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Exclusive: Gilberto Silva talks Arsenal, Declan Rice, mental health and more

Exclusive: Gilberto Silva talks Arsenal, Declan Rice, mental health and more
© Reuters
Sports Mole speaks to former Arsenal midfielder Gilberto Silva about the Gunners' title chances, their current midfield setup, mental health and more.

Forever held in high regard for the name adorned on the back of his jersey - whether he was strutting his stuff for Arsenal at Highbury or achieving international glory with Brazil - a word emblazoned on the front of Gilberto Silva's shirt piqued interest as we sat down for an eye-opening conversation. It was not the most cheery chat, but a necessary one, as the former tough-tackling midfielder now aims to tackle an even greater issue; the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide among elite sportspeople and those who do not bear the unenviable pressure of delivering for millions of expectant fans every week.

Proudly donning his "Striver" t-shirt - an app developed by himself and compatriot Roberto Carlos with the aim of becoming the world's first abuse-free social media platform - Gilberto's ambition to quash harmful stereotypes around what it means to be a man has seen the Premier League title winner link up with CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) as their latest high-profile ambassador.

A plethora of esteemed celebrities in and outside the world of sport have already pledged their support to help CALM deliver their paramount message; Declan Rice, Fran Kirby, Ricky Hatton and Joe Marler are among those welcoming Gilberto into the ambassadors' circle, which also includes the likes of comedian Romesh Ranganathan and musical artist Professor Green.

In the wake of significant physical and psychological devastation stemming from the coronavirus pandemic - which saw rates of anxiety and depression shoot up by 25% in the first year of lockdowns, according to figures from the World Health Organisation - the hourly headlines now frequently display the untold horror of war and an endless conveyor belt of stories surrounding the disconcerting climate and cost-of-living crises.

Such harrowing scenes may lead someone to believe that there is little hope for the future, which is where CALM endeavours to step in. With ONS figures showing that 125 people die from suicide - the biggest killer in men under 50 - each week in the UK, Gilberto is committed to ending the "men don't cry" cliche and encouraging everyone to extend an arm out for support.

"I heard about CALM a few years ago and started to understand the work they are doing in society. There are still some people who don't know exactly what they are doing. [I want] to give them the best support as I can but also to help them spread their message and what they're doing to help people," Gilberto told Sports Mole.

Gilberto Silva pictured during Brazil training in 2009© Reuters

"Especially men, we are a little bit concerned about who we ask for help and where we go for it. As long as we get the support we need when it's necessary. As men we grew up, watched some movies maybe believing we are superheroes, we cannot cry, believe that we are unbreakable. We just need to find a way to live peacefully, but when we need help just ask for it, and joining CALM is to help them deliver their good message. I'm very happy, so motivated to give my best in this project."

One man who knows all too well about fronting up in the face of adversity, Gilberto grew up in poverty in Brazil before his big break in football, which saw the 47-year-old retire with 12 major honours to his name from his exploits in the colours of Arsenal, Brazil, America Mineiro, Atletico Mineiro, Gremio and Panathinaikos.

An unsung hero of Arsene Wenger's iconic 4-4-2 system - at a time when Arsenal were public enemy number one in the Premier League - Gilberto's midfield partnership with Patrick Vieira was fundamental in propelling Arsenal to 2003-04 Premier League glory, allowing him to proudly don his "Invincibles" badge wherever he goes.

World Cup, Copa America and Confederations Cup supremacy was also ticked off Gilberto's checklist, and alongside his haul of individual and team accolades, the South American pocketed wages which the average Joe can only fantasise about. However, Gilberto does not equate money with happiness, as even the most talented athletes are no less vulnerable to psychological hardship.

Mental health has already been a hot-button topic in the embryonic stages of the 2023-24 Premier League season, with Tottenham Hotspur attacker Richarlison openly admitting to seeking help after cutting an inconsolable figure while playing for Brazil. Offering his full support to Richarlison, Spurs boss Ange Postecoglou insisted that no amount of zeros on a paycheck will make a player "immune from life itself".

