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My Life Is an Open Book

Feb 20 2020
Willian
Chelsea F.C.
Feb 20 2020

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The family life of a Brazilian footballer is not always easy. There is a saying that we have 200 million football coaches in Brazil, and I can confirm that this is true.

I can also confirm that two of these coaches are my twin daughters.

All of my family members believe that they know the most about football. And they’re all pretty sure that the one who knows the least is me! When I get to the Chelsea dressing room after a game, they will have left a bunch of voice messages on my phone. They watch all my games, and they always give me advice. Often I’ll find that they have left me messages during the first half, while I was running around on the pitch.

The first message is usually from my father, Severino. 

“Son, I’m watching the game here … you have to move more into the centre!”

Then I’ll have one from my wife, Vanessa.

“Honey, why don’t you cross the ball more often?”

And then my twin daughters, Manuella and Valentina.

“Daddy! If you want to score, you have to shoot!”

Manuella and Valentina are always the most worried. If I do not score, they’ll get concerned. If a player fouls me and I fall to the ground, they’ll ask if I’m okay.

“Daddy, why did that man kick you?”

I laugh about how engaged they are. But I also know they are trying to help. The feedback is always positive, every message sent with love.

Courtesy of WillianWithout a doubt, becoming a father is the best thing that can happen to you. I used to think just about football, but when you have children your priorities change, because they need your love and attention. As a footballer, they help me keep balance in my life.

Over the last few years I have been thinking a lot about these things — the things that are more important than football. I am not just talking about my role as a father, but as an evangelical Christian. I go to church here in London, and I feel great whenever I’m there, listening to the Word, saying my prayers. I have a group at church who I consider my friends.

But I do not like to talk too much to people about religion. Why? Because my life is an open book. For sure, there is a way of sending a message by preaching the gospel. But sometimes you can do the same with your actions and attitude. You can set an example. If you have the happiness and the discipline to your life that comes from your faith in God, people will notice that you have something special, you know? So you don’t have to put it in another person’s head that they should accept Jesus. You can show it through who you are, how you treat people, how you handle things.

And that is what I try to do on a daily basis.

Some people think that footballers just want to make money, party, and chase women. Of course, everyone can do whatever they want. The important thing about being a Christian is knowing that you are free. Sure, you can go to a club and party all night. But should you? When you know the word of God, it doesn’t make sense. And if you have that clarity, that knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, your life will be better.

There are many footballers who are evangelical Christians, not just in Brazil but also here in England. Roberto Firmino was baptised in a swimming pool a few weeks ago. Alisson was there. David Luiz has been a friend of mine since childhood. He was baptised when he played in Paris. Lucas Moura invited me to his home the other day for pizza. I think this is how it should be. On the pitch we all defend our teams. Outside it we are all friends.

I sincerely believe that I have God to thank for becoming a professional footballer. God has a purpose in life for each person, and for me I think it was to play football. When I look back I can recognise several moments when my career could have gone off the rails.

And yet for some reason, it never did.

For instance, when I was two years old I broke my foot. I was playing football in the streets of my hometown, Ribeirão Pires, a quiet city outside São Paulo, when I kicked a ball that was too hard for me. My mother says that I kept on walking normally, only to wake up the next day unable to put my foot on the ground. Thankfully it healed, and when I was nine I was able to join Corinthians, one of the biggest clubs in Brazil, and the team my family and my neighbourhood supported.

So many things went in my favour. Confidence is crucial for all players, and for whatever reason I never had a doubt that I was going to become a professional. The road to the top is long, you know? Millions of Brazilian kids chase the same dream. Some are talented but lose motivation. Some suffer serious injuries. Others begin to doubt. I could have thought, Oh, will this actually work? But I never did.

Courtesy of Willian

I was also lucky that I had my father. When I was 15 he was the one who told me that if I really wanted to become a professional, I would have to choose between football and futsal, which I had been playing since I was four. He helped me keep my feet on the ground. If you are good at football, agents begin to show interest in you very quickly. I also had the ego boost of playing for the youth national teams. If you are not careful, you might start thinking that you have made it before you actually have. But my father never let me think I was anything special.

We knew the competition was great. There is a saying that you have to kill a lion and a half a day, because everyone else is killing at least one. My father always told me that.

And then, soon after I had made the Corinthians first team, I got a big opportunity. In August 2007, when I was 19, I got an offer from Shakhtar Donetsk. As you know, every player in Brazil dreams of playing in Europe, especially for one of the big clubs. I must admit that I had not planned to leave Brazil so early, and I had certainly not envisaged a future in Ukraine. But Corinthians really needed to sell me at that moment, and Shakhtar really wanted me. So my father and I went there to check things out.

The people from Shakhtar were very convincing. When our flight landed in France they had a private jet waiting for us. I was like, Damn, I have never flown a private jet before. All we knew about Donetsk was that it was supposed to be a cold place. But it was summer, and really, really warm. I thought, Surely the winters cannot get that cold…. Then I met the coach, Mircea Lucescu, and some of the players, including Fernandinho, Luiz Adriano and Ilsinho, who were all Brazilians. The facilities looked good. Finally my father and I concluded that this could be a great start for me in Europe. And so I decided to join Shakhtar.

