WILLIAN: I can't ignore the poverty in Brazil

WILLIAN INTERVIEW: London is my home now but I cannot ignore the poverty of the favelas in Brazil – plus, why I’m so grateful Fulham gave me this big chance and my verdict on THAT crazy game at Old Trafford

  • Chelsea legend is a vocal supporter of Brazil’s Gerando Falcoes charity initiative
  • Founder Edu Lyra called him ‘one of the biggest symbols of the new generation’
  • Willian is using Premier League star power for good while enjoying life at Fulham 

Willian did not expect to be back in England so quickly. Not at Fulham. Not anywhere. When the 34-year-old left Arsenal for his boyhood club Corinthians in 2021 it felt as though he had completed a career circle.

He had made it in England, where he won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and League Cup in seven years with Chelsea, and it was time to give something back to the club that had made him.

Things don’t always work out in football, though. And after Willian’s opening season back in Brazil was characterised by up and down form and then, more significantly, an online hate campaign against his family, it was time to think again.

‘I am so happy to be back here,’ Willian smiles.

‘In England, in London and in the Premier League. This feels like my home and I will live here after I have retired. 

Willian has made London his home for now but his heart is still with his home country, Brazil

The winger has been impressing for Fulham in his unanticipated but enjoyable return to the UK

‘Fulham brought me back and I am very happy that they did.’

Willian loves his home country. So much so that he is one of several Brazilian footballers supporting the work of Sao Paolo entrepreneur Edu Lyra as he looks to improve the conditions of the millions of people living in slum conditions in the favelas.

His year at Corinthians has left its mark though. The social media threats against his family — which were never properly investigated by the authorities — saw him hiring security to accompany him, his wife Vanessa and their two children whenever they left the house.

‘I was really scared,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘In Brazil you never know what could happen. The world is a little bit crazy.

‘I left Brazil in 2007 when I was 18. I have lived most of my professional life outside of Brazil. So it’s difficult to deal with those situations. Maybe it’s normal for them but it’s not for me.

‘I am not saying bad things about Brazil. I am just explaining what happened. I love Brazil and its people but to live the life we want to live it’s better to be here.’

Willian did not grow up in a favela but he did grow up poor.

‘I knew that many of the boys I played with were going home to favelas where there was no water and no food on the table,’ he explains.

The goal of the Gerando Falcoes initiative supported by the player is ‘to place favela poverty in the museum’ 

‘It is a shame now to see people with so much money who don’t care about these situations in Brazil. They have an unbelievable life and don’t care about others or feel the pain. For me it’s a pleasure to help even in a small way.’

The number of favelas in Brazil doubled to around 13,000 between 2010 and 2019, providing home to more than 14 million people. Edu Lyra’s Gerando Falcoes (Raising Falcons) initiative doesn’t aim to rid Brazil of the favelas but to help lift their inhabitants out of poverty by teaching them life skills and working with local activists and support groups.

‘I was born in a shack in Sao Paolo and my father was arrested,’ Edu Lyra tells Sportsmail on a Zoom call from South America.

‘It was a tough life but my mother always told me that if I wanted to one day see the favela different I would have to do something to make it different.

‘I always wanted to do that for my community and now we have 6,000 favelas undergoing the transformation I dreamed of.

Gerando Falcoes founder Edu Lyra said that Willian is a ‘fundamental’ supporter of his work

The player’s national team-mate Phillippe Coutinho (right) is also involved with the initiative 

‘Having Willian with us is fundamental. He is one of the biggest symbols of the new generation. He is loved by the young people and the children in the favelas.’

On April 18 Willian will attend a fund-raising dinner in London along with other Brazilian footballers such as Philippe Coutinho, Fulham team-mate Andreas Pereira and Arsenal sporting director Edu. Many others have signed shirts.

‘It makes me feel proud,’ Willian explains. ‘I grew up not in a favela but I had a difficult time. I played with young players who really suffered a lot so I understand we have to help.

‘Every year that comes the same things happen in Brazil. The poverty is maybe worse. It makes me sad so we have to do something.’

Off the field Willian remains instantly recognisable. The hair, the huge smile.

‘If I’m out for dinner here or for a walk it’s nice because fans from Arsenal will say they are happy I am having a good spell now and I even see ones from Tottenham who say I wish I had signed for them before I joined Chelsea,’ he reveals.

‘The Fulham fans are great and then there are the Chelsea ones. They just shout out “Legend!”.’