In addition, Burnley recently revealed that striker Lyle Foster would be taking an indefinite break from football to receive treatment for a mental health issue, and Gilberto can understand how off-field traumas coupled with the burden of delivering on the pitch can push a seasoned professional to breaking point, especially with modern social media awash with vitriol.

Gilberto Silva pictured for Arsenal legends in September 2016© Reuters

"I think there is confusion about being successful, having money, with mental issues you may have. It can be from trauma or a problem you had in the past – somebody from your family or a relationship or big disappointment in life. Something you never have healed from," the 47-year-old added. "And then you have to deal with the pressure of the game, and the judgement of people when you don't do well. People get so impatient, they criticise you.

"Criticism is OK, it's part of if you play well or not. You can have your opinion – what I disagree with towards sportspeople is when they lose, make a mistake or don't do well, they can abused, especially on social media. This has crossed the line between what is criticism and what is abusive. This can start to generate anxiety in players, who are not going to talk to the media or look at their social media."

Of course, there was no TikTok, Instagram, Twitter - or X - during Gilberto's playing heyday; the Nokia 3210 and Motorola flip phones were the rage back then. While the absence of such platforms did not make sportspeople exempt from criticism in the papers, lax regulations on the most prominent social media websites allow 'fans' to bombard players with incessant abuse from the safety of their keyboard at any opportunity.

Too often we witness players deactivating their social media accounts after a poor display on the field, either as a pre-emptive measure or in the wake of despicable hate messages; Bukayo Saka conceded that he "instantly" knew of the abhorrent comments he, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford would be subjected to after missing from the spot in the Euro 2020 final. While urging social media platforms to do more to tackle online abuse from "miserable" people, Gilberto has implored his fellow professionals to block out the "stupid" comments and focus on the supporters who stick with their beloved team through thick and thin.

"Players, don't pay attention to social media. Don't listen to these stupid comments. These people who abuse you, are they a real fan of your club? If you put your attention on the bad comments, you forget the other good people who support you," Gilberto said. "Fans have to be the external support the players have when things does not go right. Instead, they come to their social media and trawl through a lot of abusive comments on them.

"This problem, it's not exactly social media in my opinion, but people's behaviour on social media. The clubs have to give support but the social media platforms also have to give support people who get abused, to tackle this big problem. You are miserable attacking somebody, you are not a better person attacking somebody because they didn't do well."

Arsenal's Declan Rice in action on August 2, 2023© Reuters

A fellow CALM ambassador who has been basking in adulation from the Emirates faithful for a few months now, former West Ham United skipper Rice - and the Arsenal powers-that-be - risked the wrath of Gooners if his record-breaking £105m Emirates arrival failed to bear fruit immediately. Living up to the pressure of a nine-figure price tag - and being the most expensive British footballer in history - has sometimes been a weight too heavy for Jack Grealish to carry amid his indifferent form at Manchester City, but Rice has arguably already justified Arsenal's bank-breaking decision.

Already establishing a reputation as one of the division's best ball-winners and a driving midfield force while in the claret colours of West Ham United, Rice has seamlessly slotted into the Arsenal XI - either as a number six or number eight - and came up with crucial goals against Manchester United and Chelsea before Tuesday's astounding last-gasp winner versus Luton Town to extend the Gunners' lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Mikel Arteta's lust to increase Rice's attacking output is paying major dividends - only Rodri (131) has made more passes into the final third than the England international's 112 in the Premier League this season, while he also ranks in the top 10 for progressive passes with 104. However, Rice has not abandoned the magnificent holding qualities which made him a major coup in the first place; 23 interceptions this season is only bettered by Fulham's Antonee Robinson with 38.

