Gilberto Silva has never been one for stealing the show out on the field. The midfielder is much more concerned with the task of winning back possession – often – and moving it on quickly. There are no unnecessary frills, nor many strokes of genius with Silva, but accuracy aplenty, to such an extent he became a vital cog at the heart of a Brazil side that won the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ and captain of London giants Arsenal.
Nor is he in any way ‘flashy’ off the pitch, with the current Gremio midfield anchor still down-to-earth despite spending nine successful years in Europe. Outlandish statements are also certainly not his thing. Indeed, in conversation with FIFA.com, the 36-year-old was softly-spoken, composed and chose his words – like his passes – carefully. Yet it was clear to see how, in his own way, Silva is a true leader.
FIFA.com: It’s been said that the current Brazil squad is struggling to click because there are so many young players. As someone with so much experience at that level, do you agree?
Gilberto Silva: It’s been difficult, of course. Not just for the players but for Mano [Menezes], who’s having to learn everything the hard way. I remember clearly what it was like when Dunga came in [as Brazil coach]. Even though he’d experienced everything and more as a player, the situation is still different. And Mano doesn’t have as many players [as Dunga did] who are capable of taking on responsibility. That’s a big problem.
What practical difference could bringing in more experienced players make?
It’s important for the younger players, when the pressure’s really on, to be able to look around them and have someone to say “take it easy, it’ll be fine. This is what we’re going to do.” That’s important both for calming people down under pressure and keeping on top of things when all’s going well, so nobody switches off. Those are daily issues off the field too: you have to watch everyone’s back and remind people not to let their egos get in the way. That’s important both at club level and with a national squad.
When you were starting out, did you have any players like that around to help you?
Yes, without a doubt. I think the main one was Marco Antonio Boiadeiro, early on in my career, at America-MG. I learned so much from him. He always had a story to tell, or an anecdote that related to whatever we were going through. Later there was Tupazinho and Ricardo, a defender who’d played for Corinthians. For A Seleção, Cafu was undoubtedly a tremendous example for me. He helped me so much when I broke into the squad. Sometimes I didn’t even need to discuss things with him: just being nearby, listening to the stories he told, was a learning experience.
And do you do something similar now at Gremio?
I do and I enjoy doing it. I speak to the youngsters about things that come up in their lives or careers. But as each generation goes by, things change. Firstly, the way players make the transition from youth football to professionalism changes, but this comes hand-in-hand with changes in the wider world too. So, if there’s one thing that I can do it’s set an example to the lads, so they make the right decisions, as it’s very easy to get lost along the way. Very easy indeed. You need to be aware that you’re going to miss out on a lot of things from your youth, a lot of things that other lads are doing. Something I see often is how much of a hurry the lads are in to make it and, faced by the first setback, they lose their way. You need to have patience and persistence.
Those qualities have both played major roles in your career, wouldn’t you say?
Yes, I’d say so. I’ve never been overanxious, as I’m a very patient person. I’ve always understood that things take time. You want everything to happen quickly, and of course you have to really want that, but without letting yourself be blinded by it. I think something that set me apart was the fact I didn’t come all the way through the ranks of a club, like most players. I had to quit youth football at 16 so I could help out at home: I spent two-and-a-half years working in a sweet factory. I only got back into a club at 19 and, bit by bit, I tried to make the most of every opportunity that came my way. It was a process that made me grow as a player and a person. At the end of the day, people respect that. I’m not saying that every day was a struggle, but it was still an achievement.
Has the midfield role changed in recent years? It seems there’s now more of a call for midfielders who can attack and defend, with less emphasis on players like yourself, whose main responsibility is shielding the backline.
It’s true. That concept has changed, particularly here in Brazil, where you always hear TV pundits talking about the “modern midfielder”. [In their view,] anyone who doesn’t attack and score goals isn’t “modern”. There are a lot of people who think like that too. I received a lot of criticism for doing the job I’ve always done, which is focusing mainly on winning back the ball. But, if you look closely, you’ll see just how often a player like that stops the opposing attacking midfielder from having an impact. I think there did used to be more midfielders charged with doing the “dirty work”, carrying out defensive cover, but without harming the team’s attacking ability. So much so that nowadays there’s a growing trend towards using central defenders in that role, like Palmeiras do with Henrique for example. In the future, perhaps we’ll see more of that: centre-backs stepping into that role when the team requires.
If you were assembling a team, would you line up with an out-and-out defensive midfielder?
Of course it’d vary depending on the situation, but in theory I’d set my team up with a player like that, who knew how to defend and could pass the ball. The thing is, players need to be taught that role from an early age and Brazilians aren’t always disciplined or obedient enough to do it. You just need to watch a game here in Brazil to see how the attacking and defensive lines are all over the place all the time. When you watch a game in England or Italy, that simply doesn’t happen.
That said, what’s your verdict been on the technical quality of the Brazilian league since you returned?
Better than I expected. When I arrived I heard a lot spoken about how the standard of Brazilian football had dropped, but it’s not true. And, as long as people with international experience, such as [Diego] Forlan and [Clarence] Seedorf, keep arriving, that’s going to give the clubs here even more of a boost and encourage more top players to come to Brazil.
That was the case with your former Seleção squad-mate and current club colleague Ze Roberto. Did you have anything to do with him signing for Gremio?
Yes I did, and I was very pleased he could sign a deal with Gremio. We spoke beforehand and I said he ought to come here, because of the squad we’ve got and the atmosphere within the club. He came and quickly became an important part of the side, which didn’t surprise me at all given how good a pro he’s always been. He’s yet another case that proves signing players over 30 can be worthwhile. People like him are breaking down clubs’ resistance [to signing over-30s], and that needs to continue. If the guy’s professional enough, at that age he can not only still be playing well but become a focal point for the squad.
Who’s caught your eye most among the younger Brazilians who emerged while you were in Europe?
Well, Neymar impresses me even more now than when he first came on the scene. I’ve found it really interesting to watch him mature as a player. Whatever the situation, he always rises to the occasion. My Gremio team-mate Fernando has also learnt a lot – he’s a lad who’s come on leaps and bounds. Bernard too, has only recently come through and is already a key man for Atletico Mineiro. These lads need to get games and be important players, but they can’t be held responsible for their teams’ performances.
Do you think that happens too much with A Seleção?
Yes, it happens too much with A Seleção, especially with Neymar. The quality he has can be decisive and that’s how it should be. He’s only 20 and even so he’s able to drive the team to victory, which is great. I reckon he handles that role very well, because of how much confidence he has. But the pressure on him is huge, and it’d help to have some more experienced players around to take the focus off him.
Who do you think could do that?
Of course I don’t know what goes on in A Seleção on a day-to-day basis but, from the outside looking in, I’d suggest bringing in Kaka. Elano too has rediscovered his best form and could play a part, and I’d say the same about Maicon.