At the end of 2012, as Willian considered what the future might hold, he could hardly have imagined how much things would change in just a short space of time. In a matter of months, however, the life of the player from the state of Sao Paulo was to turn upside down.
Between February and August, he played for three teams in three different countries, was involved in one of the biggest transfers in recent years, and ended the year by representing his country, giving impressive displays in the games against Honduras and Chile. It was definitely a case of out with the old, in with the new.
“My life changed a lot this year. But it was a great year too, and I’m really happy where I am right now,” Willian told FIFA.com. “I always dreamed about signing for a big club like Chelsea and playing for Brazil, and now it’s all coming true. I think I played well in the friendlies, and I managed to get on the scoresheet... so all in all, it’s been a great year.”
Not everything, however, went according to plan. His transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk to Anzhi Makhachkala, for example, did not turn out as he had hoped, and the four year contract he signed in February ended up lasting only six months. As the Russian team sold off its stars, Willian was on the move again, this time to a club that he had admired for years, for the huge fee of €35 million.
Chelsea, after all, had shown an interest in signing him many times in the past, but Shakhtar had always rebuffed their advances. In the end patience, and a few twists of fate, were needed before he made it to London.
“I kept an eye on Chelsea’s fortunes after they first tried to sign me. I developed a bit of a soft spot for the club. The problem was that Shakhtar didn’t want to let me go. And then Anzhi came in and met my release clause fee,” he explained. “But that made my desire to play for Chelsea all the stronger. It took a while, but now I’m here, and I couldn’t be happier.”
With so much upheaval, it was not just the midfielder’s air miles account that grew. He also gained a lot from working with respected coaches such as Guus Hiddink, Jose Mourinho and Luiz Felipe Scolari. He learnt a tremendous amount from Hiddink in a short period of time, but now the former Corinthians man feels even more at home, working with a coach who, literally and figuratively, speaks the same language. “My first impressions of Mourinho were really positive. He is one of the best coaches in the world and he said that he was delighted that I had come to Chelsea, and that he liked the way I play,” he recalled. “We talk a lot, and it’s really helping me. I’m learning so much.”
Surrounded by fellow Brazilians David Luiz, Oscar and Ramires, Chelsea has proven the perfect fit for Willian. On the field, he has already begun to repay that big transfer fee with goals – the first a terrific strike against Norwich City in October – and his impressive displays have made Chelsea title contenders in both the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, where the team will face Galatasary in the last 16.
Rather than be intimidated by the presence of so many top players, Willian has thrived, turning the pressure into a positive factor. “At Shakhtar I was already established and was comfortable with the way the team played. Here I have to push myself twice as hard, because there are so many great players around me,” he said. “But I like the pace of the game in England, and the tackling. I’m getting better every day and I know that I can’t relax: if I play well in one game, I have to do even better the next time out.”
Perhaps it was his determination not to take his foot of the pedal that helped Willian have such a successful year in 2013. The last of his achievements – a call-up to the Brazil squad – was partly a result of the twists of fate mentioned earlier. Playing his club football alongside three of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s key men has put Willian right in the national team spotlight. It is no coincidence that he was selected for the squad after just a few weeks in England. “It has worked out perfectly. Everything has slotted into place,” he smiled.
After coming on as a second half substitute against Honduras, Willian continued his rise by playing a decisive role in Brazil’s handsome 5-0 win. A few days later, he played on the left once again in a side trying out a formation without a true No9 – Jo was taken off on both occasions – something that the versatile midfielder sees as a positive factor.
“It’s great that the team can play with a number of different formations, with either a traditional centre-forward or with a more mobile attacker alongside some pacy midfielders. It was important for the coach to experiment with both set-ups,” he explained. “Everyone who came into the team played well. Having versatile players and being comfortable with different styles of play just makes us stronger. The result is that we’re enjoying our football and there’s a great atmosphere in the dressing room. And that’s all down to the manager.”
Willian knows that he is in the thick of the race for the last few places in Brazil’s FIFA World Cup 2014™ squad, and that this year could turn out to be even more exciting than last year. Playing in the World Cup at home is an enticing prospect for the midfielder. “Last year was good, but I hope that 2014 is going to be even better. I want to win trophies with Chelsea, and win the World Cup too,” he said. “That would be a perfect year, the best of my life.”