Of course, when winter finally came it was difficult. The cold, the snow … I had never experienced anything like that. But thank God everything went well. I had the support of my teammates, especially the Brazilians, including Brandão and Jádson. I adapted well. I even learned Russian! In the beginning I had to use a translator, but slowly I picked up words and phrases, and eventually I was able to understand it.

Sam Robles/The Players' TribuneUkraine was also where I became an evangelical Christian. I had grown up going to a Catholic church with my parents every Sunday. But when I was in Ukraine, I felt that I began to get closer to what following God really meant. I began to spend more time with Jádson and Fernandinho. They would host services at their homes, where we would study the Bible together. They were almost like Bible workshops. That was when I began to fully understand what the Bible said, and what was really right and what was really wrong. And so I accepted Jesus Christ as my only saviour. My wife and I were baptised there — in a bathtub.

At the same time I began to spend more of my spare time with my agent. He lived in London, and on one occasion I went with him to watch a game at Stamford Bridge. That was when I began following Chelsea and the Premier League. I was blown away. I loved the atmosphere. I fell in love with the city. I can’t quite explain what London has, but it has something … something special.

I spent 5½ years at Shakhtar, working as hard as I could. In January 2013 I moved to Anzhi Makhachkala, in Russia. But six months later they were in financial trouble and allowed me to find another club. And so began weeks of negotiations. Many clubs wanted me, but I wanted to go to Chelsea. And in the end, thank God, I was able to fulfill my dream. I can still remember visiting the club, seeing the facilities, meeting David Luiz in the dressing room. I was so happy. God seems to have heard what I wanted and said, “This is where he will go.”

Since I joined Chelsea, a lot has happened that has shaped my character. The first year was disappointing, because we were fighting for the title but finished third. We also made the Champions League semifinals, drawing away in the first leg against Atlético Madrid. We were 1–0 up at home in the second leg, and I remember thinking, Damn, I have never been in a Champions League final, and now we’re going there! And then Atlético turned the game around and won 3–1. That was frustrating. But the toughest period by far was when we became Premier League champions with Antonio Conte in 2016–17. I sat on the bench a lot that season, but worse, I lost my mother. She was battling cancer, and there just seemed to be so little I could do about it. In that period I received a lot of support from my father and my wife. It was painful, but I learned a lot. I matured. And I got even closer to God.

Of course, I have also had many happy moments at Chelsea. The fans have treated me well from Day One. When they sing my name, I feel happy and proud. They give me confidence, and I have always tried to return their love for me on the pitch.

Not by talking, but by setting an example with my actions. As always.

The happiest moments are when you win a league title, because you spend an entire season fighting for it. I will never forget my first one at Chelsea, which we won under José Mourinho in 2015. The party on the pitch and in the dressing room was incredible. We actually won it with three league games still to play, and Mourinho had promised us four days off each week if we won the title. So each week for the rest of the season I would train one day, play a game, and then spend four days with my family on holiday.

People ask me about the best coaches I have had. For sure, Mourinho is one of them. We had a special relationship. He demanded a lot, so there were some conflicts, but that’s normal. He would challenge me and call out my mistakes, but if I had played well he would also say something like, “Today you killed it.” I loved his man management, how he organised training, how he spoke in meetings. I learned a lot from him. Even after he left Chelsea he spoke well of me. We are still friends. Sometimes we exchange messages. When he was at Manchester United he wanted me to go there. And the way in which he made that clear was always respectful.

I also feel very good playing for Frank Lampard. It was a privilege to play with him — you all know how great a player he was — and as a coach I feel that he likes me a lot. I like him a lot, too. I really enjoy the way he is doing things. He cares about his players. His man management is excellent.

Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

I have played for Chelsea for more than six years now, and I can honestly say that I am very happy here. If you ask my wife if she wants to leave London, she’ll say no. My daughters feel the same way. Of course, Brazil is Brazil, right? It’s our home, our culture. We always feel good when we go there on holiday and see family and friends. But London is my second home.

In fact, I recently passed a British citizenship test. Man, it was hard. It’s British history in a nutshell: the 1500s, the 1600s, wars, battles, great leaders, stuff like that. Some questions are so difficult that not even some of my British friends knew the answers! I bought this handbook called Life in the UK Test, which covers everything in the exam. I don’t know how many hours I spent reading it. I also downloaded a phone app with mock tests.

As it turned out, I failed on my first two attempts, but got it on the third. I am now a British citizen!

So London is where I want to stay. This is where I have my family, my church. I want my daughters to grow up here. Whenever I get back to the dressing room, I want to keep seeing their messages. I want to keep hearing their love and encouragement.

They don’t just remind me to shoot. They also remind me that, no matter what I win as a footballer, my most important trophy will always be my family. 

Willian
Chelsea F.C.