Unsung Heroes #5
We live in an age where crass shouts louder than class, opinion is dressed up in the cloak of fact and a woman dying slowly and horribly from cancer is pawned off to the masses as entertainment. (But apparently, computer games and films graphically depicting death in a fictional context are a source of moral outrage). Footballers too genuflect the media age where style is substance, a player`s commercial activity dictates how good a footballer he is and "image rights" can be an insurmountable sticking point in the contract of Steve Bruce no less! It is perhaps the way the next player in this series eschewed every one of these vacuous concerns that has seen his personality venerated to the nth degree, particularly as his departure is still very fresh in our minds. But whilst this man`s character is worthy of every plaudit, the truth is, he was a much better footballer than he was ever given credit for.
Perhaps it was his religious conviction, or perhaps it was his modest upbringing that made Gilberto Apacerida da Silva such a genteel and becoming person. Raised in the city of Lagoa da Prata with his mother, blacksmith father and three sisters in a house that Gilberto`s father built himself with his own hands, Gilberto and his three sisters shared a single room. However, never one for idle complaint, Gilberto describes his childhood in warm terms, his life largely constituted playing football in the streets with his cousins and friends. It was there, on the dusty streets of the Usina Luciania that he honed his craft. At the age of 12, he was spotted by America Mineiro and joined their schoolboy team, learning his trade as a centre half- a trade that served his keen defensive instincts very well in more decorated years. However, Gilberto was not allowed to become carried away with the prospect of being a professional footballer, when he was 15 his father retired from work and, with Gilberto`s mother in ill health, a 15 year old Gilberto was left with the thankless task of being the sole breadwinner of the family, drawing on his father`s skills by making furniture. Gilberto later insisted that his tough upbringing imbued him with humility, even in his multi million fortune laden fame, he remarks; "I`m glad I had a tough start. It makes me identify with people that aren`t so lucky." It sounds like a nice, media friendly, mealy mouthed platitude, but in 2002 Gilberto started a six a side league in London exclusively for the homeless, refugees and asylum seekers. Upon moving to London, Gilberto used to, to the amazement of local punters, go and play his mandolin on Sunday evenings at his local pub in St. Albans. I also recall an interview in the Arsenal programme with Gilberto during a nine month lay off with a back injury; Gilberto insisted that he refused to be down hearted about his back injury as there were people in wheelchairs who would happily swap positions with him.
Gilberto attempted to resurrect his fledgling dreams of a football career between his various labouring jobs, enrolling into the local club`s Youth Academy at the age of 18. But he was once again forced to quit as his mother`s health deteriorated and he took a job in a sweet factory- his dreams of being a footballer now over. But at the age of 21, his friends convinced him to give football one last shot and he re-signed for America Mineiro in 1997, playing as a central defender as the club were promoted from Serie B to Serie A. America were relegated and subsequently promoted again, until 2000 when Carlos Alberto Perreira signed him for local rivals Atletico Mineiro. But disaster would strike in his first full season at Atletico when he fractured his right tibia, missing most of his first maiden season. Once he regained full fitness, the manager moved him from centre half into a defensive midfield role where Gilberto positively flourished. His performances garnered the attentions of Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who gave Silva his international debut on October, 7th 2001 against Chile. He went onto feature in all of Brazil`s remaining qualifiers and was a surprise inclusion in their 2002 World Cup squad. By now, he had already earned the moniker "The Invisible Wall" from his contemporaries in the Brazilian press. He was expected to be a bit part player but where Gilberto had borne past injury and poverty with forbearance and temperance- fate would intervene to the benefit of his career as Brazil captain Emerson was injured on the eve of the Finals. Scolari called upon his "Invisible Wall" who ended up playing every minute of every game in Brazil`s barnstorming World Cup win. Whilst most of the praise was attributed to the amazing recovery from injury of Ronaldo (the fat one) and the skills of Rivaldo, tributes for Gilberto were quite muted. Though Veja magazine produced the apt sobriquet that Gilberto "carried the piano for Ronaldo and Rivaldo to play their tunes on." A man as fond of music and as familiar with furniture as Gilberto Silva might have quite well enjoyed that image.
However, whilst the media and the general public were slow to appreciate the magnitude of his performances, one man certainly wasn`t. Gilberto caught the attentions of Arsene Wenger and signed for Arsenal on August 7th, 2002. It being Arsenal, of course the transfer became ludicrously protracted when Atletico were placed under a transfer embargo for unpaid wages to players- including Gilberto himself. The Home Office in their expediency, decided to make the work permit issue a nightmare- just for shits and giggles. (A transfer that was complicated? In the days of David Dein?! The Daily Mail won`t have that!) Four days later, Gilberto scored the winning goal in the 2002 Charity Shield victory against Liverpool in Cardiff. Upon arriving at the club, 'Bert faced stiff competition for a place in midfield with Edu flourishing at the end of the 2001-02 season and Ray Parlour`s locomotive engine still in correct working order. Of course there was the presence of new captain and behemoth Patrick Vieira in the centre of Arsenal`s midfield. But Wenger had noted how Vieira`s best form occurred when partnered with the more defensively minded Emmanuel Petit or Gilles Grimandi. Gilberto settled into his role incredibly quickly, instantly establishing himself as first choice. The dream start to his career continued apace in September 2002 when he opened the scoring in the 4-0 away drubbing of PSV Eindhoven, it was the fastest goal in the competition`s history clocking in at 20.07 seconds. It was also a time when Arsenal were playing probably their best football under the current manager; the tabloids were awash with talk of Arsenal dominating at home and abroad.
