In his book, ‘Futebol: The Brazilian way of life’ Alex Bellos talks a great deal about the ‘branding’ of Brazilian footballers. Like no other country in the world, footballers from Brazil create certain expectations. Bellos spoke to agents who freely admitted trading Brazilian players to smaller footballing nations who would not even scout a Brazilian before signing one. Club owners expected that news of a Brazilian player would instantly increase the gate and that they came with a kind of quality guarantee.
We are all perfectly aware of the minutiae of these stereotypes. Flair footballers with a penchant for a stepover and an elastic hipped goal celebration. That Neymar is pretty much the sole purveyor of these characteristics in a Brazilian national side devoid of creativity exposes this as boilerplate stuff. The stereotype is fading a tad as the world becomes familiar with a functional Brazilian national side and one so cruelly taken apart by a technically superior German team last summer.
It is fair to say that, back in 1999, Arsenal’s first ever Brazilian signing did create a lot of anticipation. With Nigel Winterburn well into his 30s and young French understudy David Grondin failing to impress, Arsene Wenger flashed his chequebook at São Paulo giants Corinthians for the services of Sylvio Mendes Campos Junior. Silvinho to his friends. Wenger has often spoken about the influence that the 1970 Brazil side had on his footballing education, not least the overlapping runs from Everaldo and Carlos Alberto.
In Silvinho, Wenger had purchased the archetypal Brazilian ‘lateral’ (the Brazilian term for ‘full back.’) In Brazil, full backs are principally considered as an attacking weapon. Generally speaking, two ‘volantes’ (defensive midfielders) are deployed in deference to the attacking duties of the full back. Silvinho fitted the mould to the tee. An exciting, skilful and overwhelmingly attacking left-back, he wowed the Highbury crowd with his skills. His left foot was equally capable of sitting an inch perfect cross onto the head of an Arsenal striker, or of pinging the ball into the top corner past a hapless goalkeeper.
There can be few full backs in Arsenal’s history with such a memorable collection of goals- especially when one considers that he was only with the club for two years. (Winterburn’s fulminating strikes against Wimbledon and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge were eight years apart). The Brazilian’s most memorable strike was probably his late equaliser at Stamford Bridge back in September 2000. An improvised, boomerang effort that swerved so much that Chelsea keeper Ed de Goey might have been forgiven for suffering motion sickness trying to save it.
He scored comparable goals against Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury, but his coup de grace was saved for the Champions League.
This meandering, winding saunter through the Sparta Praha defence, followed by unflappable clipped finish remains his Arsenal masterpiece. Fittingly, the goal won Arsenal the game and three valuable Champions League points. Silvinho’s attacking runs, sweet left foot and his humble nature made him a firm fan favourite. “We’ve got Silvinho” to the tune of ‘La donna e mobile’ was a familiar terrace refrain.
But his Arsenal tenure was cut short with rumours of passport issues. He was quickly sold to Celta Vigo in the summer of 2001 and academy product Ashley Cole was promoted to first choice left-back. Silvinho’s career continued to blossom however, after three years with Celta, he obtained Spanish citizenship and Catalan giants Barcelona swooped for his signature. He stayed for five years, winning three La Liga titles, a copa del Rey and two Champions League winners medals. He then spent a season with Manchester City before retiring in 2010.
Even in retirement, his stature continues to grow. He has built a reputation as an emerging Brazilian coach. He enjoyed spells as assistant manager of Cruzeiro, Sport Recife, Náutico and most notably with his boyhood club Corinthians. Last year, his old Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini hired him as his assistant at Inter Milan. Silvinho has been popular at every club he has played for and coached with. His spell with the Gunners was regrettably short for administrative reasons, but sometimes the star that burns twice as bright, burns for half as long.