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Friday
Oct042013

Gilberto Silva – The Invisible Wall who became Invincible

BY ANDREW ALLEN / @AAllenSport

In an informal interview conducted seven years ago with his own unofficial fan site, Gilberto Silva was asked what advice he’d pass on to his younger self should the chance hypothetically present itself. Before answering he can be seen pausing for thought before quietly asserting in his delightfully lilting English, “Believe.”

The simplicity of his statement can’t help but make you smile. After all, this is a guy whose path to the top was not so much the stuff of dreams, but a fairy-tale so far-fetched that even the Brothers Grimm might have raised an eyebrow.

Belief? Surely it takes more than that? The strange thing is, watching Gilberto talk so informally from the changing room of a primary school in Sheffield, he almost has you thinking his tale is the norm. Work hard, do what needs to be done and you too could swap a day job at a sweet factory for World Cup winner status in the space of five years. Add a little luck and you might just be able to append FA Cup victor and Premier League ‘Invincible’ to your CV for good measure.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Gilberto’s story is that were it not for a freak training ground accident the career he’s had may never have come to pass. On the eve of the 2002 World Cup, Emerson, the enforcer and captain of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s unfancied Brazil side, dislocated his shoulder in training whilst larking about in goal. Despite Kleberson, Vampeta and even the silky-skilled Juninho Paulista being tipped to fill the void, it was Atletico Mineiro’s Gilberto who got the nod. The 25-year-old subsequently played every minute of the Seleção’s seven game run to Yokohama glory and inside 29 days went from a nobody to the man who according to Veja Magazine, “carried the piano for Ronaldo and Rivaldo to play their tunes on.”

Thrust into the international limelight despite his nickname ‘the Invisible Wall’, Gilberto was quickly snapped up for £4.5 million by Arsene Wenger and by August found himself banging in the winner for Arsenal against Liverpool in the Community Shield. He’d only been on the field for 24 minutes, but he again proved his willingness to seize the day.

There was more to come. He may have been following in the footsteps of Silvinho, the little-known Juan and Edu as the fourth Brazilian to pull on the red and white shirt at an increasingly trans-continental Highbury, but he was to prove the club’s most successful South American import by far.

Slotting in next to Patrick Vieira in the centre of Wenger’s midfield he made 32 starts in the Premier League during his first season, scored the club’s fastest ever goal inside 20 seconds of a Champions League tie at PSV Eindhoven, helped the Gunners lift the FA Cup and fully consolidated his credentials as a bona fide first team member.

While his debut season in England can be considered an unquestionable success, his second proved all the more impressive as he and his Arsenal teammates re-wrote the record books to win the Premier League without losing a game. A team of supremely talented individuals operating in complete harmony, they were lauded as ‘Invincibles’ for their achievement.

Week in, week out at Highbury the locals were left in awe by Thierry, Paddy and the majestic Dennis.  They thought Jens and Kolo infectiously barmy, admired the grit of Cole, Campbell, Lauren and Parlour, felt Edu enigmatic, Bobby brilliant and Freddie, to use his own words, ‘fucking excellent.’

But Gilberto? Well he was the dependable guy. He was the glue.

Never one to grab the headlines he commanded respect for his humble nature and metronomic grafting in front of the Arsenal defence. His work rate was phenomenal, his passing disciplined and his tackling – despite the dirty work expected of him – clean. Indeed, during six seasons with the Gunners he only picked up 15 yellow cards and two reds. Only during goal celebrations (and while playing the mandolin) did he flash a little Brazilian flair, his nifty dancing feet habitually heading for a jig by the corner flag. 

It was nearly a third of the way through the 2004/05 season before Arsenal finally surrendered their unbeaten status in the league; the ‘battle of the buffet’ at Old Trafford bringing an unceremonious end to the Gunners swashbuckling 49 game run. Tellingly Gilberto wasn’t playing. A fracture in his back, picked up at the tale end of September, had forced him into a brace and left him sidelined for seven months. He later admitted that he’d feared for his career.

By the time he returned to action in April, the Gunners had pretty much surrendered the title to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, although they did manage to deny United a trophy with a victory in the FA Cup. Gilberto played the full 120 minutes in Cardiff; his winners’ medal a reward not only for making it through a gruelling match but a tough year.