As we know, the Gunners season fell apart in the Spring, though Gilberto did bag himself an F.A. Cup winners medal, marshalling a midfield shorn of the injured Patrick Vieira and with Sol Campbell suspended thanks to Solskjaer`s theatrics. Gilberto was the best player on the pitch in the Final triumph, comfortably patrolling the midfield alongside Ray Parlour. Of course, the suits gave the award to the more media friendly and cerebral Henry; who had largely produced a 90 minute exercise in anonymity. But the champagne super nothings in the exec boxes were not alone in their refusal to recognise the Brazilian, Arsenal fans too were largely non plussed with the barely noticeable defensive midfield job he performed. (Fast forward a few years and the prescience of a defensive midfielder in the minds of Arsenal fans is a borderline point of obsession). English football fans generally only tend to notice the astonishingly skilful or chest beating, frothy mouthed headless chickens. Ironically enough, Gilberto`s young successor and compatriot Denilson is facing precisely the same quandary as we speak.
The next season saw Gilberto add to his burgeoning medal collection in emphatic circumstances, as the Gunners won the league undefeated. Gilberto played 32 of the 38 games, some of them on the right hand side of midfield. Edu began to nudge his way into the reckoning in the centre of midfield in the Spring of 2004- he was the clear supporters choice for the role, dashing smile, excellent skills and a cultured left foot. However, Edu could not hold onto his place- much to the bafflement of the Arsenal public. But the truth is Arsenal began to concede goals with Edu in central midfield, many from set pieces. Ivan Campo, Michael Owen, Claus Jensen, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and Wayne Bridge were all allowed to stroll into our penalty area unchecked with Gilberto on the right flank. After Liverpool had scored twice at Highbury in a breathless 4-2 win, the Invisible Wall reassumed his position in central midfield and Arsenal drew 0-0 away at Newcastle, before chalking up three assists in a 5-0 demolition of Leeds. Still the public were not satisfied. Many of us pointed out that a near ever present in an undefeated side and an ever present in a victorious World Cup campaign cannot be half bad. Gilberto`s importance at defending set pieces was always wildly underestimated. Although a big side, with the likes of Campbell and Vieira manning the area, it was more often than not Gilberto`s head on the end of the clearance. Gilberto`s absence the following season correlated directly with the Gunners leaking a plethora of goals from corners- with Campbell and Vieira still present and correct. Questions were abound surrounding our zonal marking, but it was a system that served us perfectly well with Gilberto in the side. Most did not make that correlation.
Joni Mitchell once memorably sang that you don`t know what you`ve got till it`s gone and so it proved with Gilberto. At the beginning of the next campaign, with Arsenal absolutely flying, the Brazilian felt discomfort in his back following an innocuous challenge on the first day of the season at Goodison Park. He played through the pain barrier until an x ray revealed a fractured vertebra. The injury meant he had to wear a back brace for three months and his career hung in the balance. Whilst he was recuperating in his native Brazil, Arsenal`s season began to untangle, the unbeaten run ended by Manchester United and a soft centre developed, with Vieira looking as though he`d really rather be anywhere else and Arsenal`s defence beginning to leak goals more readily than before. In his seven month absence, Arsenal fans began to realise just what Gilberto had been bringing to the team, it was like a philosophical domino effect all around the ground, the sound of pennies dropping one by one. His return that April, coinciding with the installation of Philippe Senderos saw the Gunners embark of a run of nine clean sheets in ten games. Gilberto played in another Cup Final, yielding yet another winners medal to his collection.
The departure of Patrick Vieira in the summer of 2005, coupled with the emergence of the precocious Cesc Fabregas, saw Gilberto become a senior figure in a decidedly young side. He wore the captain`s armband for the first time in a 2-0 win over Sparta Praha that October. Though the Gunners struggled for form domestically, that season saw Arsenal embark on a run to the 2006 Champions League final, with Gilberto central to a more defensive formation. Much of the praise was due to the back four and the goalkeeper, but in the later rounds of the competition, attacking midfielders of the stature of Zinedine Zidane, Pavel Nedved and Juan Roman Riquelme were all thwarted by Gilberto in Arsenal`s run of ten consecutive clean sheets in the tournament. In the final in Paris, Ronaldinho, Iniesta and Deco exercised little influence onto the proceedings (substitute Henrik Larsson was the man that made the difference). Gilberto finished the season with a Champions League runners up medal and played twice in Brazil`s World Cup disappointment in Germany that summer as his side exited to France at the Quarter Final stage. (His team mate Thierry Henry applying the damage that day).