"I'm so happy to see Declan at Arsenal, the way he's been playing and I'm happy to see that he's also a CALM ambassador. I hope he keeps doing well, he's been amazing since he came to the club," Gilberto said of the £105m man. "He understands what Mikel wants, it was so easy for him to adapt, I hope he keeps that up, because consistency in his position is so important. He has been consistent since he arrived, which is important because he's been fit, he's made a huge difference and he improves other players. This position, you can sometimes be unseen on the field, I know how that is! But you are the position where you give the balance between the attacking players and the defenders. He knows how to manage himself, he's brilliant."

Despite Rice's frequent deployment as a number eight, Gilberto believes that the Englishman is still a six at heart and has even claimed that his physicality and tackling is superior to that of Rodri - many people's pick for the best holding midfielder in the world right now - but the Manchester City man's football intelligence is what sets him apart from the rest, explaining: "I still think he is a number six. Most of the teams who won a lot of trophies, they have a pillar in that position. City have Rodri – I think in terms of physicality and tackling, Declan is better than him, but Rodri is very intelligent."

Rice touching down at the Emirates Stadium coincided with the departure of Granit Xhaka, a former Arsenal skipper who unexpectedly rebuilt burned bridges with the fanbase after his infamous Crystal Palace outburst of 2019, as Arteta convinced the Swiss enforcer to continue in red and white before he departed on the back of his most productive Premier League season for the Gunners. Given licence to roam in the final third, Xhaka amassed seven goals and seven assists in the 2022-23 top-flight campaign and is now doing his utmost to help Bayer Leverkusen dethrone perennial Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich.

Granit Xhaka celebrates scoring for Arsenal on May 28, 2023© Reuters

While Gilberto welcomes the idea of testing Rice in the number eight role, he has warned Arteta to avoid experimenting with his midfield system in the wrong game lest he "kill" his strategy, adding: "Xhaka used to go more forward and score a few goals from outside the box as well. I think Declan is slightly different, which is why I define Declan more as a number six, but I think Mikel is pushing him to learn some other skills that are going to help him a lot.

"One of the important aspects of every manager is understanding how to use your players from game to game, depending on the opponents you have. You can try to move Declan a little bit forward to see how he adapts, but you have to find the right game to use him, otherwise you can burn the player, you can give him a tough experience if he doesn't adapt well, which will kill your strategy. I think he has the ability for that [number eight] and how well he's going to adapt."

Adaptation has been the name of the game for Rice's fellow summer arrival Kai Havertz, who has alternated between a number of attacking positions since bursting onto the scene with Xhaka's current club Leverkusen. Shining as a playmaker in Germany, the 24-year-old would often be positioned as the focal point of Chelsea's attack with mixed results, netting the winning goal in the 2021 Champions League final while also achieving a best Premier League tally of eight strikes in 2021-22.

Arsenal made themselves the prime target for ridicule when they willingly shelled out £65m to bring Havertz to the club, and the critics assumed that they were proven correct during the German's first few starts in a Gunners jersey, where he exuded little confidence both in and outside the penalty area, but Arteta saw a midfield vision for the unsettled 24-year-old. There is an argument to be had that Xhaka, at his best, was irreplaceable, but owing to his exceptional movement and late runs into the box, Havertz now has three goals under his belt from his last four games.

The ex-Chelsea man is not only finding his feet at Arsenal, but also his smile. After scoring his first Gunners goal from the penalty spot against Bournemouth, Havertz almost seemed embarrassed to celebrate as his teammates mobbed him, but he immediately clenched his fist and let out a battle cry to the travelling Arsenal fans when scoring his side's third at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night. Gilberto accepts that Rice has found his Emirates adaptation much more straightforward, but he has no doubt in his mind that Havertz will follow suit amid his recent progression.

"It's been tough for him, but he's coped with it. He's working hard, which is important, as long as you work hard people will appreciate what you do on the field," Gilberto said of Havertz. "Mikel is trying to find how he can fit best, at the end of the day you have to adhere to what the manager wants. Sometimes it's difficult, I understand that, he's working hard and he's having all the support from Mikel, the club and the teammates.

