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When you are chasing a dream, there are many ways to reach your destination. Trust me, I know. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was to play for Atlético Mineiro. If I could not do that, then I at least wanted to play professionally somewhere else and help my family.
But I was never one of those supertalents who was always going to make it, you know?
In fact, when I was 19 years old, I was barely even playing football.
What was I doing with my life?
I was working in a sweets factory.
I’m not joking. That was my reality. Many players are already playing for the Brazilian national team at that age, right? Well, I worked in a factory for 2½ years, until 1996. And during that period, I played only for the company team.
I know what you’re thinking. How can someone go from working in a factory to winning the World Cup in six years?
I know, it shouldn’t happen, right? And trust me, it’s a hell of a story.
So let me tell you how it happened.
I will never forget the day that I realised I had to get a proper job. I was seven years old.
You have to understand where I’m coming from. I grew up in this village called Luciânia, where a lot of the people are labourers. My dad used to cut sugarcane there. One day, he took me to work with him. There was going to be a celebration to mark the end of the season, and he wanted me to see it.
It should have been a happy day — and for the workers, it was. But I can still remember seeing how hard my dad had to work.
He was there under the sun, sweating and toiling, and I felt so sorry for him.
And I just made up my mind that I did not want him to have to work like that. I did not want that life for him.
Nor did I want that life for me.
You see, in our family, I am the only son out of four children, which meant that I would one day be responsible for taking care of the family. And if I just stayed in my village, well, guess what my future would look like? I would be out there, too, chopping cane in the burning heat.
I could see it so clearly. It was like my future was playing out in my head. And I knew I had to change it.
But where? How? All I knew was my village.
One of the few connections I had with the “outside world” was through the radio. My dad was a passionate fan of Atlético Mineiro, so I used to spend hours listening to their games with one of his brothers, who was also a fan. Sometimes the signal was so weak that I had to push my ear against the radio to be able to hear anything.
Toninho Cerezo, João Leite, Nelinho, Reinaldo….
Those names shaped my imagination as an Atlético Mineiro supporter.
Man, I was dying to go to the Mineirão to see them play.
The massive crowd.
My great idol.
Those guys were like superheroes to me. Just imagine what it would be like to play like them? Imagine what it would be like to be like them?
Of course, it seemed impossible. They might as well have been playing on a different planet. My version of the Minerão was a dirt field at my school, which was close to a train line. We made footballs out of plastic or cloth that had fallen off the trains.
It’s funny, because I had a friend named Juquinha, and once in a while he would tell me, “Man, one day you are going to play for Atlético.”
Of course I didn’t believe him. I just thought he was crazy.
My version of the Minerão was a dirt field at my school, which was close to a train line. We made footballs out of plastic or cloth that had fallen off the trains.- Gilberto Silva
And to be honest, at that time I wasn’t really aiming to become a footballer. That world was too far away, you know? I just wanted to get good grades and find a job I could enjoy.
My dream was actually to become a turning-lathe operator.
But then something dramatic happened. In 1989, when I was 12 or 13, my dad and the other labourers were forced by the union to go on strike, and most of them lost their jobs. So my family moved to Lagoa da Prata, a city nearby. There I had more opportunities to play football. And as I grew older, I began to make my mark in the local amateur tournaments.
Then, one day when I was 15, I left the interior of Minas Gerais for the very first time.
I was going to do a trial at Atlético Mineiro.
I felt like I was on my way toward my dream. Everything was so exciting. When I saw Belo Horizonte, it was like my eyes popped out. I was staying with hundreds of other boys in the Olympic Village, a giant place.
I passed the first part of the trial.
I passed the next one, too.
I stayed until the very last day.
And then … they kicked me out.
Man, it was brutal. Or, well ... at least it should have been. But to be honest, I didn’t have that much time to think about it.
Because not long after, I got into the youth academy of América MG.
Suddenly the whole rejection was forgotten. I was so grateful. I felt like I was on my way to a proper career, and my whole family was celebrating. Finally I would have the chance to help the people I cared about the most.
No more harvesting.
No more labouring under the burning sun.
I started to live at the América youth academy in Contagem. For a while it was great. But before long I got homesick. I was living a three-hour drive away from my family. We didn’t have a car, and because my dad couldn’t afford to pay for the bus ride, I wasn’t able to visit them.
