Summer in the east. After a short break in June which felt almost as long as the frozen abyss of winter, football across eastern Europe is underway once more on green fields and under blue skies, half a continent and a whole world away from the frenzied din of a Bernabéu unveiling. And yet something is missing.
Although the orchestra turned up – and even tuned up – on time, one part of the stage is still empty. If not quite the conductor, nor even the second violin, then perhaps the strange, slightly frazzled percussionist with the crazed hair and outsized cymbals. It just isn’t the same without Willer Souza Oliveira.
We looked for him. Last seen intermittently wearing a FC Smarhon jersey, bleached blond barnet bouncing about on top of a 5”7 frame which looks much shorter, heading in the direction of the Campeonato Brasileiro Série B. After seven years of one of the most fascinating and geographically diverse eastern European footballing careers in recent history, northwest Belarus turned out to be his final stop.
In 2001, the 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder left his hometown side Itapipoca Esporte Clube for a shot at the big time with Independiente in Buenos Aires. However, a year spent in the shadow of Esteban Cambiasso, Gabriel Milito and a young Uruguayan striker named Diego Forlán convinced Willer that his future lay elsewhere. Dramatically elsewhere.
Anybody looking up ’elsewhere’ in an atlas should not be surprised to find it located in southern Russia, to the east of Chechnya and bounded by the murky Caspian Sea. Although Dagestan managed to avoid full-scale involvement in both the first and second Chechen wars, despite a series of cross-border incursions, the republic has nevertheless been ravaged by general lawlessness and a low-level Islamic insurgency since the late 1990s. In an entirely understandable move, Glasgow Rangers successfully petitioned UEFA to move a European tie against Dagestan’s top side, Anzhi Makhachkala, to a neutral venue following the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
How Willer and Anzhi ever found one another the following year will probably always remain a mystery. Amidst the dust and anarchy of Makhachkala – 2002 was the year in which scores died when a Russian military parade in Kaspiysk, 20 kilometres south of the capital, was targeted by bombers – Willer unpacked his bags and, for the first of 36 occasions, pulled on the fabled green jersey.
The political situation in the Anzhi dressing room at the time seemingly took inspiration from that outside. Coach after coach had turned the job down, to the extent that the club had exhausted the supply of Russian managers and were forced to turn to a Ukrainian, Myron Markevych (nowadays overseeing the remarkable rise of Metalist Kharkiv). Against the advice of friend and previous Anzhi coach Leonid Tkachenko, Markevych accepted the post and arrived in Makhachkala to discover a thoroughly poisonous atmosphere.
Midfielder Ruslan Agalarov and striker Budun Budonov had been unable to settle a dispute over which would hold the Anzhi captaincy. The dispute became increasingly bitter, with the squad soon irreparably divided along lines of loyalty. Performances on the field began to suffer, and the non-Russian-speaking Willer found himself marginalised by both sides. Markevych gave up and left, leaving the way open for the return of Dagestani football’s prodigal son.
But even the legendary Gadzhi Gazzaev, who had quit as Anzhi boss in 2001 for the J.League and Sanfrecce Hiroshima, was unable to quell the infighting – or the rapid decline on the pitch. Russian Cup finalists the previous year, a stricken Anzhi were relegated from the top flight in late 2002. And despite goals against both CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, Gazzaev had made it clear that Willer – whom he considered an unrepentant individualist – was on the way out.
Yet Willer somehow remained at Anzhi in the First Division for nearly another two years – longer than Gazzaev ultimately lasted on his comeback. Increasingly sporadic appearances for the first team led to a near-permanent switch to the reserves, and still Willer could find no way out. One inevitably wonders how he filled his time – what does a bleached blond Brazilian do in Makhachkala once reserve team training has finished for the day?
Finally, blessedly, an escape from Anzhi presented itself. In mid-2004 Willer secured a transfer to fellow First Division side Dynamo Bryansk, in the western Russian borderlands which – with one notable exception – were to become home for the next half-decade. And amidst the compact confines of the newly-refitted Dynamo Stadium, Willer at last became a star.
Eighteen months in the Anzhi reserves fell away as he roamed the midfield potholes, turning somersaults after every goal, fans constantly chanting his name. Possibly still dizzy from a particularly vigorous post-goal celebration, he married a local girl.
Willer’s year in Bryansk remains the highlight of his career. Although never entirely consistent, his performances nevertheless drew attention across the division. And then in 2005 came the news that Dynamo had received an offer for Willer from Luch-Energiya Vladivostok – also playing in the First Division, if barely in Russia. Supporters were up in arms over the transfer of their favourite to the Far East, although once word got out that Willer would almost triple his salary, with his transfer fee simultaneously rescuing Dynamo from a particularly perilous financial hole, their attitude notably softened.
6,737 kilometres from Bryansk, 15,517 from Itapipoca, 130 from the North Korean border. Despite this, Luch’s Dinamo Stadium was not entirely unfamiliar for Willer – he had previously played there for Anzhi at the start of the previous season, in a summary of his Dagestan career. Benched until the 60th minute, he was brought on for 22 ineffective minutes before being hauled off again. Yet with success in Bryansk under his belt, Willer looked in a position to make a better impression second time around.