"I think the fans have to support him as well and give him time. Good players, they adapt. They find a way, sometimes not very fast, some adapt well like Declan, because Arsenal needed a player like him. For Kai, he's going to get there. He's a good player, he just needs to be resilient and the confidence that he can do what he is able to do."

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta reacts on December 2, 2023© Reuters

In between Gilberto's and Rice's exploits as the Gunners' midfield screen, Arteta himself would take on an all-action engine room role for the North London titans, playing exactly 150 competitive matches for the club. Fast forward to 2023, and the 41-year-old - who has barely aged a day since calling time on his playing career - has now overseen more than 200 games at the Arsenal helm, and a 58% win rate at the double-century mark was superior to any of his predecessors.

Even the phenom that is Wenger only won 56% of his first 200 games - albeit while suffering 14 fewer defeats - and since assuming control of the Arsenal reins, Arteta has taken the club from mid-table mediocrity to genuine title contenders, even if the final few weeks of the 2022-23 season were best consigned to the back of Gooners' minds. Whether inexperience or William Saliba's injury was to blame, Arsenal spent 248 days at the top only to collect a silver medal, setting a new unwanted Premier League record in the process.

Hailing Arteta's work alongside Edu - recently named the best European sporting director at the Golden Boy awards - Gilberto has credited the duo with restoring Arsenal to their previous fearsome status, and simply being "a little bit better" than last season could see the Gunners hoist the Premier League trophy aloft in the springtime sunshine.

When asked if Arteta could leave a similar legacy to Wenger, Gilberto added: "I hope so! He's done well, it's not been easy for him to build up what he has right now. When he arrived, nobody expected him to be appointed as Arsenal coach, maybe in the future but not the time he was appointed. But he arrived, he got the support from the club, and his partnership with Edu has been so important.

"Step by step, they started to build up what they want from the team. They could not give him what he wanted immediately, he needed to build up a new culture, what he believes Arsenal need, and now we can see a result. They are doing well, it would be brilliant if this season, they win the Premier League. They were very close last season, of course it's frustrating, but they found out how to get there.

"They discovered the path, just do a little bit better from what they do last season. They're in a good position at the moment but it's important to keep consistent. People start to see that Arsenal are back, we have to respect them. It seems like players lost respect for Arsenal players, but now, it's totally different. They are there, and people look at them in a different way."

Gilberto is right. Arsenal are back. The Gunners will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Invincibles season in 2024, and while there will be no White Hart Lane euphoria this time around, Arteta's young guns have every reason to believe that they can mark that momentous occasion with another long-awaited slice of stardom.

Former professional footballer Gilberto Silva is the newest ambassador for suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). CALM stands united against suicide and as part of his signing, Silva will help raise awareness of rising suicide rates in the UK, which sees 125 lives lost to suicide each week. 1 in 5 people in the UK will experience suicidal thoughts and CALM is there every day to help anyone who's struggling see that things can change. To find out more about CALM, services or for support or advice, visit thecalmzone.net.

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Tables header RHS
TeamPWDLFAGDPTS
1Liverpool26186263253860
2Manchester CityMan City25175358263256
3Arsenal25174458223655
4Aston Villa25154652331949
5Tottenham HotspurSpurs25145652381447
6Manchester UnitedMan Utd2514293534144
7Brighton & Hove AlbionBrighton2510874840838
8Newcastle UnitedNewcastle251141053411237
9West Ham UnitedWest Ham2510693644-836
10Chelsea25105104241135
11Wolverhampton WanderersWolves25105103940-135
12Fulham2585123441-729
13Bournemouth2477103346-1328
14Brentford2574143544-925
15Crystal Palace2567122844-1625
16Nottingham ForestNott'm Forest2566133244-1224
17Everton2586112733-620
18Luton TownLuton2555153551-1620
19Burnley2534182555-3013
20Sheffield UnitedSheff Utd2534182265-4313

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