Willian’s year at Arsenal was miserable and a three-year contract was mutually annulled after just one. He looked, in short, as though his time at the very top level was over. But his season at Fulham under Marco Silva has rejuvenated him. They face West Ham at home on Saturday and are a very respectable 10th in the league.  

‘Many people thought I was coming here just to chill and only play when I wanted to,’ he nods. ‘But I have proved them wrong. It’s been brilliant for me and I am really enjoying it.

‘I had some doubts. Fulham have in the past been up and down, they have struggled. I didn’t want to go to a club fighting down the table. But the first contact with Marco I was very impressed. I trusted him and what he told me.’

Fulham manager Marco Silva (R) was a guiding factor in Willian’s move back to west London

The 34-year-old is a regular starter for the side, registering three goals and three assists

Upon returning to Stamford Bridge in February, Willian received a warm welcome from fans

Fulham could have been anticipating an FA Cup semi-final by now. A goal up in a quarter-final at Manchester United last month, their world fell apart when Willian was penalised for a goal-line handball and sent off.

Silva followed him after insulting referee Chris Kavanagh before centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic also walked for shoving the official. United scored the penalty and went on to beat Fulham’s nine men 3-1.

‘That was just so hard as the game was in our control and I still can’t believe we lost it,’ says Willian, shaking his head.

‘We were much the better team. United are a huge club and it’s hard to play there. But we were the better team and could have scored maybe three goals.

‘But football is crazy and things can change just like this. I always say football is a sport where you can control the performance but not the result. For that United penalty I tried to intercept the ball but it went over me and I had to sprint back. Then Jadon Sancho was one-v-one so I had to sprint back to try to do something.

‘The ball came to my hand. I didn’t want to put my hand to the ball and I tried to say to the referee that my hand was close to my body. I knew it would be a penalty but hoped for a yellow. The red card came and that finished the game for us.’

Mitrovic faces an eight-match ban for pushing Kavanagh. The Serb, with 12 goals, is arguably Fulham’s most important player.

The Brazilian was dejected after being sent off for a handball in the FA Cup tie against United

Team-mate Aleksandar Mitrovic received a strong penalty for shoving referee Chris Kavanagh

‘I don’t think the ban is right because it was an emotional situation,’ says Willian. ‘He didn’t want to punch the referee or something like this. So maybe three games or four games, I don’t know. But eight games I think is too much.

‘He is OK but sad because he is going to miss a lot of games that are coming up.

‘He is so important for us. These games without him will be difficult. When we are under pressure and the opponent comes to press us and we can’t play short, we know Mitro is there to hold the ball.

‘Without him it will be difficult but we have Carlos Vinicius who is a strong one as well. We have players who can still do things to help us win football matches.’

Willian’s contribution to Fulham’s season has also been profound. He puts his enduring energy levels down to a 10pm bedtime routine and hopes to play for five more years.

‘Look at Thiago Silva at Chelsea,’ he smiles. ‘He is 38, yeah? Maybe in two years I will change position. Central midfield. Just stand and pass.’

His fondness for Chelsea remains. His children support the team now under the control for the second time of Willian’s old team-mate Frank Lampard.

‘He’s a great guy and was an unbelievable player, a legend for Chelsea,’ adds Willian.

‘I had a great time with him when he was there as a manager. He gave me freedom and confidence to play and I wish him all the best, you know. I want him to make a success there.’

For now, though, Willian’s eyes are focused on ensuring Fulham finish the season well. ‘We can take a European place and must dream,’ he says.

Frank Lampard coached Willian at Chelsea during his first spell at Stamford Bridge in 2019-20

The player and his future manager (centre) were team-mates in blue between 2013 and 2014

He will be at the gala dinner with Edu Lyra later this month and the last word lies with the man recently voted by the World Economic Forum as one of the young Brazilians most likely to change the world.

‘We want a systematic change about what the favelas are,’ Edu Lyra adds. ‘In one favela in Sao Paolo we reduced the number of children waiting for creches and nursery to zero and also reduced unemployment to less than five per cent.

‘But we can only do this if we have a big community behind us. Football in Brazil is like a religion. Having these players who are so important in Brazil is fundamental to raising awareness and fund-raising for the project.

‘Willian is a leader. When he gets involved everyone follows. He is an influencer.’ 

To learn more about the Gerando Falcoes initiative, visit gerandofalcoes.com

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