Willian’s unorthodox voyage to football’s pinnacle

Willian’s unorthodox voyage to football’s pinnacle

For Chelsea, the 2015/16 season could best be described in one word as turbulent. What began as an optimistic Premier League title defence quickly descended into a tempestuous campaign, punctuated by in-fighting, accusations of betrayal, staff departures and disciplinary charges galore, eventually culminating in a tenth-place finish previously thought bewilderingly implausible before the season’s start.

Unable to weather the storm, Chelsea’s collapse saw their most successful manager José Mourinho spectacularly dismissed for a second time by the Chelsea chiefs and had all involved with the Blues pining for the season’s end as early as January; desperate for the chance to start anew in 2016.

That is, almost all involved with Chelsea were desperate to start anew. For one man at Stamford Bridge, the year had actually proved to be something of a coming of age, who’d have been forgiven for wishing the season would never end. That man being Willian Borges da Silva.

For the London club’s silver-lining, the season’s disastrous nature seemed only to bring the best out his very best. As his team’s once-reliable recruits faltered with remarkable regularity, the Brazilian’s form became truly inspired, as he turned in the most emphatic season of his career to date.

Notching 11 goals and ten assists in 49 games in all competitions, Willian secured for himself an end-of-season double, being named Chelsea’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year, certifying the midfielder’s ascent from unknown quantity to bonafide Premier League star.

Willian’s path to Premier League glory was hardly conventional but even when heading for the promised land one can surely be excused a little detour along the way.

On a warm winter evening in November 2006, Willian was granted his first professional appearance by then-Corinthians manager Émerson Leão, as his side hosted Fluminense. Having spent eight years steadily progressing through the youth ranks of the famous São Paulo club, Willian’s debut, aged just 18, shocked nobody, and neither did the relative ease with which he seemed to embrace the expectations of the Estádio do Pacaembu crowd, particularly given the weight of the number 10 emblazoned on his back.

Though the youngster was only deployed just once more before the season’s end, his introduction and promising contribution evidenced enough to provide the more juvenile Timão fans with a new hobby to pass the long hours between post-season and pre-season: squabbling over who deserved to call themselves Willian while emulating their heroes in the streets.

The following season began in May 2007, Corinthians hosting Juventude, with Willian included in the starting line-up on opening day. At the centre of the Corinthians attacking midfield was where he stayed for the majority of the season. But despite his growing influence in the squad – assists versus Santos and Flamengo and his first goals – Willian’s first full season fell far short of the heights he had allowed himself to dream of during the seasonal break. On the contrary, the 2007/08 season matched only the wildest fantasies of Corinthians’ greatest rivals.

On the back of a recent history of poor administration and a desperate immediate financial situation, Corinthians, in 2004, had signed a controversial deal with an international group of investors named Media Sports Investment (MSI) that in effect swapped a large portion of the club’s controlling rights for the promise of great investment in the club, with a view to satisfying its need for on-field success.

Their apocryphal agreement appeared to be paying dividends from the outset as MSI were able to broker deals that saw the likes of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano brought to São Paulo from Argentina’s most famous clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, and it was with these two star names forming the spine of the squad that Corinthians were crowned Brazilian champions little over a year later.

However, with little amicability to be found between the Corinthians management and MSI president Kia Joorabchian, the partnership ended almost as efficiently as it had begun, and as a result Tevez and Mascherano’s days in the south of Brazil were numbered. With funding pulled, their prized assets valued and stripped, so too were Corinthians days of competing at the summit of Brazilian football.

Though these events perhaps allowed Willian a faster transition into the Corinthians first team, there he found few of the stars he had watched from the sidelines over recent years and soon his side began to slip down the table.

In early December 2007, in their final fixture of the season, Corinthians fans prayed their team’s 1-1 draw with Grêmio would be enough to see them to safety. But a 2-1 win over Internacional for relegation rivals Goiás, a game that famously included a penalty requiring three takes, certified their fate. Corinthians were relegated to Brazil’s second tier for the first time in their distinguished history.

Their immense legion of supporters, already adorned in black, mourned as though they had witnessed the final breath of their one true love. To many they had.

The enticement of European football simply irresistible, particularly given Corinthians new temporary home in the Brasileirão Série B, Willian soon journeyed east. Though unlike so many of his compatriots, Willian opted not to join the stream of Brazilians migrating to Europe’s traditional big leagues in search of immediate stardom.

In lieu of the allure of England, Spain, Italy and France, the attraction that had coaxed to such acclaim the likes of Cafu, Kaká, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and so many others, instead, on 23 August 2007, Willian added his own name to a burgeoning crop of lesser-known Brazilians at Ukraine’s top club Shakhtar Donetsk.

