Nearing 34 and surely on the downward slope, Gilberto Silva prepares for his third World Cup – but the first in which he is guaranteed a place in the starting line-up.
In 2002 he was a squad player with a handful of caps, only recently converted from centre-back to defensive midfielder, when on the eve of the tournament Emerson injured himself in a training-ground kickabout and Gilberto had to step in.
Four years later he was Emerson’s reserve again, but did well off the bench and started the quarter-final against France. The nature of the defeat, and the way Zinedine Zidane tore apart the Brazilian midfield, might have entitled him to believe his time in the Selecao had come to an end.
When new coach Dunga continued to call him up, it was widely seen as a short-term measure, the selection of a wise and stabilising influence to ease the introduction of a fresh generation …instead of which, his international career was only getting started. Over half his 84 caps have come after his 30th birthday and he has become a symbol of the Dunga regime: much criticised but always defended by the coach – and always selected.
Purists are upset such a key position is filled by a converted centre-back with limited distribution skills as his passing is usually slow and to the side.
Arsenal fans, too, may well be surprised that their former player is still such a fixture in his national team. So effective for years, the evidence of his last season in London was of a man past his best, unable to accompany the pass-and-move game of Cesc Fabregas and vulnerable when drawn into open spaces.
Gilberto’s response is that he was not given enough games to play himself into form. And, pressed on the subject, Dunga goes on the attack. Arsenal, he says, have become a timeco (poor, insignificant team) since their former player left for Panathinaikos.
At the heart of the debate are different philosophies. Dunga’s Brazil are not seeking to win aesthetic approval for intricate midfield interplay; they are more concerned with launching the counter. They sit deep, with defence and midfield close together, drawing opponents forward. Both Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo have the height and strength to form a tight midfield barrier, and with his defensive awareness the former is expected to organise those around him – at times slot into the back line to free right-back Maicon to bomb forward.
In his first four internationals Gilberto Silva managed three goals, all in pre-2002 World Cup warm-up friendlies. Although a threat from set-pieces there have been none since and he has gone 80 games without a goal, surely a record for a Brazil midfielder.
But as long as Brazil win the World Cup, Gilberto Silva will not mind if he fails to add to the total or even if he is hardly noticed. He will keep plodding on with customary quiet determination.