Ed.note: Following a season where he was pretty much the only consistent performer at Chelsea and was deservedly named the club’s (and the fans’) Player of the Year, Willian has stepped back into a more supporting role this season, in part due to the tremendous loss he experienced with the passing of his mother in September. In a series of recent interviews, Willian has been reflecting on his career so far, from Brazil to Ukraine to England, working with the new man in charge, and dealing with and moving on from such a life-changing event.
Following a similar road taken by many of his fellow countrymen, Willian dedicated his early life to fulfilling the dream of becoming a professional footballer. Despite not having an affluent life, his parents did the utmost to support him on this path, which led him to join the youth ranks of Corinthians, one of the biggest teams in Brazil. From the São Paulo suburbs to the glitz and glamour of the big city, it was a journey with its fair share of difficulties.
"I've got many memories [from Brazil] but I don't even remember when I started. It's difficult when you start to play football. My boots were much worse; [the pitches] didn't even have grass. It was difficult."
Promoted to Corinthians' first team in 2006, it took Willian only one-and-a-half years to earn a big-money move to Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk. He was one of the first Brazilian players to make the switch from the hot climate of Brazil to the extremely cold lands of Eastern Europe. Just 19 at the time, Willian had the support of his family at his side.
"It was difficult [in Ukraine] because everything was changed. It was totally different. I am living in São Paulo and then I'm in Ukraine living in a small city called Donetsk. There's the weather, the language."
"I went there with my family. That helped a little bit and I ended up staying there for five-and-a-half years. It was important there that I had so many Brazilian players."
"There were guys like Fernandinho and Douglas Costa and they helped me a lot. It was difficult because it was very cold there. I think it was sometimes minus 20 or even minus 25 [degrees Celsius]."
Ed. note: Willian calling Donetsk, a metropolitan area of over two million people, a “small city” is one of the better illustrations I’ve seen of São Paulo’s absolutely enormous size.
After winning 11 trophies with Shakhtar, including a Europa League title, Willian moved to headline-making Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala in January 2013. Six months later, he was transfer listed along with the rest of the squad as billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov decided to change direction and cut the team's funding. That summer, Willian flew to London to join Tottenham Hotspur, but in a legendary change of heart, chose Chelsea at the eleventh hour. He must’ve seen the light.
With his combination of skill and graft, he didn't take long to become a regular in manager José Mourinho's starting line-ups, beating out many a challenger along the way for his position. And after a career-best 2015-16 season, he’s looking to improve even further.
"I was happy with my performances last season but it is difficult when the team doesn't go the same way. But I always try to do my best on the pitch. Last season I was good but this season I want to do much better."
"I have to improve and I think I can do it. Of course, this season the team is much better and playing with more confidence."
Engineering this drastic turnaround has been new head coach Antonio Conte, who’s completely changed not only the team’s tactics, but also their attitude and mentality in a surprisingly short amount of time.
Willian had flourished in the rigid 4-2-3-1 setup of Mourinho and Hiddink (either on the wing or in the center) but he’s also taken to the additional freedom in attack provided by Conte’s 3-4-3.
"We have changed it a little bit. There's more freedom. I have more freedom to play. I can move inside, I can go to the left and to the right and I think it's much better. The new formation helps players like me, helps Diego [Costa] and helps [Eden] Hazard in front. We can move around as we have that freedom."
But of course the whole system depends on the hard, intense work on the training ground.
"It's intense. [Antonio Conte] likes to work. We train hard. Sometimes it's two hours of intense training. We always have a plan going into the game and we have to trust in the plan. We've done that."
"The way we are training makes us more confident in the games too. We can run and put pressure on the opponents. And when you win game by game, this brings even more confidence."
"We have to keep it going. The target is to stay together and to play together. If we trust in our team-mates then we have a great chance to win the title this season."
And then it’s back to Europe, the ultimate objective.
"We have a whole week to train so there's more training. There's no rest. Sometimes he gives us one day. But we like the way we train and we trust the manager. But we miss the Champions League. To play Champions League is good and that's why we are working hard this season to get back."
-Willian; Source: Sky Sports
Despite Chelsea’s success on the pitch, the end of the year personally has not been wonderful to Willian. He lost his mother to cancer in October after a long battle, and saw his chances with the team diminish after the incident.
Slowly, things are returning to somewhat normal.
"It's been a difficult time for me. I lost my mum, and it has been very difficult emotionally. She was a very important person in my life and will always be important to me. After she died, I stayed in Brazil a week."
"Since I came back, slowly I have started to feel better and to feel I can play for the team again. Now I have to think only about the good things and to keep working and keep playing. That’s all I want to do."
-Willian; Source: London Evening Standard
At the end of the season, Willian will have completed his fourth year as a Chelsea player. Over the summer, he signed a brand new four-year deal, tying him to the club until 2020. He truly enjoys living in London and playing for Chelsea, and he hopes to stay at the Bridge for many years to come.
"I like to play for Chelsea and I like to live in London. My family like it as well so I hope I can stay here many years. I think the best moments of my career are coming up."
-Willian; Source: Sky Sports