Despite a career that has featured triumph at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, English Premier League and FA Cup, plus victory in the 2007 Copa America and FIFA Confederations Cup 2009, A Seleção stalwart Gilberto Silva has not been immune to criticism in recent years. Yet it is the simplicity with which he plays the game, a quality that means his contribution in central midfield is often underestimated, that makes him such a vital cog in Dunga’s Auriverde machine.
Charged with screening his defence, winning the ball back and supplying Brazil’s creative talents, the 33-year-old Panathinaikos star’s excellence in that role, allied to the experience garnered at two editions of world football’s biggest event, could prove vital to the Canarinha’s bid for a sixth global crown come South Africa 2010. FIFA.com spoke to the midfielder on a range of issues including his midfield partner Felipe Melo, his playing philosophy and a possible return to former club Atletico Mineiro.
FIFA.com: Gilberto, your starting place in the Seleção side went virtually unquestioned since Korea/Japan 2002, that is until this FIFA World Cup qualifying phase just past. What do you think happened?
Gilberto Silva: Listen, I’m a player who always tries to keep the game simple, but that’s not always what the fans are looking for. To be honest though, I don’t let it bother me. It doesn’t matter to me if whoever’s giving me a score out of ten in the paper doesn’t notice my contribution. When they give me grief, I think back to the start of my career when I was breaking into the Seleção and everybody doubted what I’d be able to bring to the team. I see that as an extra motivating factor, although of course sometimes it gets on my nerves. Especially as it’s my own country we’re talking about, because outside Brazil I’m incredibly well-respected and people value what I do.
However, it seems that victory at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 proved crucial in silencing the critics. Did everything really change after your performances in South Africa?
Yes, the Confederations Cup was very important. Some people questioned what I was doing there, because I’d not been playing much at Arsenal. Some couldn’t comprehend how I was first-choice for the national team while I wasn’t starting for my club. Anyhow, I tried to react positively to the criticism and it only made me work even harder in South Africa.
Did Brazil boss Dunga ever take you to one side to talk about the pressure you were under and what you were going through at club level?
Dunga’s a coach who is always very open with us. And anyway, I was perfectly aware that not being first-choice at Arsenal wasn’t doing my cause any good, which is why I looked to change clubs. As things stood, with me spending a lot of games on the bench, I knew that my place in the Seleção could be in danger. Deciding to make the switch to Greek football was important for me and I don’t regret it. Even though it’s a less high-profile league [than the English Premiership], I knew that I needed to be playing every week. But, above all that, Dunga was always very open and he would have been totally free to tell me he thought I shouldn’t be playing [for Brazil].
At the moment, not only are you a starter but you are also a key leadership figure within the squad, correct?
The great thing is that the leadership role came about naturally, without anyone having to force the issue. The lads who break into the national squad now tend to look to those who know the situation best, like me, Lucio or Kaka, for example. There’s no doubt that it’s a big responsibility but it’s a good type of responsibility. It’s also good to know we have that role.
Unlike Lucio, however, it seems that you are not much of a talker on the pitch...
I am, I really am. Even so, I think that the role us leaders in the squad have goes over and above footballing matters. The personal side counts too. Once a game is over, you find yourself dealing with each player’s emotions: talking to them, cheering them up, even telling them off if need be. Especially when you’re involved in a month-long tournament, which seems like such a long time but which passes really quickly. I think that it has to do with the way I am: I try to be everybody’s friend and respect people’s differences. Just as I mentioned that I try to keep things simple when I’m playing, I try to do the same in life too.
This will be your third FIFA World Cup finals. What did you learn from each of the two previous editions?
The two situations were very different. In 2002 players like Cafu, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos were our leading men, and I was fortunate enough to win a place in the team and play all the way through to the Final. Then in 2006, with more experience under my belt, I didn’t begin the tournament as a first-choice starter but I was back in the team by the end. Appearing at that World Cup was important, even though I didn’t play in all the games. In any case, I’ve experienced both sides of the coin, with victory in 2002 and our loss in Germany, which was hugely frustrating. I think that experience is valuable.
Your experience should also prove valuable to your central midfield partner Felipe Melo, who only broke into the national squad just over a year ago.
The partnership Felipe and I have today is really important. He’s the same age (26) as I was when I broke into the national squad in 2002: he’s a young player and one who’s more suited to pushing on and joining the attack. I think that we form a well-balanced midfield duo. Felipe has earned his place in the team. People normally act quite shy when they first get called up to the Seleção, but he was very calm from the beginning and things went really well. He seized his chance. And that’s what the Brazilian national team is like: you’ve got to be ready whenever the opportunity arises because you may only get one chance. That’s what happened to me when I went to the 2002 World Cup. It’s hard enough getting into the Seleção, but staying there is even tougher.
Do you feel that Felipe Melo, a midfielder who is keen to push forward as well as carrying out his defensive duties, is a good example of what is expected in that position nowadays?
That’s the way it’s worked out. To be honest, particularly in Europe, that’s been key for every midfielder, even attacking ones - everybody has both offensive and defensive duties. But even in a team with as much quality as the Seleção, I don’t think we can have midfielders flying forward at every opportunity. Football is like being in a band: everybody has their part to play. One might focus on scoring goals, another on stopping them. That’s how Brazil have found the ideal blend, because each player carries out their role with distinction.
What is your verdict on the group Brazil have been drawn in at South Africa 2010? Given your time in the English game, you will already know many of the players you will take on in Group G.
If you compare it to England or Spain’s groups, for example, I think it’s justified to call ours “the Group of Death”, but this team’s already lived through a lot of adversity and is ready to face this situation. I know a lot of the Portuguese players and particularly the Ivorians, who I played alongside at Arsenal. In fact, Kolo Toure and [Emmanuel] Eboue have been giving me loads of stick, joking around and saying that Côte d’Ivoire are going to beat Brazil. (Laughs) But of course they respect us, that’s just what it’s like at the World Cup: everybody wants to beat Brazil.
There has been a wave of Brazilian players returning to their homeland. Is there a chance that you could one day go back to Atletico Mineiro?
(Chuckles) Well, I’ve got a year and a half left on my contract with Panathinaikos, but after that who knows? I’ve always had a lot of affection for Atletico and I still follow their results. I’ve got a lot of respect for the fans and the people at the club and they respect me too. But you can’t force these things, we’ll see what happens once my contract runs out.