On the pavement outside a restaurant in Mayfair, a small but instantly recognisable Premier League footballer stops for socially distanced photographs with passers-by. Willian smiles a big, familiar smile.
‘I love London,’ he says. He means it, too. The Brazilian is 32 now and has been in England more than seven years. His twin daughters have grown up here and have London accents. ‘It’s amazing they talk like that,’ he adds.
Recently he took and passed the UK Citizenship test. It took him three attempts, despite weeks of revision. But now he has what he has wanted for a while, a British passport. ‘That passport is a key you couldn’t buy,’ he says. ‘In the future when I retire I will have the chance to live in London and I really want that.
Arsenal’s Willian says he loves living in London – which has been his home for seven years
The Brazilian winger recently passed the UK Citizenship test after taking three attempts
‘My wife Vanessa hasn’t done the test yet but she will. She is intelligent, a lawyer. Maybe she will do better than me! It was so hard, the questions about history.
‘What happened in 1705 and blah blah blah. I tell you…you would not have been able to answer some of those and you are English!’
Willian, seated at a corner table inside now, is chuckling. His English is good and he is able to convey the excitement of another recently accepted challenge.
For after seven seasons of Chelsea blue, Willian is playing in the red of Arsenal. He has even moved house from west London to north. Leaving Stamford Bridge was painful but it is done now. No regrets. ‘I had great years at Chelsea,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘But now it’s a different colour, a red colour, and it felt good from the start.
‘Arsenal have a great coach and a great chance to fight for titles. We can win the league. Maybe not this time but next time. I’m motivated to have more success.’
The reasons for Willian’s exit from Chelsea were simple. The midfielder asked for a three-year contract extension and was offered two.
‘It was difficult,’ he says. ‘They knew how much I wanted to stay. I wanted to be a legend for the club. It was strange. But Arsenal was different. Every day they called my agent and wanted to meet or talk. They really wanted me to go there.
‘That’s the difference. I see one club that made a lot of effort for me to go there, pushing a lot. And another who just said: ‘Two years or go’.
‘I was a little bit sad with that but I respected Chelsea’s policy. Now it’s a new club, a new challenge, a new experience, a new life. Now it’s time to work to try to win more titles.’
Willian said he signed for Arsenal after the club showed just how much they wanted him
The away dressing room at Old Trafford was bouncing last Sunday evening. Arsenal had won a League game at Manchester United for the first time in 14 years. Centre-half and club DJ Rob Holding had the music on and Willian began to feel he was at the start of another journey with potential.
In moving to Chelsea from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013, he journeyed across a continent. This time, it is just across town. But that familiar feeling — to play well and to impress — is back again.
‘That was a great victory at United and important for me to be part of as I know I have to impose my quality on the team. That victory was a big step,’ he says.
‘The squad is good with great, young talent but they also need experienced players who have won things. It is not easy or quick to change a mentality but we are on the way.’
A week previously had come evidence of what Willian refers to. With a chance to move into the top four of an unusually open Premier League, Arsenal lost at home to Leicester.
The Brazilian did not play in that game but nodded: ‘Clubs wanting to fight for titles can’t drop points like that when they are dominant. We need to win those games but we are on the way. I know we are. The next week we beat United. That tells you a lot.’
Willian sees potential at Arsenal. He blows out his cheeks when the impact of new midfield arrival Thomas Partey is mentioned. In young Englishmen Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah, he recognises burgeoning talent. ‘Bukayo has everything he needs,’ he says.
Willian believes he that can win the Premier League title under Gunners’ boss Mikel Arteta
In Arteta, meanwhile, he sees a coach of real standing. ‘It’s because of his ideas,’ he says. ‘The way he sees football is different. The structure, the way he talks, his advice. It’s unique. He will be one of the best I think.
‘He just wants me to be the same player I was at Chelsea. Take the ball and go one on one. Dribble, take shots. But with his ideas and instructions I can get better.’
Last season another of Chelsea’s Brazilians, Jorginho, described Willian as ‘like someone playing on a motorbike’. It was a pretty apt description of his direct bursts of running.
Willian works hard on his fitness — he has an oxygen chamber at home to aid his recovery — and is lucky to have been largely injury free. His greatest misfortune befell him with he was just two years old. ‘I broke my foot kicking a ball that was too heavy,’ he says.
At Arsenal’s training ground, he works hard daily on the free-kicks for which he is known. He takes 10 after training and scores ‘about five or six’ of them each time. It’s a decent return.
Still, though, his efforts are not enough to please everyone. ‘Every time I finish a game, I come off and look at my phone and go to WhatsApp,’ he laughs.
