There was always something of a paradox at the heart of Gilberto Silva’s career.
The better he played, the less you noticed him. The more influence he had on the game, the brighter his team-mates shone, thereby casting his own contribution into shade.
Joao Saldanha, former manager of the Brazil national team, once said that every great team needs someone to carry the piano. It’s a theory that his fellow countryman subscribes to, and with good reason. He was the practical and unflashy foundation upon which many a stirring performance would be built.
For Arsenal, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp were more likely to get the plaudits, but Gilberto made it all possible. He enabled the attacking virtuosos to do their thing. It was the same with Brazil, where a fearsome frontline of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho led them to their last World Cup success in 2002.
“It’s quite a hard position because you have to be physically in a very good condition to hold your position and cover some parts of the field,” Gilberto tells us.
“You try to be in the best position as much as you can when you defend and when you go forward, to protect the guys up front when they lose the ball. You have to make sure you’re in the right position to try to regain the ball.
“For some people it sounds a little bit hard because you’re quite an unknown person on the field, but, for me, I always enjoyed doing it. I totally understood what my role was to help my team achieve results.”
Gilberto certainly did that. As an Invincible and a World Cup winner, he achieved sporting immortality with two special teams in quick succession. The invisible wall, as he became known for subtly breaking up so many attacks, was a monument to self-sacrifice. His diligent work set the stage for others to perform.
Coming from a poor community in Lagoa da Prata, football offered a way out for Gilberto and his family. He helped America Mineiro into the Brazilian top flight as a centre back, which benefited his reading of the game, and he subsequently moved to their rivals, where his career truly took off.
At Atletico Mineiro, originally under the guidance of 1994 World Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, Gilberto became one of the country’s foremost defensive midfielders. It was more than he could ever have hoped for, and it was about to get even better.
“When you start you are just a dreamer, and you want to do the best you can to achieve something in football,” he says. “Play for a better club. Play in a better competition.
“You have to do things step by step to start with. It’s not as easy as some people think it is. You have to believe in yourself a lot because there are many times that people doubt themselves.
“If you believe in what you’re capable of doing, and work hard, you may have a chance to get somewhere. At the beginning, the only thing I had in mind was that I had to work hard because you have no guarantee of getting anywhere.”
Gilberto’s rise to prominence was well-timed, with the 2002 World Cup just around the corner. He became part of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad but was set to serve as Emerson’s understudy until the Brazil captain dislocated his shoulder during a training session on the eve of the tournament. Gilberto suddenly became indispensable.
“This tournament is a blessing for every player. I was very happy just to be part of the team, but then after Emerson’s injury I found out from Scolari that I was going to play in the opening game against Turkey. I had to keep calm. I knew what I had to do but it was great.
“They were very helpful in the way that they spoke to me. Having those players around you helped a lot with their ability and experience. For me it was just about keeping things simple, which is what I did all my life in football, basically.”
Brazil were irresistible on the way to lifting the trophy, with Gilberto not missing a single minute of action. He was the glue that held together an adventurous team, led by Ronaldo, who had returned to fitness to prove that he was still one of the world’s best players. He won the Golden Boot with eight goals, including two in the final against Germany.
“He was unbelievable,” Gilberto says. “He did everything that we, as his team-mates, but also the world, expects from him.
“It was not so easy because he had to recover from injury for a long time to be in shape. The trust that Scolari and all his staff had in his recovery was important. He worked really hard to be there and he made the difference.”
Ronaldo’s devastating form captured the public imagination, causing Real Madrid to pounce, but he wasn’t the only member of the Brazil squad to earn a big move on the back of that tournament.
Two midfielders joined Premier League title challengers, one faring much better than the other. While Kleberson made little impression at Manchester United, Gilberto was a sensation for Arsenal.
“It was just after the World Cup,” he says of how the move came about. “I suppose they watched me there. It was great to move, and Arsenal was a great choice for me. There were rumours of interest from some other clubs, but coming to Arsenal was a perfect move.
“Starting a new challenge, at a new club in Europe, was like a dream come true for me. Coming to England, and starting to understand how English football works, was something very special. It was not so easy at the beginning, but I worked really hard to adapt as fast as I could.”
The scale of Gilberto’s impact was all the more impressive considering he couldn’t speak English when he first arrived. Fortunately, Arsenal’s other Brazilian was happy to help.
