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Cult heroes: The Brazilian boy who was already a man

Lagoa da Prata, Minas Gerais. Translating to Silverlake in English, and best known for gold mining, the town can also take credit for producing a rock which swiftly became a polished diamond.

Gilberto Aparecido da Silva. His middle name Portuguese for making an appearance, Gilberto earned a reputation for showing up at exactly the right time throughout his career. He also earned the right to incorporate another moniker with his name: Invincible. A title inherited by the Arsenal squad which went unbeaten in the Premier League during the 2003/04 season, and featuring a formidable partnership of Vieira and Gilberto.

Raised in poverty, humble beginnings defined him as a human being. Taught carpentry by his father as a young teenager, these skills inevitably helped him craft the ladder of life. 'Bon exemplo eboas razoes avassalamos coracoes'; is a Portuguese proverb, simply meaning 'lead by example'. Aged 15 and forced to support his family, Gilberto had to give up football, instead finding work as a labourer, carpenter and in a sweet factory.

In 1997, and 22 years of age, friends convinced Gilberto to give football another go, and, having already established links with America Mineiro four years previously, re-signed, this time as a professional. Operating as a centre back, he helped the club win the Serie B title. Following relegation the year after, esteemed coach Carlos Alberto Parreira took him to Atletico Mineiro, who taught him to turn personally adverse experiences into silver linings. His switch to the defensive midfield role was a masterstroke. There can be no doubt as to why he was so effective and relative comparisons can be drawn from the traits needed for this position and his own life.

Having taken responsibility for his family from an early age, everything which had served him well as a protector in real life was transferred to the football pitch with veritable virtue. Undoubtedly effective, this may well have been because he thought of the back five behind him as his family. Gilberto grew up with three sisters, a mother in ill-health and a father who had to retire early.

Subsequently, as a player, he developed a reputation as someone who, simply did not stop, embodied determination to succeed and a ferocious fighting spirit. Parreira took the young Gilberto under his wing. Having led Brazil to a World Cup victory in 1994, he was unequivocally manager and mentor to his young protégé.

By 2001/02 Gilberto had become a revelation in Brazilian club football. With three goals from deep during that season, though notably one of the standout performers in the league, it was no surprise to Brazilian fans that he was called up by Luiz Felipe Scolari to his country's World Cup squad in 2002.

gilberto brasil

Undaunted by global audiences, Japan and South Korea became the pedestal of proof to coaches the world over that Gilberto was a gift to football. No higher praise could have heralded in Arsene Wenger's immediate pursuit of the player. Now a World Cup winner, he rocketed into the centre of the universe.

It was no shock when Europe came calling that summer in the shape of Arsenal who managed to steal him away for a paltry £4.5m - another Wenger Moneyball masterstroke. A perfect partner for Gunners club captain Patrick Vieira, he was also the missing ingredient to Arsenal's recipe for success.

Adopting the nickname 'The Invisible Wall', his presence provided a platform for Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires to attack. Much was said about Claude Makelele's under-rated contribution for Chelsea and Real Madrid throughout his career, though Gilberto was already leading the way across the English the capital.

During a Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven in the player's first season at the Gunners, he scored Arsenal's fastest goal after 20 seconds. Spring of that campaign bore fruit to Gilberto's first trophy under Wenger's tutelage: the FA Cup. A season later, the former carpenter carved his name into history as he helped the Gunners become the first Premier League side to go unbeaten in a season. Gilberto held the piano to let his teammates play, assisting them in crafting a masterpiece.

Gilberto added another FA Cup winners' medal to his collection in 2005, while a season later, Arsenal were Champions League runners-up to Barcelona. Deservedly dealt vice-captaincy by Wenger in 2006, having once again been the bedrock of Brazil at the World Cup in Germany, Gilberto got off to a flier at the Emirates, scoring the first competitive goal at Arsenal's new stadium, once again adding his name to the record books.

In the summer of 2008, Gilberto gained Greek admirers in the form of Panathanaikos. Their very own Hercules, he took up a major role in securing the Greek league and cup in the 2009/10 campaign. After a brief stint at Brazilian side Gremio, the player came full circle, adoringly welcomed back to home side Atletico Mineiro as a true cult hero. Stating his desire to win the Copa Liberatadores; this was achieved in 2013 as the player brought the curtain down on a truly remarkable career.

'Giant by thine own nature' is a line from the Brazilian national anthem. Gilberto, physically may not have been the biggest, though teammates can say with confidence they played in the company of a character whose will to succeed, embodied that of a colossus worth his weight in gold.

He has now thrown in his tuppence on the future of the Arsenal manager and the voice of yet another legend claiming the manager has not changed enough to take the team forward sounds like another tolling of the death knell. It does not do to dwell on what ifs but Arsenal's beleagured manager and the Arsenal faithful must be wondering how different things would look had Arsenal's cloud had a Silva lining during their darkest days.

This article was first published in January 2016.

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