Arsenal’s Gilberto Silva, the invisible superhero

Words By Musa Okwonga Image by Offside
January 3, 2018

I am not an Arsenal fan. Let me just put that out there. I am only saying this because I often write in praise of Arsenal players, which may give the impression that I harbour a secret passion for that club. Let me also say that there is nothing wrong with being an Arsenal fan – in fact, some of my best friends are Arsenal fans, and it is an orientation that I wholly respect and accept. It’s just that I yet again find myself paying homage to another one of their number, and this time it’s Gilberto Silva.

I love Gilberto Silva. I love him because, in every supergroup, every gathering of elite professionals, there has to be one character who takes a back seat. That character is usually devoid of ego, but when called upon tends to do something devastating, just to prove that he or she has got what it takes to hang with all these alphas. You get this kind of figure all the time in sport and popular culture. In basketball, it was John Stockton, the legendary Utah Jazz point guard who was so unobtrusive that at the 1992 Olympic Games he was mistaken for a tourist. In film, it was Philip Seymour Hoffmann, who found himself on the cast of the greatest movies to come out of Hollywood. In football, for both Arsenal and Brazil, that character was Gilberto Silva.

When it came to playing for the national team, Gilberto had an ancestor of sorts. Anyone obsessed with Brazil’s 4-1 win over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final will remember the name Clodoaldo. Clodoaldo was the defensive midfielder who, when Brazil were leading late on by three goals to one, was suddenly seized by the ghost of Garrincha and drifted past four Italian players in the buildup to his team’s final goal. At the 2002 World Cup, Gilberto anchored his country’s midfield as they swept to a thrilling and cathartic victory, and he was even more restrained in his role than Clodoaldo. In footballing terms, whilst Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo all ran riot on a lads’ night out, he was the designated driver.

Of course Gilberto had an extraordinary level of skill. It’s just that he rarely had the temperament or the opportunity to show it off. I remember the one time that he did so to dazzling effect, and he wasn’t even playing for Arsenal or Brazil at the time. A few years ago, he was doing some work for Street League, a charity using football to help homeless people towards better lives. Gilberto went down to a local park, and joined a gathering of young people for a kickabout – several of whom possibly thought that, given his subdued on-field demeanour for club and country, he wasn’t some kind of stereotypical Brazilian skill wizard. Only thing is, it turns out that he was.

This is what I loved about Gilberto – because if most people were that gifted at anything, you can bet your bottom dollar that they would tell everyone about it all the time. But Gilberto – well, you can imagine him wandering into a service station and the person behind the counter swearing that they knew him from somewhere, and Gilberto simply replying “oh, no, that’s not me, I get that all the time”. Persistent, the person would continue, “no, you must be Gilberto, I’ve seen you play for Brazil”. Gilberto would continue to deny it. Finally, in a moment of frustration and ingenuity, the person would knock a Coke can off the edge of the counter – at which moment Gilberto, ever the soul of politeness, would trap the falling soft drink with a perfect first touch before handing it back to the embarrassed employee, and walking away with a small smile. (After all, a defensive midfielder’s work is never done).

Gilberto came, saw and conquered, but he didn’t get a plaque or a slogan for his trouble. His name is far less likely to be serenaded through the ages than those of the forwards whose success he made immeasurably easier. And that is entirely correct; since like all heroes, he had a superpower which was all his own, and in Gilberto’s case it was invisibility.

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