“I must say that Edu was very important for me, to help me on a daily basis with communication with Arsene,” Gilberto says. “But also to have somebody as a friend to talk to in a training session.
“I knew that if I learned the language I would adapt much easier. It would be better for me to communicate with my team-mates at the training ground. I didn’t want to have a translator walking around with me, helping me all the time. I wanted to be independent in terms of communication. For me, learning English was also for life and for the future.”
Arsenal won the FA Cup in Gilberto’s first season, beating Southampton in the final, but they finished second to Manchester United in the league.
Stung by the experience, they used it as motivation for one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of English football. Arsene Wenger’s side went unbeaten as they won the title.
“We had a very good team – good characters, good personalities,” Gilberto says. “This was fantastic, but I think the frustration we had from my first season helped, when we were in front of Manchester United until the last few games but then lost the lead.
“We came back and fought hard. We loved to be on the field and do what we really wanted to do.
“The winning mentality was a key factor for all of us. It started from Arsene and came down to every player. It’s not just about the starting 11. You have to have everyone going in the same direction because the season is long, and you need everyone to be ready to play at any time.”
Gilberto was heavily involved that season, making 46 appearances in all competitions. It was Wenger’s second great Arsenal side, and arguably the crowning glory of his managerial career. Although his reputation suffered in later years as the Gunners stagnated, his former midfield general cannot speak highly enough of him.
“It was great to play under him. He was very simple in the way he would tell us what to do but in a very effective way. He always went back to the basics to provide us with the best training sessions.
“He encouraged everyone to work hard and to believe in themselves and their abilities but without forgetting what they have to do a group. I think his ability to get everyone on the same page was massively important to keeping that level of competitiveness to achieve the best results possible.”
The Champions League eluded Wenger at Arsenal, but the closest his team came was in 2006 when they reached the final against Barcelona. Arsenal took the lead despite Jens Lehmann’s sending off but conceded two late goals to suffer an excruciating defeat.
“It’s quite hard when I think about that night because we lost the game and it’s frustrating,” Gilberto says. “But if you analyse the whole game, we have to be proud of what we did while down to 10 men against the best team in Europe despite the fact we lost.
“We can look back on a great job against very good opponents, but on the day their quality and the extra player made the difference.”
Gilberto stayed at Arsenal for two more years before moving to Panathinaikos, where he won the Greek title in his second season, and then closing out his career back in Brazil. It ended with a return to Atletico Mineiro and victory in the Copa Libertadores.
Meanwhile, the Gunners’ wait to reclaim the Premier League continues. It’s now 16 years and counting. Many observers have long pointed to the absence of a disciplined holding midfielder in Gilberto’s mould, with his physical presence and eye for danger, as part of the problem.
“It’s nice when people talk about me and remember me,” he says. “Of course, I’m not too proud in terms of the idea that they never replaced me, but I feel proud that people think about me positively, despite the fact that it’s a long time since I left the club. This is a good feeling.
“But, you know, from what I have seen over the last few years, it’s quite true, because me and Patrick Vieira especially had a great partnership and I haven’t seen Arsenal replace this.
“I think it’s been quite painful for the team not to have stability in this position. They are paying a high price, but I hope at some point they find somebody who can fill the gap.”
Since retiring, Gilberto has been involved in media and punditry work, specialising in South American football, and served as technical director of former club Panathinaikos for seven months. He’s currently living in London and running his own agency, which represents several young Brazilian players as well as Manchester United’s Fred.
“For me, it’s not just about being an agent for those players. I work with them as a mentor to help them go through their football career. I know exactly what they will face and how difficult it is. There is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of pressure and I’m on their side to help them through this process. It’s quite challenging but I really love it,” he says.
A model professional in his playing days, who enjoyed a stellar career as a result, Gilberto provides an excellent example for his clients to follow. Given all the obstacles that he faced, he’s understandably pleased with what he managed to accomplish in such a fiercely competitive world.
“I’m proud of everything. Coming from where I did, let’s say out of nothing, to achieve all these things in football for Brazil, and Brazilian clubs, and also here in England, is something unbelievable.
“I would never have imagined in my early days that I would achieve as many things as I did. When I look back, there’s just a feeling of satisfaction and joy about everything.”
And who can blame him?
By Sean Cole