In the absence of Patrick Vieira, who moved to Juventus just weeks after his shootout penalty confirmed the win at the Millennium Stadium, the Brazilian became the senior figure in Arsenal’s midfield during the summer of 2005. Predominantly partnered with the up-and-coming Cesc Fabregas, he continued to cut a consistent figure in the centre of the park although poor form from the team as whole scuppered any chance of a Premier League challenge before Christmas.

Despite misery on the domestic front there was a miraculous charge to the final of the Champions League built on the foundations of a record-breaking run of 10 consecutive clean sheets. In the knockout stages alone Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal couldn’t penetrate a patched-up defence which consisted of Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini, Kolo Toure and Philippe Senderos. It was no coincidence that the calming presence of Gilberto sat just in front of the eclectic back four all the way to Paris. Were it not for an early red card to Jens Lehmann in the final Gilberto, as opposed to his five compatriots in Barcelona’s ranks, might have been the only Samba star celebrating in the pouring rain.

Awarded the vice-captaincy by Arsene Wenger in the summer of 2006 Gilberto actually spent much of the ensuing season wearing the armband as an unfit Thierry Henry limped glumly through his final months with the Gunners. The midfielder seemed to thrive on the added responsibility scoring Arsenal’s first competitive goal at the new Emirates Stadium on the first day of the season before hitting double figures for the season as a whole. Not only was he a threat in the air from set pieces but he even usurped the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie to take over spot-kick duties.

His exploits didn’t go unnoticed. In 2007 Dunga made Gilberto captain of the Brazil national team for a friendly against England and he retained the position during a victorious Copa America run in Venezuela. Unfortunately, suspension forced him to miss the 3-0 win over Argentina in the final and that disappointment was compounded when he found out while away, reportedly via the web, that he’d been overlooked for the Arsenal captaincy in favour of William Gallas following the sale of Thierry Henry to Barcelona.

The double blow seemed to steal the wind from Gilberto’s sails. Given time to rest following his international exploits he struggled to win back his place in Arsene Wenger’s midfield as Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini struck up a promising partnership. On the odd occasion he did feature he looked a little lost. No longer the leader of the team and without familiar faces around him, his form lamentably tailed off and it was little surprise to see stories linking him with an exit in January 2008. Not one to complain, Gilberto stuck around until the end of the season and bid farewell to the Emirates faithful with a goal in his last Arsenal appearance; a 2-0 win over Reading on 19 April.

Three months later he was snapped up by Panathinaikos for an undisclosed fee. Surprisingly, given all his achievements in North London, it’s fair so say that Arsenal fans didn’t lament his exit at the time. So marginalised had he become that even when the wheels fell off the club’s title-challenge in March there’d been few calls for him to be restored to the team. In the end his departure was as understated as the man himself. It was a real shame because he certainly deserved more.

It’s astounding to think in the five years since Gilberto moved to Athens just how difficult it has been for Arsene Wenger to find a suitable replacement. Lassana Diarra came and went in the blink of an eye, Flamini jumped ship to AC Milan on a free at the end of his one good season, Denilson remained on the books but never displayed the gumption for the physicality of the Premier League, Alex Song slung his hook as soon as Barcelona came calling, Abou Diaby remains a perpetual injury concern and for all Mikel Arteta’s qualities he’s been somewhat shoehorned into a defensive role after a career spent in a predominantly more attacking position. Only now are Arsenal starting to find some solidity, with a rejuvenated Flamini and the seemingly unstoppable Aaron Ramsey.

Were a 25-year-old Gilberto available on the market today, you can be sure he’d still walk straight into the Emirates starting line-up; that’s if he weren’t snapped up by another team first. The old maxim certainly stands firm; you really don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

Interestingly, Gilberto’s still playing. After three years in Greece, he spent last year on the books with Gremio and in December completed a career-long ambition to return to first love Atletico Mineiro. At his unveiling, the now 36-year-old received a heroes welcome. He stated: “I hope I can help Atlético in the best way possible. With my experience, I can help the group in everyday life, not just on the pitch. I will assume that position in a quiet way, respecting all.”

And Gilberto did just that, helping Atletico to win the 2013 Copa Libertadores in July, naturally in his own, dignified way.

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