Unfortunately, Willer did more than travel to the ends of the earth – he fell off when he got there. Vladivostok, the capital of the Russian Far East and a relative melting pot of cultures and pleasures, must have seemed like Rio at carnival time compared to Makhachkala and Bryansk. Willer became a permanent fixture in the city’s clubs and bars, and was regularly spotted taking long Sunday afternoon walks along the harbour, a girl on each arm. Considering that Luch, maintaining serious ambitions of promotion to the top flight, had imposed a particularly strict disciplinary regime, more discretion would probably have been advisable.
Unsurpisingly, Willer again soon found himself out of favour, even following Luch’s ultimately successful shot at promotion. He flitted in and out of the side, although he did start Luch’s opening Premier League home fixture in 2006 against Lokomotiv Moscow. In a telling reminder of just how far he was from anywhere, the match was attended by precisely four Lokomotiv fans – including three girls from the relative proximity of Blagoveshchensk.
Willer’s growing frustration finally got the better of him in a Russian Cup sixth round match that year against FC Rostov when, foreshadowing the act which would later get Nery Castillo thrown out of Shakhtar Donetsk (at least until the club remembered how much they’d paid for him), he seized the ball from regular penalty-taker Vladimir Kazakov following the award of a first-half spot kick – and shot straight at the goalkeeper.
That was that for Willer and Luch. The club loaned him out to FC Oryol, near-neighbours to Dynamo Bryansk and destined for relegation from the First Division, for the rest of 2006. Back west and ensconced in an apartment in the city centre, Willer seemed to take stock and re-focus on his game, scoring seven goals during his 22 games with the club.
However, he considered himself to be isolated in his efforts, reserving some particularly choice words for manager Anatoly Shelest, whom he believed to be incapable of any tactical insight beyond waving his arms around in the technical area. Willer claimed, prophetically as it turned out, that Shelest would find his level in the Second Division.
Warming to his theme, Willer then alleged that the Oryol players went unpaid for six months due to a ruse in which one of the chairman’s stooges would arrive in the dressing room before a game, clutching a large paper bag supposedly containing the players’ wages in cash. Nobody would be allowed to look inside the bag, but were told that after the game payment would be forthcoming. Naturally, the gentleman in question, along with his paper bag, would disappear long before. Quite how the players allowed themselves to be fooled by this for half a year is, of course, another question.
In the light of the fact that Oryol never paid the fees due to Luch for his services, Willer’s tales of financial high-jinks sound plausible. The six points they were deducted as a result would, in any case, have been insufficient to keep them up. Oryol went down, and Willer, having burnt his bridges with both clubs, finally decided to move on from Russia.
Sellers of hair-bleaching products in the small Lithuanian city of Marijampolé rejoiced as Willer completed his move to FK Suduva in early 2007. Dyed-up and fired-up, a penalty-chipping Willer scored ten goals and was named as one of the players of the season as Suduva stormed to a second-place finish behind Lithuania’s Galactic Empire, FBK Kaunas. For the first time in his career Willer also played European football, creating a goal and then being sent off against Northern Ireland’s Dungannon Swifts in August 2007.
But the adventure was drawing to a close. Lithuanian football remains the place where careers come to die – Willer’s team-mate, fellow Brazilian Otavio Braga, saw a better future in studying medicine at Kaunas University than continuing to eke out his days at Suduva. One by one, players left the club – markedly decreasing the population of Marijampolé as they did so – and on July 22nd, 2008 Willer finally gave in. Next and final stop – Belarus.
The strange sound audible at FC Smarhon’s home games is that of the bottom of the barrel being scraped. Promoted to the Belarussian Premier League about fifty years too late, Smarhon play the kind of football which probably sprouts hair every full moon. Unbelievably, they managed to finish eighth in 2008, with Willer playing twelve league games. His role in the side was in keeping with his side’s loose interpretation of the concept of the game, appearing on the right and left wings, in the centre midfield and even, in an away match against FC Gomel, as an out-and-out striker.
However, come the 2009 season and, in a reasonable reflection of their true abilities, Smarhon went bottom of the table on the first day and appear to have lofty ambitions of remaining there for the rest of the campaign. Well on the way to being confirmed as one of the worst teams in Belarussian football history, Willer left the club on May 16th for his homeland and Fortaleza Esporte Clube. Any argument with the decision would have to be an imaginative one – as of mid-July, Smarhon have a single win and a mere five points from thirteen games.
So after seven years and countless adventures, Willer Souza Oliveira has returned to Brazil – and eastern European football somehow feels the poorer for it. Yes, this is the story of a fairly mediocre player who played sporadically for some fairly mediocre teams – but in extraordinary places. Willer’s travels took him over 42,421 kilometres, which is more than the circumference of the Earth. And as long as Brazilians can dye their hair in Dagestan, kick footballs in Vladivostok and turn cartwheels in Marijampolé, anything seems possible. Perhaps what we love most about football is its power to suggest and to surprise.