With a squad dynamic typical of eastern Europe’s top hitters, on Willian Shakhtar spent around €14m to add another skilful Brazilian to their squad, to spearhead the attack of a team backed by imposing, stoic European defenders. Awaiting his arrival were compatriots Fernandinho, Ilsinho, Jádson, Brandão and Luiz Adriano.

Over the following six years Willian enjoyed a level of domestic domination utterly alien to most, and he wasn’t made to wait long for his first taste of silverware.

Just eight months after a half-hour cameo had allowed Willian a modest Shakhtar debut, against Chornomorets Odesa, an even shorter-lived appearance allowed the Brazilian the chance to be on the Metalist Stadium pitch when the curtain fell on the 2007/08 Ukrainian Cup final.

His own personal peripherality on the day irrelevant, a tumultuous 2-0 win over rivals Dynamo Kyiv, in a game that saw almost as many red cards as shots on target – shots just edging it six to five – had secured for Willian and his teammates a domestic double. The two trophies, secured less than two weeks apart, were Willian’s first in professional football but far from his last.

As his prestige in Ukraine grew so too did the need for a larger trophy cabinet in the Borges da Silva household. Though his club could only settle for second place in the following league campaign, they were able to add to their season-opening Ukrainian Super Cup victory with success in the UEFA Cup.

Having succumbed to a third-place finish behind Barcelona and Sporting CP in the Champions League group stage, Shakhtar dropped into the UEFA Cup; a far more realistic, though still unlikely, target for the team in orange and black.

However the odds soon began to favour the Ukrainian side as after disposing of Tottenham, CSKA Moscow, Marseille and domestic rivals Dynamo Kyiv en route, Shakhtar found themselves in a final against Werder Bremen from which they eventually emerged deservedly victorious. Winning 2-1 in extra time, with all three goals scored by compatriots of Willian, his team claimed their first-ever major European trophy.

The next three years saw Shakhtar return to their predatory ways, reinstating their position at the top of the Ukrainian food chain. Their success on the continent in 2009 proved to be an anomaly, as no sequel to their first fruitful European adventure followed, but at home Shakhtar’s dominance proved insurmountable once more as they claimed three consecutive league titles, back-to-back Ukrainian Cup wins in the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons, as well as a further two Ukrainian Super Cup wins to boot.

As Willian’s sixth season in Ukraine approached it was clear to see that the landscape of the Shakhtar squad had altered greatly when compared to the 2007 crop that had welcomed him, though there were no fewer Brazilians for Willian to play alongside. While Ilsinho, Jádson and Brandão had departed Donetsk in search of pastures new, Shakhtar had, in that time, invested in Brazilians Alex Teixeira, Douglas Costa and Dentinho to replace them.

In the summer transfer window of 2013, Shakhtar would go on to invest once more in South American talent, bringing Wellington Nem, Fred, Bernard and Fernando from the Brasileirão to the Ukrainian league to join fellow new recruits Maicon, Taison and Ismaily, who had been acquired the year before. By that point, however, Willian had made it clear that he wouldn’t be there to play alongside them.

Though Willian retained his place in the squad throughout the first half of the new season and performed admirably throughout, there was to be no reconciling. In January, Willian would be sold. His 37 goals and 63 assists in 221 games for Shakhtar provided more than enough ammunition to have managers across Europe firing messages to their chairmen in the hopes of securing the Brazilian’s services. Texts and emails and faxes bounced around western Europe with feverish ferocity.

As the days passed and the narrow stream of light squeezing through the open January transfer window thinned evermore, reports across Europe repeatedly told of firm interest from Chelsea and Tottenham, and London looked sure to become Willian’s next destination.

Then, on 31 January 2013, came the event that unified the football world, causing every man, woman and child to stand arm in arm and make in perfect unison one single-syllabled declaration of confusion. “Eh?”

With interest from the two London-based Premier League teams irrelevant, Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala went public with the announcement that Willian had become their latest purchase. Having signed a “long-term” contract, and bought for a fee of around €35m, far from moving west, Willian had moved further east. Almost a thousand kilometres further east.

Shocking though the transfer was, it is fair to say that it would’ve been immeasurably more so should the deal have taken place a little over two years before, as January 2011 just happened to herald the beginning of a brand new era at Anzhi, one overseen by the club’s new 100 per cent shareholder: Dagestani billionaire businessman, investor and politician Suleyman Kerimov.

Kerimov had wasted no time in flexing his financial muscle, signing off on plans for a new stadium within days of his takeover, as he sought to put into effect his vision for an overhaul of his hometown club. This ambitious project included a reported $200m outlay put aside to improve just the club’s infrastructure alone.