My mother’s health then began to deteriorate considerably. And the death of my father’s mother was the final straw.
I was thinking, If I don't return to help my family, and something else bad happens, I will never be able to forgive myself.
So after just five months, I was back in my village. I returned with nothing.
Back to square one.
That was when I took the job at the factory. I had to help my loved ones, right?
But after more than two years there, I felt like I wanted one more chance. I wanted another crack at making it at América. It’s not like they had kicked me out. I was the one who had left.
Besides, my bosses at the factory had promised me a promotion that they never gave me. That also pushed me toward the exit door.
So I went back to América for another try. I was so motivated.
I was 19 years old. I knew it was my last chance.
Four months later, I was a professional at América.
Man, it was a dream come true. Deep down I could hardly believe it.
But then I suffered through a nightmare that almost made me quit football again.
In 1999, when my contract at América was about to expire, Cruzeiro tried to sign me. They had a great squad that had just finished second in the Brazilian championship, and they offered me, through my agent, a salary that would have changed my life.
So I signed a precontract with Cruzeiro. But the story was leaked to the press. América found out, and my life turned into hell. They didn’t want me to go to Cruzeiro, and they created a huge turmoil that really startled me.
I went back to my dad’s house and hid. I told him, “I’m never going to play again. This isn’t what I wanted. I want peace.”
It was a really rough time. When the dust had finally settled, I was called into a meeting with Marcus Salum, the América president. To my surprise, Alexandre Kalil, who was then an Atlético Mineiro director, was also there. It seemed like they had been talking about my transfer.
Then Kalil did something that scared the hell out of me. He began to tell me about all these things that would happen if I did not sign for Atlético.
It was typical Kalil, you know?
It’s funny looking back on it now, especially because I didn’t need any encouragement to sign for Atlético. Cruzeiro had a great team, sure, but Atlético was the club of my life. Anyway, in 2000, after a lot of back and forth, I finally had the privilege of signing for Atlético.
And now the time has come for me to reveal a little secret.
Around this time, I used to have a ritual whenever I played at the Mineirão. When I arrived at the stadium, I could see the sea of fans streaming to the gates. In the dressing room, before they renovated the stadium, I could hear the fans particularly well, because the moat was right next to the dressing room and they would pass by on their way to the stands.
I would open up the window to listen to their songs.
Honestly, the emotion used to wash over me every time. It was beautiful.
But this was not while I was playing for Atlético Mineiro.
This was my routine when I was playing against Atlético.
So can you imagine what it meant to me when I actually got to play for Atlético? When the Mineirão became my home pitch?
When the sea of people was singing their songs for me?
Man, I still get goose bumps thinking about it.
The only way I can describe it is that it was a dream. Not only for me, but also for my family, which is full of Atlético Mineiro supporters.
Those 2½ years playing for Atlético were some of the happiest of my life.
So can you imagine what it meant to me when I actually got to play for Atlético? When the Mineirão became my home pitch? When the sea of people was singing their songs for me?- Gilberto Silva
But there was another, even bigger dream just around the corner.
Listen, I never expected that one day I would fly over Brasilia escorted by five Mirage fighters from the Brazilian air force. But I also never believed that I would be a World Cup champion.
The first World Cup that I remember is that of 1986. We had a TV at home, but it was only in black and white, so I didn’t couldn’t tell which team was which. I didn’t even know where Mexico was.
But when the commentators would shout, “BRAZIIIIIIL!”, I felt a lot of emotion. It was like my heart began to beat in a different rhythm the first time I heard that.
If someone had told me that, 16 years later, I was going to become a world champion, I would have asked them if they were a friend of Juquinha.
Since the 2002 World Cup was in Japan and South Korea, before smartphones began to pop up, it was hard for us to visualise exactly what our games meant to the Brazilian people. So Felipão had an idea. Before the final against Germany, he showed us a video in which an indigenous village in Brazil was watching one of our games and celebrating the goals.
They were going crazy! It was incredible.
And that fired us up. We had been on the road for 50 days on the other side of the world. We were missing our families and friends. Now we were hours away from being able to win the World Cup.