‘I see the messages. My dad, Vanessa and sometimes my daughters. They say: ‘You have to shoot more. Why do you go there? Why not go there? Go closer to goal’.
‘Sometimes my dad will say: ‘You have to take the ball here…don’t stay on the right’. It’s all meant in a good way, you know. They all want the best for me.’
Willian met Vanessa in a cafe in Sao Paulo. They were introduced by mutual friends. Love at first sight? ‘Yeh, maybe..’ he smiles.
As we talk she sits on another table. The girls — Valentina and Manuella — are at an after-school tennis lesson.
When he left Brazil for Donetsk at the age of 19, Willian took his parents with him. By the time he came to London, he had Vanessa by his side.
He says that family are the most important thing in his life. Once a week they make the hour-long journey with the children to pray at a church in Crystal Palace. Willian is an evangelical Christian and when his mother died from cancer four years ago, his family and his faith got him through. Struggling under Antonio Conte’s management during the 2016-17 season, unhappiness away from the field ate away at him.
‘It was very hard,’ he says. ‘Things were not good on the field but only my family and a few friends knew what was really happening.
The winger said he wasn’t ready to go back to Chelsea following the death of his mother
‘I told myself I could do it but (pointing to his head) up here I could not. My mum was in hospital in Brazil trying to fight cancer. I had to train every day but my mind was completely out.
‘When she died I went to Brazil and stayed less than one week before the club called me and said I had to go back. I wasn’t ready but I went back, no problem.
‘The players supported me every day, talked to me and made me feel good. Conte texted me when she died, saying good things.
‘I was only 28. The fans don’t know. If you are on the pitch they think you must be OK. But we are all human. The fans want you to perform well and if you don’t then it’s: ‘Ah, take him out and sell him. We don’t need him’. But family are always there. They are there in any situation. If you play good or play bad, they are there. That helped at that time.’
Willian won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and the Europa League during his seven years at Chelsea. Losing the semi-final of the Champions League in 2014 is his greatest regret. He is also not terribly proud of a tweet he sent about Conte after Chelsea won the FA Cup final in 2018.
Used often as a substitute that season, Willian had been given one minute off the bench that day and after flying home to Brazil decided to post a celebratory team photograph after first obscuring Conte’s face.
‘When I saw that picture of the whole team, something happened in my mind,’ he says, covering his eyes in mock shame.
‘I just don’t know what. I just knew that if he stayed at the club I would have to leave. It wasn’t possible to work with him again.
‘So I decided to do the picture. I didn’t expect it to go ‘bang’ everywhere after five minutes. But then everyone in Brazil was talking about it, and in England. I was thinking: ‘Why have I done this?’ but by then I couldn’t delete it. It was too late!
The 32-year-old is often given advice on his game by his father, wife and two daughters
‘Conte was actually a good coach. We won the title. But the way he managed the team was different. You have to know that I am not the same as Diego [Costa] or David [Luiz] and they are not the same as me.
‘Everyone has a different personality. With some you can go strong, others you can’t. He didn’t understand that.
‘It was hard for me as I would play well, score a goal and then be on the bench. I would come on, make an assist and then be back on the bench. That was hard. In the end one of us was always going to go.’
After that summer’s World Cup, Barcelona made an offer. ‘It was £50million, I think,’ he says. ‘A big offer. Four years. But Chelsea said no. I think if I forced it then it would have been a fight and I didn’t want that. So I was happy to stay.’
Jose Mourinho, his first Chelsea manager, also tried to take Willian to United. Again Chelsea said no.
The winger is still friends with his former manager and current Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho
Willian believes Arsenal can win a trophy this season, and admits an MLS move interests him
The two men still text, even though Mourinho now manages Arsenal’s north London rivals Tottenham.
‘We are friends, you know,’ he says. ‘He is doing a good job there. Inside the pitch I do my job and he does his. But outside the pitch we are friends.
‘I don’t think that should be a problem, to text and say ‘good luck’ or something. I think until now he is the best manager I have had. As everyone said, the ‘Special One’.’
Willian just laughs when asked whether Mourinho was in touch during in the summer. Tottenham were said to be interested.
For now, his attention is very much on the future. He believes Arsenal can win a trophy this season while in the long-term a move to America’s MLS interests him. Miami, maybe, or Los Angeles.
Ultimately, London will be the family home. All that revision is unlikely to go to waste. ‘I had the book, was on the computer and then the app on my phone,’ he laughs.
‘I was practising questions and reading, reading, reading. I did a language test first and that was OK. But the other one was like being at school.
‘The Life in the UK test, they called it. I still don’t really know how I did it.’
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