Though quite possibly the most expensive – in terms of initial transfer fee – Willian was hardly Anzhi’s first major on-field investment, and upon his arrival in January 2013 the Brazilian was welcomed by the club’s experienced manager Guus Hiddink and given his training instructions alongside marquee signings Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o, as well as the likes of Moubarak Boussoufa, Christopher Samba, Balázs Dzsudzsák, Yuri Zhirkov and Lassana Diarra, all of whom had conspired to leave a tidy €100m-shaped void in Kerimov’s bank balance.

Willian’s role in Kerimov’s grand investment plan was no different to the others: he was to help put Anzhi Makhachkala on the map and aid in their rise to the top of the Russian Premier League. But for Willian, the great Russian dream died faster than for most. With barely more than a handful of appearances made for the Dagestani club he was placed on the transfer list, after just eight months in Russia. But this wasn’t anything personal; every one of his team-mates was listed too.

In an official statement made in August 2013, Anzhi said: “Having analysed the club’s recent sporting results, the decision has been taken to work on a new long-term strategy for the club,” which, to many, was simply a euphemism for “the club isn’t progressing quickly enough so I’m done with pouring my money into it”, and almost overnight the club’s budget was slashed by two-thirds. A second brutal philosophy change for all at Anzhi to adjust to.

In actuality, the reason for Kerimov’s drastic u-turn wasn’t common knowledge and this led to a great deal of speculation.

As told by Russian writer Vladislav Ryabov, “Hypotheses varied: some said Kerimov was struggling with his health, which prevented him from running the club, while others assumed he was disappointed with the fact his team had not yet won the title despite his vast sums of investment.” He went on, “according to another theory, Kerimov was at odds with the region’s current head, and they had different views on how Anzhi should develop. Most believably, a decline in his personal wealth prompted change.”

Whatever its true cause, whether prompted by reasons personal, business, or a mixture of the two, the plug had been pulled nonetheless and there was no place at Anzhi for their once-revered recruits.

In opting for Anzhi, Willian had, for the second time, postponed a sojourn on western soil in favour of assisting an eastern European team in their ambitious assault on the continent. But with his future in Russia no longer in his own hands, and with Kerimov’s house of cards at Anzhi now flatter than the surf on the Caspian Sea, Willian sought solace in another transfer abroad.

With only eight months having passed since their last window of opportunity to sign the Brazilian, the Premier League’s big boys once again climbed over each other in attempt to sign Willian, this time with Liverpool and Manchester United joining the London clubs in the chase.

With Tottenham’s manager André Villas-Boas and chairman Daniel Levy collaborating on a deal to seduce the samba midfielder, the hot pursuit seemed to have been all but won on 21 August when Willian was flown to the English capital on a flight paid by the Spurs owner and put through a routine medical at their training ground.

However, time remained for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to make a personal call to his contemporary at Anzhi, and fellow Russian oligarch, Suleyman Kerimov, in order to persuade him of Chelsea’s suitability, as well as proposing to pay a couple extra million pounds above Tottenham’s offer. Did his call work? On 28 August Chelsea confirmed the £30m signing of Willian on a five-year contract.

Incensed by the conduct of their rivals, Spurs complained publicly about Chelsea’s hijacking of their deal to sign Willian, claiming that the Blues had moved in to sign him not because they wished to have him but just so that Tottenham could not, a measure to prevent the strengthening of their closest rivals for the coveted fourth-place Premier League position. Needless to say, their protestations fell on deaf ears in west London.

Regardless of the inspiration behind their expenditure, Chelsea had their man and Willian joined his new teammates in time for the impending 2013/14 Premier League season. Willian was forced to wait for his Premier League bow as his first three Chelsea appearances came in cup competitions; two in the Champions League, versus FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest, and a start against lower league opposition Swindon Town in the formerly named Capital One Cup.

Willian had been able to grab himself an assist in the nine minutes he was afforded against Steaua – a smart pull-back to the edge of the area cooly finished by Frank Lampard to cap the side’s 4-0 victory – but fans hadn’t quite been shown why exactly the Chelsea hierarchy had moved to hastily to spend £30m on him.

Then came another nine-minute cameo, this time constituting a Premier League debut, away to Norwich. Ever eager to make his own impact on the game, Willian joined Eto’o on a late surge forward. When Eto’o had his pocket picked by the Norwich backline the ball rolled into a yard of space which Willian soon strode into, beating the full-back to the ball and sending it curling into the top far corner of the net. The three points guaranteed for his team, a debut goal in the bag for the Brazilian. From here Willian pushed on well.

As the season wore on Willian was able to force his way into the Chelsea line-up; impressive given the embarrassment of riches available to the Chelsea manager across the midfield. However, his influence wasn’t enough to prevent a rare baron season for José Mourinho and his Chelsea men. They settled for third place in the league and reached no further than the semi-finals in any of their cup competitions.