When we left that meeting, we felt certain that we were going to bring the trophy back with us to Brazil.
Which is what happened — and which is something I will never forget. When the final whistle blew, we all just ran around like madmen. And I remember a camera came over to film me. I was very emotional, and I was thinking about how my family would celebrate.
I was like, “Mom, I’m coming back! As a WORLD CHAMPION!”
The party lasted through the night, and shortly after we jumped on the flight home.
Then as our plane approached Brasilia, I noticed the fighter jets appearing next to us in the sky.
At that moment I felt very proud to be Brazilian. Before that World Cup, I had heard about patriotism. Now I had represented Brazil in front of the whole world. And I had done it next to my idols.
Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu, Ronaldinho, Dida, Marcos, Roque Júnior, Edmilson….
When we landed in Brasilia, I forgot what tiredness was. We climbed on top of a big bus with a giant sound system and rolled through an enormous crowd.
Man, I had never seen so many people in my life. I was almost scared!
There were 500,000 people in the streets to welcome home the five-time champions of the world. People were climbing trees and traffic signs. It was madness.
That was when I finally understood that I had become part of a country’s dream.
Later I made it a point to stop by the factory where I had worked. The staff did everything they could to see me. They came by bicycle, truck and even horse, haha!
But one of the most moving celebrations came when I went back to Belo Horizonte. Atlético Mineiro sent a fire truck to pick me up at the airport! When I arrived at the club, I was welcomed by the president, Ricardo Guimarães, and when I entered the training centre I saw that the staff had prepared a special banner with my name on it.
I made it a point to stop by the factory where I had worked. The staff did everything they could to see me. They came by bicycle, truck and even horse.- Gilberto Silva
I don’t know if I can describe what that gesture meant to me, but I’ll try.
Of course, titles create history and motivate fans, but the life of a professional footballer is about much more than that. It’s about who you meet along the way, and I met some amazing people at Atlético Mineiro. The fans may push the team to new heights, but the people behind the scenes are just as fundamental to the club. In many ways, we play the game together with them.
Without them, I wouldn’t be ready to slide into another tackle or hit a decisive pass.
I’m talking about people like the late Seu Walter, our kit man.
Bel and Du, the masseurs.
And many, many more.
These people may not be as famous as Toninho Cerezo, Paulo Isidoro and Reinaldo, but they have also earned their places in Atlético Mineiro history.
So from the bottom of my heart, I say to all of you: Thank you.
You can only imagine how hard it was for me to leave Atlético Mineiro that year. I would go on to have nine years of adventures in Europe, most of them at Arsenal. That, too, was an incredible time.
The 49 games unbeaten.
Then a league title with Panathinaikos in Greece.
And then to Grêmio, and then back to Atlético Mineiro in 2013.
When I think about this final chapter, my eyes fill with fears.
I want to put all the cards on the table here. There is a lawsuit going on between me and Atlético Mineiro due to an injury I got on my knee after playing Cruzeiro following the Libertadores Final that anticipated my retirement since I wasn’t able to heal to this day. But, none of it take away the huge feeling I have for this club, even after the disrespectful criticism I endured the past years. Above all disagreements, I am eternally grateful to Atlético for its importance to my life and to my family, and nothing will ever erase my love and gratitude to this club.
I still remember when I was at Grêmio, and Atlético approached me about returning. I asked my wife, Janaina, for some advice. She said, “Listen to what your heart tells you.”
My love and gratitude for the club will be eternal.- Gilberto Silva
I spent some days thinking about it, and my memory took me on a journey back in time.
My dad cutting sugarcane.
My family of Atlético Mineiro fans.
The games on the radio.
And then I finally told Janaina, “We’re going back to Belo Horizonte.”
“And we’re going to win the Copa Libertadores.”
As for what came next … well, you probably know what happened. The nervy knockout games (this was Atlético after all), the defeat in Paraguay and the penalty shoot-out in the final at the Mineirão. Atlético Mineiro were champions of South America.
My family went crazy.
The Mineirão exploded with joy.
Across Brazil, our fans were celebrating in front of their TVs.
And somewhere in Lagoa da Prata, I’d like to think that there was at least one little boy who was running around with his arms in the air, having listened to the game on the radio.