Few players have made such an immediate impact on arriving at Arsenal as Gilberto Silva.
Signed in 2002 after helping his country to a fifth World Cup triumph, the
Brazilian marked his debut in the Community Shield against Liverpool by coming off the bench to score the winner.
The following month he was writing himself into the history books with the fastest-ever Champions League goal, scored against PSV Eindhoven after 20.07 seconds. By this stage he had established himself as a regular starter in the role that would become known as the ‘Invisible Wall’, sitting in front of the back four, and simply but effectively applying defensive steel to the Gunners’ midfield.
It was a key ingredient of a campaign that ended, as it began, at the Millennium Stadium, where Gilberto helped Arsenal lift the FA Cup with a 1-0 victory over Southampton.
However, it was the following season that ensured the Brazilian’s place in the Club’s history books, as a member of the ‘Invincibles’ side that went unbeaten on their way to the Premier League title, an achievement that he says will “remain with me for the rest of my life”.
When Arsenal left Highbury to take up residency at the Emirates Stadium, Gilberto delivered yet another landmark moment, scoring the Gunners’ first ever competitive goal at their new home, in a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa in August 2006. By this stage he had been promoted to vice-captain, but with Thierry Henry often injured that season, Gilberto regularly assumed the armband, as well as the role of penalty taker. As a result he finished the 2006/07 campaign with 10 Premier League goals, making him the Club’s second-top scorer - another remarkable feat for a player whose primary duties were defensive.
That was to be his penultimate season at the club. In 2008, after a campaign in which the form of Matthieu Flamini saw Gilberto’s role reduced, the Club, reluctantly, agreed to let him move to Greek outfit Panathinaikos. After two years in Greece, he returned to Brazil, where after 18 months with Gremio, he has just returned to his first club, Atletico Mineiro.
As he gears up for the start of the new Brazilian championship, Gilberto took time out to talk to Jefferson Rodrigues and Dan Brennan about his memories of Arsenal.
Gilberto, it’s now five years since you left Arsenal. Looking back, can you sum up what your time at the Club meant to you?
My time at Arsenal was excellent for me, professionally and on a personal level. I learned so much there! Living in London, learning about British culture and mastering a different style of football was all a great experience. I still really miss London and England.
Winning the Premier League without losing a game was incredible! And managing to extend the unbeaten streak to 49 games was amazing too
What was the highlight of your six years here?
Without any doubt it was the 2003/04 season. That was remarkable. Winning the Premier League without losing a game was incredible! And managing to extend the unbeaten streak to 49 games was amazing too - something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
It must be quite a feeling to know that, as part of that ‘Invincibles’ team you have assured yourself a place in the history not just of the Club, but of English football...
Sure. I’m very proud I can say I was part of that. Like I said, that was an amazing title, something that you can only achieve with a lot of hard work and, of course, with a great team on the pitch and a great coaching staff and management team. We had all of those ingredients that season. Being part of that means I can call my time at Arsenal a real success and that makes me very happy. I’ll never forget the ‘Invincibles’ team.
You carved out another bit of Club history for yourself in August 2006 when you scored Arsenal’s very first competitive goal at the Emirates Stadium, in the 1-1 draw against Aston Villa. That must have felt special too?
I felt lucky to do that. After all, I’m not exactly a striker... if someone was betting on who would score the first goal at the Emirates, I’d probably be one of the last names they would pick (laughs). That was another joyous moment for me. It’s great to think that, in the future, there might be Arsenal fans who never saw me play but who know I scored that goal against Aston Villa. I say I was lucky, but I also think these kind of things come with hard work. And I worked very hard during my Arsenal time... I also scored Arsenal’s fastest goal in Champions League [after 20 seconds against PSV Eindhoven], though I think that record was beaten last season. That goal, the one against Aston Villa and the ‘Invincibles’ season are all achievements that will be part of me forever.
If someone was betting on who would score the first goal at the Emirates, I’d probably be one of the last names they would pick (laughs). That was another joyous moment for me
When you left Arsenal in 2008, you moved to Greece to join Panathinaikos. How did the standard and style of football there suit you and how did it compare to England?
It was a completely different style of football, and a completely different culture. But it was an important move for me, as it helped me extend my career and opened the door for me to play in another World Cup. I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to at Arsenal and I was determined to go to South Africa with the Selecao. So I couldn’t afford to have another season in and out of the reserves. I took the risk and moved to Greece. Lots of people thought moving to Panathinaikos was a strange choice, but I had a great time there. Of course, you can’t compare the quality of the Greek Championship with the English one; the Greeks are a long way off from having a league like the Premier League, which I consider to be one of the best in the world. But it was still a good standard of football.