The following season the Blues returned to winning ways, waltzing to the Premier League title eventually finishing eight points clear of nearest rivals Manchester City. The FA Cup and Champions League both proved a step too far, though they were able to add another Football League Cup trophy to their haul, defeating Tottenham 2-0 in the final at Wembley.

Willian proved instrumental to Chelsea’s success, certifying his position as the team’s dominant right midfielder, appearing in all but five of Chelsea’s 54 games in all competitions. With just four goals and five assists from the wing, in an age where the game’s greats notch a half-century of goals in any given season, the stats did little to communicate just how well he performed throughout his team’s title-winning season. Still, though, the best was yet to come, for Willian at least.

While the unbelievable events of the 2015/16 Premier League season that followed quite rightly stole the attention of every stupefied spectator and held their wide-eyed gaze firmly at the table’s summit where, come the end of May, Leicester City of all teams sat, anybody willing to let their eyes wander down to its midpoint would have been (not quite equally) shocked to find Chelsea languishing in tenth.

Quite how the reigning Premier League champions managed to finish slap bang in the middle of the table, given most people’s touting of their upcoming title defence, is still a mystery to most. Reliving the events through news reports or match highlights really brings us no closer to attaining a sole cause for the Blues’ implausible implosion.

Nonetheless, for Willian, in his third season in west London, their calamitous campaign remarkably allowed him to soar higher than he ever had before.

The year before had seen Eden Hazard assume a leading role in the thrilling Chelsea biopic, with Diego Costa, for a change, playing the story’s supporting role. Week after week the two charged forth, taking points by force if required to – sometimes literally in the latter’s case – leaving the rest of the league reeling. By some distance Chelsea’s primary means of scoring: the pair scored or assisted 60 goals between them, the Belgian responsible for 35 and the Spaniard 25.

But the following season saw them relinquish their form, disempowered, like werewolves devoid of a full moon. The buck had to fall on another of Chelsea’s players though rather than simply being inherited the responsibility was snatched by Willian.

On paper the tally of his direct contribution never quite challenged Hazard or Costa’s total from the preceding year, nor did they challenge the numbers he himself had hit at Shakhtar, but the differences between the Premier Leagues of England and Ukraine needn’t be described in detail, and for any onlooker there was no denying Willian’s emergence as Chelsea’s central creator.

As the foundations of the club’s season fell around him, Willian stood taller with every passing week, his emboldening presence in the Premier League harder to ignore with each of his dazzling displays, dutifully contributing to both attack and defence.

Luck had played its part in Willian’s rise to prominence. While there was perhaps nothing lucky about his team-mates’ newfound on-field impotence, from a Chelsea perspective, Willian’s first three goals of the season all shared a common theme: long-range, curling free-kicks that found their way to the net, seemingly unintentionally. Lucky crosses, to be honest.

But these flashes of fortuity further cemented Willian’s role as Chelsea’s resident free-kick specialist and the Brazilian embraced this responsibility. Soon, as so many of his compatriots had before him, Willian was finding the net with not fortune but finesse. After Southampton, Newcastle and Maccabi Tel Aviv all found themselves on the wrong end of Willian’s more serendipitous efforts, Porto, Dynamo Kyiv and Maccabi Tel Aviv, once again, were treated to his more expertly dispatched dead-ball endeavours. So too were many more Premier League defences during open play.

Ultimately, though honourable, Willian’s contribution was far from enough to prevent Chelsea’s worst league finish for two decades. No thrilling against-the-odds domestic comeback or unlikely trophy win gives Willian’s finest year to date a tangible silver-lining upon which Chelsea fans can look back upon fondly. The year was simply the worst defence of a title in the Premier League’s 24-year history.

Still, while in December the contract of Mourinho was ceased prematurely, at the end of the season Chelsea eagerly extended Willian’s by a further four years, desperate to ensure that his peak years are spent playing in front of a sea of blue fans. What’s more, the contract was likely a thank you to the Brazilian for his year’s contribution. Who knows how much worse the season could have ended for Chelsea had he not performed as he did.

From afar, the tapestry of Willian’s career to date appears as a patchwork of peculiar events and circumstances in a fascinating collection of cities. From the dodgy dealings of Corinthians and MSI to the astonishingly short-lived ambitions at Anzhi, Willian’s willingness to embrace the unknown has seen him unexpectedly journey through his fair share of financial furores.

Given more than just a taste of success at Shakhtar, and later at Chelsea, Willian is evidently well versed in what it means to play as part of a triumphant team, though his tendency to talk not about the high life afforded to a star footballer but his humble beginnings and love of a family-oriented home life seem to suggest that Willian shan’t become just another of those that burn a bright but short flame in the spotlight.

What is certain is that fans of the Premier League will want to make the most of the Brazilian’s time here, before perhaps another exotic city far from home tempts Willian away to another extraordinary adventure once more.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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