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The The Wonder of Willian

No Brazilian has played more Premier League games than Fulham’s sushi-loving Samba star — and he’s not done yet

By Sami Mokbel

THE afro shimmering through the crisp air is unmistakable. The shift inside his full-back towards the edge of the box is unstoppable. The arcing finish beyond the diving goalkeeper is glorious.

Willian, ladies and gentleman, is the introverted Brazilian who has been strutting his Samba style in England — but for a brief period back with boyhood club Corinthians — for a decade now.

Against Nottingham Forest last Wednesday, the 35-year-old became the first Brazilian to rack up 300 Premier League appearances.

One of the most potent attacking players in the modern era of English football. Breathless in full flow as he pounces on his full-back. Relentless in tracking back to help his own defence.

A head coach’s dream. But what’s his secret? Sushi. Willian is very particular about what he eats but put a spicy tuna roll in front of him and he’ll find it hard to resist.

Indeed, Willian takes his diet very seriously. He is a stickler for portion control and will never eat out of proportion. Minimal oil, no fried foods. Lean meats, green vegetables, low carbohydrates.

His regimented approach to nutrition has worked wonders: his shape has hardly altered since that day he arrived at Chelsea from Anzhi Makhachkala as a 25-yearold in 2013. It is that discipline that made him a mainstay of five Chelsea managers.

Of course, you can’t discuss Willian’s successes in England without acknowledging THAT collapsed move to Spurs. The story is well told, Willian — at the Tottenham training ground ready to sign — dashes across London to sign for Chelsea.

Why? Cynics will say it was the money: Chelsea were among the best payers at the time. But it wasn’t just about the finances. ‘Willian’s heart wanted to play Champions League football — and Chelsea were always the team

he followed,’ said a source. The rest is history. Two Premier Leagues, one FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League during his time at the Bridge.

A shy man, there were concerns how Willian might settle into the Chelsea dressing room that still included huge characters like John Terry and Frank Lampard.

But Jose Mourinho took a shining to Willian and played a key role in his settling-in period.

Willian naturally gravitated to his countrymen and grew close to David Luiz, Oscar and Ramires. But he also grew close to mighty Eden Hazard.

That clique spent much of their time off the pitch in each other’s company. Their children would play together at each other’s houses, they would take turns to host each other for dinner.

But really Willian was liked by everyone at Chelsea. He was shy but humble. ‘He isn’t a guy who had enemies,’ said a Chelsea source. But behind the nice-guy persona is a streetwise and intelligent man.

He has a firm grasp of Russian and English in addition to his native Portuguese. On the pitch he doesn’t suffer fools. He is maybe 5ft 9in but he isn’t a pushover. His body of work is proof of that.

His upbringing in Brazil is described as tough, and he had to grow quickly at Corinthians. He knows how to handle himself.

And his career in England hasn’t always been a bed of roses. His move to Arsenal from Chelsea in 2020 was heralded as a coup for the Gunners. Mikel Arteta, taking charge of his first full season, wanted to add winners to his squad. In a clandestine meeting in London Arteta liked what he saw in Willian. Equally, Willian liked what he saw of Arteta. In retrospect, it was the right player at the wrong time for Arsenal, who were going through a transitional period. The likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe were still at the club. Shkodran Mustafi too.

When he left to fulfil his dream of retiring to Corinthians just 12 months later, Willian hated the thought of people thinking his best days were behind him.

Upon returning to his homeland, Willian’s mind started to wander. He felt he could still cut it in England.

What’s more, he missed London. He’d dreamed of returning home to Brazil one day.

But having fulfilled that dream, he soon realised home was no longer in Brazil — it was back in England. In the big smoke. In the Premier League.

He joined Fulham in 2022 and remains a key figure for Marco Silva’s team.

How long for, however, remains to be seen. He could have joined a club in Saudi Arabia last summer but still felt he could compete at the highest level.

Moving forward, whether he is able to resist the lure of a huge payday again next year will be interesting to see.

He will have offers from Saudi, once more. But it is understood a number of MLS outfits are also monitoring his situation ahead of next season.

But if Willian does leave the Premier League, he will do so for a club who can compete for trophies.

We may well be seeing the last of Willian on these shores. We’ll miss him when he goes.





dmg media (UK)