And in 2011, like many Brazilian players recently, you returned home to play in Serie A, first with Gremio and, as of next season, with your first club Atletico Mineiro. Does it feel good to be back?
Coming back to Brazil was a decision I made together with my family. I wanted to be close to them, to have more time with my relatives and my son who stayed in Brazil throughout my time in Europe. After nine years abroad that was the determining factor for me. Gremio offered me a great opportunity and I had a very enjoyable year and a half there. I hope I have left a positive legacy at the club and some friends. I tried to do my best for the club to help them achieve their goals and I think we did well.
Are you still playing in the position we remember you best in, as the ‘Invisible Wall’ of the midfield?
Last season I started out playing in that role, just like at Arsenal, but I ended up as a defender. When Vanderlei Luxemburgo took over as coach of Gremio, he convinced me
I could play at the back. I saw it as a natural move, as I started my career as a centre back, so it was like coming full circle. It meant I could continue playing at a high level and that I could play a more effective part in helping Gremio achieve their target, which was to qualify for the Copa Libertadores [South America’s equivalent of the Champions League].
Next season at Atletico you’ll be playing alongside Ronaldinho. Are you excited about that?
Even more than playing with Ronaldinho I’m excited about coming back home. I’m returning to play for the club where I first made my name, the club where I made my breakthrough with the Selecao and the club that provided me with the chance to move
Football is my life and it always has its challenges. I love new challenges, and I love having to give 100 per cent
to Arsenal. So having this opportunity to play for Atletico again is exciting in itself; the fact that Ronaldinho will be there with me is an extra bonus. Everyone knows what he represents, and it’s a relief that I won’t be having to defend against him again!
You’re now 36. Particularly given the type of player you are, is it not hard to maintain your energy and commitment levels?
I’m always motivated. Football is my life and it always has its challenges. I love new challenges, and I love having to give 100 per cent. Coming back to Atletico at the age of 36 is, in itself, a real challenge, maybe a bigger one than the day I made my debut for them over 15 years ago. Nothing intimidates me; challenges just make me stronger and more motivated. The fact that I’m in this position means that someone has trusted me and in my talent, and that gives me confidence and the determination to show that they were right.
Who were you closest to at Arsenal, and why?
Edu. Not because he was Brazilian, but because he helped me a lot when I signed for Arsenal. He was like an older brother to me, even though he was actually younger than me. When I first arrived in London, he helped me a lot with the language, the culture, day- to-day practicalities, as well as the playing style. And he was the one that introduced me to the other players and gave me the lowdown on the teams we were playing.
Do you keep in touch with any of your former Arsenal team-mates?
I’ve lost contact with most of them, though I’m still in regular touch with Edu. In fact I spoke to him just a few weeks ago - and I’m trying to get the telephone numbers of some of my other former Arsenal team-mates as I’d like to get back in contact with them. Perhaps someone at the Club could help me with that!
Edu was always a player that had a great view of the whole football game and business. He is a smart guy, who studied a lot and is an intelligent thinker
Were you surprised to see your fellow midfielders Patrick Vieira and Edu take on managerial roles at Manchester City and Corinthians?
No. Edu was always a player that had a great view of the whole football game and business. He is a smart guy, who studied a lot and is an intelligent thinker. So seeing him in this position is not a surprise to me. And the same goes for Patrick too. He was one of the most respected players during his career, not just because he was so influential on the pitch, but because of the way he conducted himself off it. Both he and Edu achieved a lot on the pitch during their playing careers, and I know both feel strongly about giving back what they have learned in a different position.
Would you be interested in doing something similar in future, perhaps at Atletico Mineiro?
I can’t say what I want to do in future. I don’t really want to think about that while I’m still playing. I have already had a few offers to take up different roles in football, but for now I just want to play. In a few years, who knows what I’ll be doing.
Do you see much of the other members of Arsenal’s Brazilian contingent: Sylvinho, Denilson, Julio Baptista and Edu?
As I said, I’m in regular contact with Edu. I saw Julio a few times when we used to play for the Brazilian national team. But we lost touch after the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, as we were playing in different countries, with a lot of distance between us, and neither of us have featured for the national team recently. As for Denilson, I’ve faced him in the Brazilian league, and the same goes for Sylvinho too, who I came up against a few times while he was assistant coach with Cruzeiro.
