During his time travelling the world and discovering diverse cultures, former Brazil international Gilberto Silva always found a way to stave off homesickness. Like any good Mineiro (native of Minas Gerais State) he found succour in home-cooked food and music from the region, while frequently drawing on his memories of a childhood in Lagoa da Prata and adolescence in Belo Horizonte during the nine years he spent playing in Europe (2002-2011).
Now back home and once again playing for Atletico Mineiro, where he first shot to international fame, the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ winner is discovering new delights in the state capital, such as its recently renovated Estadio Mineirao. Now, in the first of a series of interviews aimed at showcasing the host cities of the next FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA World Cup, FIFA.com chatted with the 36-year-old defensive midfielder about life in Belo Horizonte, its tourism, gastronomy, culture and, of course, its football.
FIFA.com: Has your recent return finally cured your longing for Minas Gerais, and what did you miss most during your time away?
Gilberto Silva: Well it’s good to be here. The things I missed most were my family, friends and those closest to me - people I’d always had around me and who I'd lost contact with. That’s the hardest thing about living abroad; everything else you can get used to if put your mind to it. However, missing your family is not so easy to resolve.
Didn’t you miss the food? After all, that’s very important for a Mineiro…
I did yes but that wasn’t a problem. When I first moved to London it was more complicated, as I didn’t speak English and I was staying in a hotel. The meals [while on club duty] were carefully controlled and lacked a bit of seasoning and flavour, but sometimes I managed to have a word with a Spanish or Portuguese-speaking waiter, who’d bring me rice with beef or eggs (laughs). Later when I moved into my own house I began to prepare my own food more, and I also had a cook. I prefer eating home-cooked food than going out to a restaurant. The taste is different as well. I’m someone who really likes to be at home with family, so I think that’s also part of it.
And what would be your favourite dish from the local cuisine?
There are loads (laughs). I adore feijao tropeiro (type of bean casserole). And on Sundays, whenever possible, I’d eat chicken with okra and polenta (a cornmeal pudding). That’s good Mineiro food and something I’d recommend to anyone.
There are many restaurants and the nightlife is excellent. The culture is very rich too with many cinemas, theatres and show venues. The scene here is very interesting.
What would recommend for a day’s sightseeing for fans visiting Belo Horizonte during the FIFA Confederations Cup or the FIFA World Cup?
If it was an actual matchday I’d say it would be worth getting to know the Pampulha district, in which the Estadio Mineirao is located. There you can see the lagoon and the [Sao Francisco de Assis] church, which was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.
Having travelled the world, are you happy with the quality of life here in Belo Horizonte?
Yes, it’s very good. Even though I’m not from this city exactly, I know it well and really like it. Sure, the traffic can be a problem at times but it’s still a relaxed place to live. Being a home-lover myself I make the most of this tranquillity with my family, playing guitar and enjoying time with my children. However, there are many restaurants and the nightlife is excellent. The culture is very rich too with many cinemas, theatres and show venues. It’s a very interesting scene.
As a guitar player you must enjoy Mineiro music. What local artists would you recommend?
I absolutely adore Mineiro music and its artists. There are a lot of very good ones here who I’ve recently got to know better and enjoy. Some good examples would be artists from the Clube da Esquina movement, like Toninho Horta, Lo Borges and Flavio Venturini – a sensational group of musicians. We also have younger artists as well, like Jota Quest, Skank, Wilson Sideral...
In terms of the historically rich state of Minas Gerais, what other excursions would you recommend?
The region containing the historic cities of Ouro Preto, Tiradentes and Sao Joao del-Rei is very interesting. They are all feature prominently in Mineiro history because of their connections with gold exploration and mining. Tourists who enjoy seeing Baroque churches certainly won’t be disappointed there. Having been away from Brazil and Minas for so long, I’ve not had time to discover the whole region, but I’ll definitely continue exploring it.
Turning to football, how would the Mineiros’ passion for the game compare to that of fans from other parts of Brazil or abroad?
The passion here is massive. We’ve three top teams – Atletico Mineiro, Cruzeiro and America Mineiro – with the first two getting most the attention due to their massive fan base and participation in the country’s leading competitions. Their rivalry is intense with fanatical supporters (above all from Atletico) who will do anything to follow their team. The level of commitment can be truly impressive. You feel it on the streets on matchdays, but also on other occasions.
What are your childhood memories of the Mineirao? Is there a game or incident that sticks in your memory?
Unfortunately I didn’t have many opportunities to go to the Mineirao when I was a kid as I didn’t live in the city. However, I do have some good memories, like the Atletico-Flamengo game from 1987 in the semi-final of the Copa Uniao. I was still a kid but remember Zico scoring from a free-kick to knock Atletico out. That’s my abiding memory of the Mineirao from that time.
Do you remember the first time you played at the Mineirao?
It was in 1996, while I was still playing youth football for America Mineiro, and we were taking on Cruzeiro in the final of the Mineiro Championship. It was the second leg of the decider, which was a curtain-raiser for an Atletico-Cruzeiro derby. I recall we lost the game but won the final on aggregate as we were comfortably ahead from the first leg. It was very emotional, even for a youth player, as there was a big crowd. We weren’t used to a packed Mineirao or having the majority of the fans on our opponent’s side.
As a professional, what was your best experience at the stadium?
I’d say the final of 2000 Mineiro State Championship. I was with Atletico and we beat Cruzeiro to take the title. Then there was a game in 2001, also against Cruzeiro, but this time in the Brazilian National Championship. They were two-nil up but we managed to come back and draw. The Mineirao was full to the rafters with 84,000 people. It’s thrilling to see so many passionate fans and find yourself in the midst of it as one of the protagonists.
You played in the match held to reopen the Mineirao. What’s the stadium like now?
It was nice seeing how much it had changed – and for the better. As fans we want every stadium to be of this standard, as that’s what Brazilian football needs. Hopefully the 2014 World Cup will bring standardisation to the stadiums, in terms of the pitches and general infrastructure. It would be good to make the most of this occasion to be able to welcome fans to better stadiums everywhere.
Finally, can you imagine the atmosphere in Belo Horizonte when Brazil next play there?
The dream of every Mineiro fan is to see Brazil play at the Mineirao. When it comes to A Seleção the fans need to forget about their club allegiances and support the team. We all know how important it is to have the fans behind you, heaping pressure on your opponent. Here, that’s the intention, and that’s the way it will be.