The summer of 2006 saw the Gunners shed yet more experience, with Sol Campbell and Robert Pires leaving and Dennis Bergkamp retiring. Gilberto was officially vice captain and, as a thirty year old World Cup winner Gilberto was in the unfamiliar position of being in the spotlight. With Henry unfit for large chunks of the season and his virtuoso, genius style struggling to translate itself into leadership, it was a baton the Brazilian took consummately. He even etched his name into the history books by scoring Arsenal`s first ever competitive goal at the Emirates Stadium in the opening day 1-1 draw with Aston Villa. The achievement was lost in the hype of Theo Walcott`s cross which provided the goal, but Silva would begin to nudge himself into the limelight, his goal foreshadowing events to come. Gilberto ended up scoring ten goals and finishing as Arsenal`s second highest scorer in 2006-07. Five of those goals were penalties, but therein lies a point, with Henry injured and van Persie and Adebayor not yet quite established enough to assume the duty, Gilberto felt it his responsibility as captain to step up to the spot. In December 2007, he scored four in six games. Only when assuming the goal scoring glory did pundits begin to wax lyrical about his guidance of Arsenal`s young squad, but in reality, Gilberto was not doing an awful lot different to what he had been doing for the previous five years. That summer, Brazil coach Dunga recognised his leadership qualities and made him captain for the 2007 Copa America, which Brazil won. But that would ironically prove to be his downfall at Arsenal.
With Thierry Henry leaving the club in the summer of 2007, most assumed Gilberto would be left with the responsibility he performed so admirably in Henry`s absence. But Arsene Wenger went with the surprise choice of William Gallas as Arsenal skipper. With Gilberto returning to for the 2007-8 season late due to his summer exertions, he also ended up losing his place in the side to Mathieu Flamini. Consequently, in October 2007, he also ceded the Brazilian captaincy to Lucio. Gilberto claimed to have found out about the decision to install Gallas as captain on the internet- a rare moment of man managerial neglect from Arsene Wenger. Despite his professional career tumbling around his ears, Gilberto accepted his situation with a professionalism and forbearance which won him even more admirers. He refused to become embroiled in any display of bitterness towards the club, despite the perfidious invitations of mischievous journalists. Rumours continued surrounding his future- though Gilberto passed a British citizenship test in April, 2008. He scored what proved to be his final goal for Arsenal in April 2008 with a deflected effort against Reading. He left the club for Panathinaikos in July 2008, by way of recognition for his service (and presumably as an apology for how we discovered the destination of the captaincy) Arsenal greed to knock money off of the transfer fee, enabling Gilberto to negotiate a more lucrative contract. After ensuring a couple of seasons of supporter indifference, he eventually left with the plaudits running in his ears.
Gilberto was a player of immense courage with a faultless winning attitude cloaked beneath a gentle, humble exterior. He was living proof that nice guys do not always finish last- he succumbed the early travails of poverty and responsibility at a tender age and forged himself an illustrious football career from those ashes through sheer determination. For a player who spent his career foraging away in the business end of a Premiership midfield I do not remember a single bad challenge or loss of temper. As is desired for a man playing his position, Gilberto`s positional sense was unrivalled. I recall a match at Stamford Bridge in December 2006- injury meant rookie duo Senderos and Djourou played in central defence. The protection Gilberto afforded them that day was immense and has to go down as one of the single best displays I have ever seen by an individual in an Arsenal match. Gilberto won over the initial suspicions of supporters not with grandiose statements or cheap badge thumping tactics, but simply by doing his job professionally. Certain Togolese strikers might like to take note. Playing for Arsenal suited Gilberto down to the ground, as we adopted a similar style of play to his native Brazil side, with full backs bombing forward as virtual wingers. It was seldom credited that every time Lauren and Cole surged forwards, Gilberto was the one who dropped back to cover their position. I have discussed his effectiveness at defending set pieces already but what was amazing was how few he actually conceded, midfield 'spoilers` are usually amongst the most cynical footballers there are (older Arsenal fans will instantly think of the name Peter Storey). Gilberto`s altruistic and fair minded character permeated his qualities as a player perfectly. His approach meant he was far more likely to simply shadow a player and pressure him into surrendering possession as opposed to lunging in. He was also intelligent enough to intercept play and thus dismiss the need for a challenge in the first place. It is a shame Gilberto`s talents were only truly venerated in the autumn of his Arsenal career, but it was his qualities as a man that ensured they were recognised. This morning we see Ashley Cole apologising again for indecent behaviour, aspersions cast on the character of Cristiano Ronaldo. In this era, a player like Gilberto is a breath of fresh air as a consummate professional and a thoroughly decent human being. His departure was greeted with sadness where at first his arrival was greeted with indifference. His quality, dignity and humility eventually saw him etched quietly into club legend. In fact, you could say he became part of the furniture.LD.
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