How is Denilson getting on in Serie A?
He’s doing well. Sao Paulo are a big club and going there has given his career a new lease of life. He wasn’t playing as much as he wanted at Arsenal so I think it was the right move for him. He’s the kind of player who has the potential to play an influential role, and he clearly wanted the opportunity to show that. I think that his spell with Sao Paulo will help him if he does return to England when his loan ends. He has just had a successful season, as he and his team-mates won the Copa Sudamericana, which is like the Europa League for South American clubs, after Sao Paulo had gone four years without a trophy. I hope he can return to Arsenal and keep up the good work we’ve done to help other Brazilians to come to the Club in future.
After spending so many happy years at the Club, it would be impossible for me not to follow the team now. We’ve got a connection that will always be there
Do you still follow Arsenal’s matches?
Whenever possible, yes. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time because of our training and match schedule... But when I’m not playing or training, you can be sure that I’m in front of the TV cheering them on. After spending so many happy years at the Club, it would be impossible for me not to follow the team now. We’ve got a connection that will always be there.
How are Arsenal regarded in Brazil these days?
In the days before the Premier League became famous in Brazil, Brazilians saw Arsenal and Liverpool as the big two English clubs. But nowadays both clubs are seen as having lost a little bit of their power because of the ‘new money’ at clubs such as Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City. So I’d say that the following for English clubs in Brazil is now spread more widely than it used to be.
Why do you think that Arsenal’s fortunes on the pitch haven’t been so great in recent years? Maybe they need a new Gilberto?
The team has certainly changed a lot. The Club is in a process of transition at the moment, and the supporters just have to be patient. At one point the squad was very young, so expecting them to challenge straight away for the Premier League title was unrealistic. That’s too much pressure for a young team, and you also have to remember that it’s becoming more and more difficult to compete with the ‘super rich’ clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City. Arsenal don’t have the financial power to match them - that’s just a fact of life. It means they have to find other ways to achieve success and that takes longer.
Are you surprised that the Club has lost key senior players such as Cesc and Robin van Persie?
It doesn’t really surprise me that Cesc left in the end. He was always going to be drawn towards Barcelona, as that is his home city and where he started his career. Maybe if it had been Real Madrid who had offered him a contract he would still be at Arsenal; but it was Barcelona, and he has his own story there. Decisions on a career are down to the individual and this is what happened with Van Persie. Sometimes players decide they need to make a change and I guess that’s what happened with him.
Arsène Wenger has come under a lot of criticism for his transfer policy and tactics recently. Do you feel any of this is justified?
I think criticism is a normal part of the game. And it gets harder when you’re not winning titles. Sometimes people think that you have lost your way, but in Arsenal’s case I don’t think that’s fair. There are clubs with a lot more financial power, and that makes a lot of difference when you’re building a squad. It makes Arsène Wenger’s job more difficult because he can’t compete financially with Chelsea, Man City and other rich clubs in England. As a former Arsenal player I’m hoping things will change. I’m confident that Mr Wenger can discover a formula that can get the Club back to winning trophies.
How many seasons do you have left on the pitch?
I don’t know yet. Lots of people seem to think the fact I’ve returned to Atletico Mineiro for the new season means it will be my last one. But I can assure you that’s not the plan. Things might change during the season, of course, but at the moment I’m still thinking about playing for a few more years. Playing football is what I know how to do and what I love. So, as long as I’m still enjoying it, I want to spend as much time on the pitch as I can.
Read the interview with Gilberto and more in the latest edition
You said that you miss London. Would you ever consider coming back to England?
I miss lot of things about being in England, but I don’t know if I’ll ever go back there to live. I think it would be impossible for me to return as a player. I came back home to Brazil in order to be close to my family. So, the only possible reason I could imagine for going back to England would be if my children want to develop their English or to study at university there.
You were quoted as saying you’d eventually like to live on a small farm and ride horses. Is that true?
That’s definitely a dream of mine, yes. If I could make it come true after my playing career ends I’d be very happy. I grew up in the countryside with my grandparents, in a house without electricity. The country lifestyle suits me. I love the calm, the serenity, the greenery - it’s where I really feel at home. If I could live in a place like that again, it would be a dream come true. But of course, I’d still want to be involved in football.