Willian was already on holiday, as were his colleagues in the Corinthians squad who had just been crowned national champions in 2005, when he received a call that took him by surprise: he had been selected to take on a ‘Best of the Brasileirao XI’ in a friendly encounter.
Any appearance would mark his debut in the club’s first team, so what kind of a reaction would you expect from a 17-year-old hopeful? Initial shock followed by excitement? Check. Apprehension and anxiety once the news had sunk in? Not on your life.
“I just thought: ‘That’s cool isn’t it? I’ll be on the bench at least’,” the attacking midfielder, now at Shakhtar Donetsk, told FIFA.com. “Except that Carlos Alberto was delayed coming back and they said that I was going to start. I managed to stay pretty calm. It was a friendly game, but it wasn’t like that for me – I wanted to show what I could do.”
Speaking as he does in a slow, measured fashion, the way Willian comes across is an accurate reflection of the 23-year-old’s laid-back personality. And it is this approach that helps explain his remarkable success at the club currently dominating Ukrainian football, with whom he has won ten trophies since touching down in 2007.
Staying on top of the pile
It may not seem like long ago that Willian emerged from the youth ranks at Corinthians to establish himself as one of Brazilian football’s most promising young starlets, so much so that it sounds odd to hear he has already spent five seasons in Donetsk. “It’s really flown by, definitely,” he said. “It’s been a very happy period, during which I’ve achieved a lot of great things and really grown as a person.”
Before he could start amassing his medal collection, Willian first needed to overcome the same barriers any player faces in such vastly different surroundings, primarily adapting to a new language, climate and culture. Fortunately he has no fewer than seven fellow Brazilians and one Brazil-born Croatia international for company within the Shakhtar squad: Alan Patrick, Alex Teixeira, Dentinho, Douglas Costa, Fernandinho, Ilsinho, Luiz Adriano and Eduardo da Silva.
I’ve ended up settling well. Once I got a run of games I played my best stuff and I’ve not been out the team since.
But not every Brazilian that has moved to the Ukraine has prospered, with many cases of players already yearning for home mere months after arriving. “You have to be patient at the start, as it’s hard with the cold and the language,” said Willian who lived alone for a period, then brought his father over to keep him company, and is now married.
“You think about going home, you leave your country high in confidence then you get here and end up on the bench. I got a bit unsettled but in the end I calmed down and got on with it. I’ve ended up settling well. Once I got a run of games I played my best stuff and I’ve not been out the team since.”
Nor has Willian stopped collecting silverware. Featuring the promptings of their gifted attacking midfielder or withdrawn forward, who can also operate out on either flank, Shakhtar have won four of the last five Ukrainian championships – including in 2011/12. Also filling up the cabinet are winner’s medals in three domestic cups, two domestic Super Cups and, last but certainly not least, the 2009 UEFA Cup.
Back on holiday in Sao Paulo once more, a city in which he remains a familiar face and where he is staying near the majestic Pacaembu stadium, Willian has been closely following former club O Timão’s charge in this year’s Copa Libertadores. And, on a break he may be, the player has been keeping his phone close to hand for a very specific reason.
Indeed, as recently as January his club turned down an official offer for his services from Chelsea, citing the view that Willian was vital to Hirnyky’s chances in their championship tussle with arch-rivals Dynamo Kyiv. “I was keen to go, since it was such a big club,” said Willian. “But I couldn’t let it mess with my head, I had to keep playing. We were in the final stretch of the Ukrainian league too, so the priority was to keep battling to win another trophy.
“They know that I want to leave,” he continued. “I’ve spoken to the board and they want me to stay. But I explained to them that it’s been five years, that I’ve been professional, I’ve rarely been injured and we’ve won a lot of silverware. Now I think the time has come for me to move on and they’re prepared to negotiate.”
Whatever happens, the Shakhtar board can rest assured that Willian will not lose his trademark cool and try to force their hand. “I want to leave by the front door,” he said as the conversation concluded. “I don’t want to go on bad terms, like has happened with other players. You never know what’ll happen in the future and I’ve got a lot of affection for this club. I’m just an easy-going guy, I really am.”