After a year an a half at Arsenal, Gilberto Silva now feels at home. You can see it in the way he cooly patrols the central midfield, like a loping lion, securing the area from danger and when needed powering forward with Latin athleticism. And you can see it the way he saunters around the Bell Lane training ground, easy-going, comfortable and with simple friendliness.
The Brazilian may not have the profile of his other teammates, yet he has established a crucial role in the Arsenal team. Many South Americans take years to adapt to Europe; often they never do. But Gilberto has been consistent and is growing in confidence each game. Half way through this season, he already has four goals to his name, more than he scored in his entire first year. I’m a lot more mature in football terms than I was when I first arrived, he says. “I’ve learnt a lot of stuff here. I had to modify some things, improve some things. I think this season will be much better for me.”
Gilberto is a defensive pillar of the Arsenal midfield, discreet yet effective. In person too he is the model of politeness. Unlike the clich’ of the exuberant, mouthy Brazilian, Gilberto is conscientious, well-spoken and humble. He listens to questions patiently and replies diplomatically.
Beneath the shy exterior it’s easy to forget that he has a World Cup winner’s medal on his mantelpiece.
As we sit back and chat on one of Bell Lane’s sofas, Gilberto tells me that his perspective on Premiership football is more considered after a season and a half. “English football doesn’t have the patience that Brazilian football has, to be able to work the ball more, to kick the ball from one
side to the other, waiting for the right moment to make the move. Here it’s a different culture, you’ve got to be going for a goal at every moment, as soon as you get it you go for it, it means you are obliged to run a lot more on the pitch. Either you have the ball or you have to be running after the other team to get the ball back. Brazilian football, we have a much more calm culture, working the ball more until the right moment.”
We talk about his glorious Arsenal debut, when he scored the winner in the 2002 Charity Shield against Liverpool. But Gilberto says it took a while to adapt to this more physical style. “I had some initial difficulties, but I managed to overcome them quickly. I had to play in a way that uses my strength more.” His size and fitness and his seeming imperviousness to injury have also played their part.
“I’m happy because I’ve already scored more goals than last season. But obviously I want to always be improving. If I could score more goals, I’d be happy with that, but the important thing is to achieve our objectives which is to win competitions.”
Outside of football, Gilberto is also opening up and enjoying England more. “I’m keen to learn, to get to know some places in the country, to really get into English culture. I’m always learning, speaking to English people.” He says that people are always fascinated to find out about Brazil. “It’s an exchange of information and cultures. I think this is very important for me.”
Usually Brazilians first complaint when they move to Europe is the diet they miss their rice and beans. Has Gilberto finally adapted to English food? He laughs embarrassedly. “In reality I hardly ever eat any. Only in the hotels or here at the Arsenal training ground sometimes. At home I eat Brazilian food, there’s my sister who cooks for me.”
He says that it’s possible to get Brazilian food here. “We’ve discovered everything! There are Brazilian markets where you can find black beans, red beans also gradually you start discovering things. There are quite a few Brazilians in London, its cool.”
Gilberto lives near St Albans with his sister and he has been joined by his mother and father for Christmas. Does he ever find the time to go out?
“Because I have a busy life with football I don’t have that much free time, but when I do we like to go out to listen to some Brazilian music. ”
There is a hidden scene of Brazilian musicians in London, it seems, occasionally frequented by a World Cup champion. “If you look, you can find it! My mandolin teacher plays in a pub where I like to go with my sister. He plays with others on guitar, double bass, drums; it’s a mix of Brazilian music with jazz, something really nice.”
When he’s not training or learning English he is practicing his mandolin. All three are improving. “I can just about manage one or two things on the
mandolin. Very slowly, but just about ok.”
Ronaldinho, I ask if he is ready to take of the role of ” who organizes samba singalongs behind the scenes at Brazil games. “He’s the leader, right! The captain of samba,” Gilberto replies. “But I’m not there yet. I only started lessons at the beginning of the year. It’s only now that I’m getting better, because you need to practice the whole time.”
Another pastime that Gilberto is involved with is the Street League, a charity that uses football to help homeless people. This year he invited 17 homeless to his home town of Lagoa da Prata. “I’m a kind of patron of the project. Its cool seeing those people, they don’t have any hope of achieving anything better than what they have in life. You are there for one minute, or five or ten, or however long it is, you have the chance to be with these young guys and you see the pleasure that they have in being there. You see their eyes light up. You start to see from this that they start to have hope for the future.”In fact, only when talking about the Street League do Gilberto’s eyes really light up too. “This, for me, is priceless. I’m really happy to be spending time with them. When we went to Brazil it was a marvelous experience for them, it was something they will never forget. I’m happy to be involved, putting a smile on the faces of each person there.”
He adds that he is indirectly involved in other charity work . I try to get involved, especially in my home town, which is a small town, to be there
helping the poorer communities, but I am very discreet. I like to help, but discreetly. I don’t like making too much noise.”
After spending summer in Brazil, Gilberto has already been back twice this season. He is not just an integral part of Arsenal, but also of his national
side. This season he has already played four competitive games for his country as Brazil embarked on the long road to qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The South American qualifiers have two novelties this time First, the ten-country, 18-game group is being spread over two and a half years, a year longer than previously, and secondly, the title-holders are exempt from automatic qualification.
