Date: 10th December 2012 at 9:23pm
Written by:

Essentially, I`m quite a cynical person. I don`t like to label myself so much because it can make one`s thinking lazy and clich├ęd. As Chris Rock once memorably spat, “Anyone who makes up their mind before they hear the issue is a f****g fool, ok?” I like to think I approach things with an open mind, but generally, I would regard myself as suspicious because I deem that most things in the world give me cause to think that way. Religion, rampant consumerism, corporate avarice, the microwave culture of 24 hour news. I despise Christmas and its naked greed and enforced jollity. I don`t have favourite footballers anymore because they`re all just working a contract and why the hell shouldn`t they be?

A friend once jokingly told me, “Your kids are going to be sat watching Barney when they`re toddlers, clucking their tongues at the TV saying, “Pfffft, a talking purple dinosaur? That`s hardly believable.” But football (and music, it must be said) is one of the few places in the world where I am still not left wanting of romance. That`s a seemingly absurd position to take in 2012 and a pretty hypocritical one when you consider rampant consumerism, religion (pray for Muamba anyone?) corporate avarice, microwave culture and sensationalist, blanket coverage are more a part of the game than ever. But there`s something in me that still sees it as pure and unsullied. One of my favourite ever quotes about football came from Maradona when he retired.

Playing his last ever game for Boca Juniors, Maradona addressed the crowd with a microphone, hoisting the match ball into the air, he said, “Whatever I have done, the ball is always clean.” Those words stayed with me. As a student of literature at university, I only rarely found anything to feel sentimental about, locked in rooms studying the great romantic poets with sensitive, arty types. Yet handsomely paid men in shorts kicking a synthetic piece of plastic around in mud always gets the juices flowing. Go figure.

Earlier this year, I began a relationship with a Brazilian girl. Hailing from the state of Minas Gerais, Atletico Mineiro is her team. Consequently, for the last year or so, many of my Sunday evenings (and a few early Thursday mornings!) have been spent watching Atletico in the Brasileirao Serie A. I quickly came to adopt them as something of a second team. Watching Brazilian football has been a fascinating experience. The Brasileirao isn`t quite up to the quality of the Premier League, but it`s no less fast and furious. Not to mention feisty. Last weekend 8 league fixtures saw a total of 9 red cards, whilst police had to enter the pitch at Gremio to calm a fight between the home side and Internacional players.

The Brazilian league is genuinely competitive too. 2011 champions Corinthians finished a distant 6th this year. Atletico finished 15th in 2011, about par the course for them. Then they signed Ronaldinho and Jo and climbed to a 2nd place finish this year. The economic shape of the Brazilian league reflects the country`s burgeoning economy, meaning the league can boast the likes of Neymar, Ganso, Lucas Moura and, errr, Denilson. Brazil`s promising crop of youngsters will undoubtedly join the likes of Oscar to seek their fortune in Europe soon enough, but players don`t necessarily leave Brazil as bum fluff strewn teenagers and come home to graze as pensioners. I`ve thoroughly enjoyed my education in the place where the game is at its most beautiful and fiery.

After lots of sure sounding noises in the South American press this week, 36 year old Gilberto Silva agreed to rejoin Atletico Mineiro, the club that he represented when he played every single minute of Brazil`s 2002 World Cup triumph and the club that reluctantly sold him to Arsenal that same summer. A notoriously understated and humble individual, Gilberto told local press, “I’ve been away from 10 and half years, far from home, my family and friends. I’ve decided to come back to the club that made me get noticed, the club of my heart. All this helped me to make this decision’. (Quotes via @brazilgunners on twitter). This, shortly before ecstatic Galo fans (Galo is the club`s nickname, meaning ‘rooster`) chaired Gilberto on their shoulders at Belo Horizonte airport. The same airport where, in October, my girlfriend and I had seen the entire Galo squad casually stroll past us on their way to catch a flight to Porte Alegre.

Gilberto had been playing for Gremio, who finished 3rd, one point behind Galo this season. The legs have slowed, but he has reinvented himself as an intelligent centre half. As Arsenal fans I probably need not tell you that his qualities have translated into the position rather comfortably. I said earlier in the post that I didn`t really have favourite players any longer, but I always made an exception for Gilberto.(In fact, I wrote this piece about him nearly 4 years ago). It`s difficult not to take to an individual of such humility, not only in character but in playing style. It took many Arsenal supporters a while to fully appreciate his repertoire of talents, even if he was a mainstay in a side that won 2 F.A. Cups and completed an unbeaten league campaign in his first three seasons. The man was so quiet and dignified, it was somewhat fitting that he was revered most when he wasn`t there. A long term back injury at the outset of the 2004-05 season robbed us of his services for eight months and it became increasingly apparent how badly missed he was. (Also worth pointing out that Gilberto played six games with a cracked vertebrae without complaint before discovering the injury).

I play football regularly myself. I happen to play in what I happily refer to my teammates as “The Gilberto position.” (Though I tend to play it with the flair of a young Xabi Alonso or Pirlo. Only I have a more ruggedly handsome beard). As well as being somewhat cynical, I`m also a very taciturn person by nature. Maybe my love of Gilberto was also a case of having an affinity with the quiet guy. That he has now returned to Atletico Mineiro, a club I have adopted and watch every week, I can`t help but be filled with the poetry of it. Whilst Galo fans ecstatically welcome a hero home, I have the pleasure of looking on from the sidelines and quietly appreciating the return of a hero to what has become a home from home for me. Maybe I shouldn`t tangle football up in my personal relationships quite so much, but the connection is irrefutable. My missus adopted Arsenal a few years back as her English team, prior to us meeting. When pressed as to her first memory of Arsenal, she always answers, “I remember being pissed at them for taking Gilberto away.” That he`s come back full circle just seems very right somehow. However sickly and sentimental that sounds. LD.