’s a Brazilian — but, she’s fun to play against.”
But if you ask Courage head coach Paul Riley, Debinha was misused at the World Cup.
“I don’t think Brazil plays her in the right position, out wide,” Riley said. “Me personally, I think she’s better in the middle where she can ghost around and find holes and do things. She’s terrifically creative.
“She’s the new Marta, right? When you look at Marta and you look at what Marta was like at one point in her career – and Marta is still a fabulous player – but Debinha has almost taken the flame and said, ‘I want to be that player. I want to be the go-to Brazilian player.’”
With a new coach for Brazil in Pia Sundhage and with older players like Formiga fading from the national team picture, Debinha could have a new role with her country by the time the next World Cup rolls around. Like Riley said, she could potentially take the reins from Marta as the Brazil’s top talent.
“I think so,” Debinha told Pro Soccer USA when asked if she could be a leader for the next wave of Brazilian players. “We have a lot of young players coming up, like Andressinha. So, I think for me and the young players — yes, of course, you can assume the leadership position. Playing in this league, I think, is going to prepare me for the national team.”
Debinha began her professional career in her native country at the age of 15, playing for clubs such as Lorena, Saad Esporte Clube, Portuguesa, Foz Cataratas and Centro Olímpico. At 22, she was ready for a new challenge and signed with Avaldsnes IL, a club in Norway. In 2014, she led that league in scoring. But when the 2015 World Cup came and went without Brazil calling her up, Debinha knew she was ready for a challenge.
A test in the NWSL
The game is the same in Norway, China and Brazil, but in the NWSL, it’s more fierce. To get better, for herself and her country, Debinha knew she needed a test. And how did she expect to run with the wolves come night if she spent all day sparring with puppies? So, in 2017, the same season the Western New York Flash relocated to North Carolina, Debinha joined Riley’s side.
“This league is on the other level. I’ve never played this level before, even like playing for the national team,” Debinha said. “Here, every game is the same level. It’s hard. And practicing with Paul is hard. So, of course, playing here is preparing me better and better.”
In her first season, when she was balancing learning English and Riley’s system, Debinha tallied just four goals and two assists over 24 matches. But she improved her second season, notching eight goals, and has flourished this year, her third under Riley.
And although she’ll apologize for her English, it’s actually very good. Just like with Riley’s tactics, she caught onto the language quickly.
“For me, this year has been a great year,” Debinha said. “With the World Cup, I prepared better in the preseason with the team. I’m just enjoying helping the team, doing my best, and of course, playing for Paul is amazing. He makes everything easy and he knows how to get your best.”
— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) April 28, 2019
Ask Riley about almost any player on his squad and he’s willing to heap praise on them for several consecutive minutes. But with Debinha — considering how she’s played this season and how much improvement she’s made — Riley can go on for hours about her personality, her technical abilities and her gifts.
“Debinha is special right now. She’s more Brazilian than Brazilian, if that’s possible,” Riley said. “With her, we’re not so mechanical in the midfield. She brings creativity and she’s a little bit unusual and does unusual things. She’s smooth on the ball. She creates good chances and sees things that maybe some of the other players don’t see.
“Debinha, to me, is probably the most creative top player in the league right now.”
When those comments were relayed to the Brazilian footballer, she needed a moment to collect her thoughts. It’s clear that Riley’s compliments mean a great deal to her.
“I’m happy to hear that from Paul. He’s the coach who’s let me be free,” Debinha said. “Of course, I need to do what he asks me, but he also lets me do whatever I want. It’s made me comfortable and made me have fun with the game.”
Creative and unpredictable
When the people who know Debinha’s play best – teammates, opponents and coaches – talk about her, they typically always mention two things. First, they will tout her creativity; her willingness to take risks and try new things, the way she dances on the ball and how she can put the ball in the back of the net from almost anywhere near the penalty box. Next, they will say that from the moment when Debinha takes her first touch, they have not the slightest idea what she is about to do next.
She epitomizes unpredictability on the pitch.
“I think there’s a little bit of Brazilian flair in there that makes her great and makes us great. Defenders don’t really know what she’s going to do,” Courage forward Lynn Williams said of Debinha. “Luckily for us, we get to play with her day in and day out, so we’ve built a relationship there and sometimes we know what she’s going to do. She’s a creative player, and when teams start to sit in around the box, you have to be a bit creative.”
That unpredictability was on display several times in the Courage’s NWSL semifinal match-up against Reign FC last weekend. In the eighth minute, Debinha sprinted from the mouth of the Reign’s goal to the edge of the box track down a ball. Instead of playing it off to a teammate who might’ve been in a better position to score, she spun on the top of the ball and fired a shot that landed low, but on-frame. Luckily for the Reign, goalkeeper Casey Murphy was able to slide over and drop to her knees for the save.
And then there was the game-winning free kick in the 100th minute. Countless times this season, the Courage have tried to pull off fancy tricks and illusions on free kicks to throw the defense off. But in that tense moment, Debinha opted for a straight-on approach, unleashing an unstoppable shot after a slight stutter step from Hinkle.
“Me and (Hinkle) practice free kicks and that was the moment where I was like, ‘I need to score,’” Debinha said. “Jae asked me what I was going to do. (Murphy) is a big goalie, so I waited to see what she was going to do. She leaned a little bit to our right side, and I just hit near post with power.”
— NWSL (@NWSL) October 20, 2019
After the match, Riley jokingly complained about how Debinha makes him stay after practice each day so she can practice free kicks for an extra 15 minutes.
“She drives me nuts,” Riley said. “But today… It was well worth it.”
The blast was a display of Debinha’s brilliance. If her foot was a rifle, it could shoot the stinger off a bee. Time after time this season, Debinha has shown that she is capable of pulling off sublime, ridiculous and fantastic plays.
And the Courage are happy that she – the most creative and unpredictable weapon in the NWSL – is on their side.
“She’s been brilliant, all over the field,” Riley said. “Thank God she’s playing for us and nobody else.”