“I think it’s absurd that they changed the rules that the champion needs to go through the qualifiers,” he reacts. “To change something that has been the same since the beginning, I don’t think makes sense. But it was a decision and it was accepted, so us players have to do our best. Obviously it is really tiring making the trip. You have to fly for 11 hours, and then you sometimes need to travel another 2 or three or four hours, and then come back again here. But I guess that’s the deal of being part of a top club and also part of the your national team.”
The trip is, in fact, much tougher than Gilberto makes it sound. The first time he went back, in September, it was a round trip of almost 20,000 miles, which is about three quarters of the circumference of the world. He flew to Sao Paulo, then Rio de Janeiro, where the national team training centre is located. The squad then chartered a flight to Barranquilla in Colombia for
their first game, then returned to Brazil to play Equador in the jungle city of Manaus. There are no direct flights from Manaus to Europe so he had to
travel back to Sao Paulo before returning over the Atlantic. Total airborne travel time in 10 days: 36 hours.
In order to lessen the number of times South America’s leading players need to travel home, the continent’s football confederation organizes two games per trip. After the first double-header, Brazil were top of the group with two wins out of two – 2-1 against Colombia and 1-0 against Equador.
But in November when the team went back the wind was taken out of their sails. The world cup winners, with a team barely changed from the 2002 final, drew 1-1 with both Peru in Lima and 3-3 against Uruguay in the southern Brazilian city Curitiba almost had a shock. At 2-2 Gilberto caused a bizarre own goal. He rose to stop the ball, but blocked the view of keeper Dida, and headed the ball by accident into his net. Luckily Ronaldo scored with three minutes to go, sparing Gilberto the reputation as the man who let Uruguay win.
Now Brazil are only third behind surprise leaders Paraguay and perennial rivals Argentina. The top four go through and the fifth wins a play-off
against the winners of Oceania. Even though the team hasn’t yet lost again, the fans are frustrated and there is a worry again that qualification will be a rocky path just like last time.
“What we talk about within the team is that we must try and avoid happening what has happened before the last two times we qualified. Both those times we only qualified on the last game. But we also know it’s difficult. We have to play against big teams, big players, most of the players in the other teams play in Europe, and so we know it will be difficult until the end. We just hope that this qualifying group could be different to the previous
two. “Gilberto adds that so long as you qualify it doesn’t matter how tormented the campaign is. If we do have the same difficulties that we had in the past and only qualify in the last game, and then we are champions again then it will have been worthwhile.”
Even though he is only 27, Gilberto is now a ‘veteran in the Brazilian side. “I’m getting old!” he laughs. What does he make of the younger players?
“Brazilian football has something special. Great new players appear all the time,” he says. “One year you have a good crop and the straight away there’s another good crop right behind. Brazil is privileged in this way, compared to other countries. Some of the new lads are getting call ups obviously Kak”, who was in the squad last World Cup, but also Diego, Robinho, Elano, these players are already doing well. You could even change every player in the national team for a new one and you would still have an
excellent national team.
For a while at the beginning of the season it was rumoured that Diego, the Santos creative midfielder, was about to sign to Tottenham. The deal fell through at the last moment. How would he have felt having a Brazilian in the wrong north London side? ‘Obviously, if it were possible, I would prefer it for him to come here! Playing here, because here we have a great group, great quality, and I feel like it’s a big family, but I also know that Brazilian football is going through big financial problems, so if the only thing he could get was for the rival team I would understand it.’ He adds: Kleberson plays for another rival, but the friendship is still there.’
Of his colleagues in the national side Gilberto has most affinity with Kleberson, who moved to Manchester Utd this season. Both players got the
national call up at the same time, both played at provincial Brazilian teams and both were unexpected first choices when the World Cup began. Their positions are next to each other with Kleberson slightly more forward than Gilberto.
‘We talk to each other quite regularly on the phone. There’s not that much opportunities for us to meet because he’s playing, I am too, we’re always traveling. But we are in touch, I think it’s important.
Is he in touch with the other Premiership Brazilians Juninho at Middlesborough, Roque Junior at Leeds, Jardel at Bolton; With Juninho,
quite a bit less, With Roque I’ve already spoken to him. We traveled together coming back from Brazil after the qualifiers. But I’m much closer to Kleberson.
As well as the style of football, Gilberto has also got used to British fans. Highbury is different from the Mineir’o, Atletico’s home stadium in Belo Horizonte. I feel a great contrast. Atletico has some of the best fans in Brazil, in terms of cheering you on. We lived a great moment, getting to the quarter finals of the Brazilian championship. The fans were there all the time, the stadium was pretty full. The fans never stopped for a second singing the club song, shouting out the names of the players all the time, and at times it felt like the fans were playing along side us. Here, sometimes we feel this, but there is a difference, sometimes they are quieter, they sing and then sometimes stop, whereas in Brazil if your team is doing well you sing from the beginning of the match until the last minute.
I ask if he feels that Arsenal’s fans expect him to be more Brazilians, showing off fancy skills. If the fans are hoping that I will do what Denilson does, or what Ronaldinho does, to dribble effortlessly, then unfortunately they will be let down because that isn’t the type of player that I am. I am a player that marks. My job is to give support to the two midfielders, who play slightly infront of me, and to help out the defenders.
This is what I try to do. I think the fans respect me for what I have done at Arsenal in such a short amount of time. I feel very at home here, very comfortable here, I have a special affection for this club, because they have given me the opportunity to carry on doing what I was before. The club and the fans received me very well.