By Chris Weir.
After 105 minutes of the 2005 FA Cup final , an exhausted Robert Pirès trudges towards the touchline. Arsène Wenger has one eye on the penalty shoot out, and wants to shore things up against a rampant United attack by bringing on a sub. He turns to Edu.
In those fifteen minutes, Edu Gaspar does what he’s always done, playing without fuss, passing and moving in midfield, conducting the play.
By the time Vieira slammed home the winning penalty, everybody knew that Edu was on his way out. Two disappointing contract offers had convinced him to go to Spain, with rumours that Barcelona, Real Madrid and Valencia were considering an approach. In the end it was Los Che who got their man.
It was an ending that did the club and the player a disservice. Whilst Vieira will rightly be considered as the star of the Invincibles midfield, his right and left hands were made in Brazil. Gilberto Silva was his usual partner, his positioning and defensive nous freeing the captain further forward. Edu would wait in the wings, a most able deputy for both, fitting seamlessly into the the role of playmaker and playbreaker when needed.
Grace is a word that comes to mind whenever Arsenal fans think of Edu, the unassuming Paulistano.
Grace in how he carried himself on the field. He had no pace to burn, nor did he need it. His balletic football brain helped him anticipate and evade most tacklers.
Grace in how he played the game. He was Brazilian, yes, but saw no utility in samba flair. The simple pass was his natural realm, his kingdom the sliderule ball to Pirès or the lofted wedge to Henry. His dance was the shuffle into space, creating a pocket to receive the ball before sending it on its way again. Pass, move, repeat.
Class is another word that comes to mind. He was never an automatic starter, but not once could he be seen sulking on the bench, or sullenly complaining of poor treatment. He accepted his place in the team, and his sometimes peripheral, yet always vital, role in the squad.
An example of the man. After winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil, Gilberto Silva arrived in North London, unable to speak much English and playing outside his country for the first time. Edu was quick to take his compatriot under his wing, despite being a direct competitor for his place in the starting eleven. Gilberto was effusive in his praise, telling Amy Lawrence in the brilliant book ‘Invincible‘;
‘Even though he’s younger than me he behaved like a big brother. He was fantastic to me, the way he helped me’.
It hasn’t always been easy for Edu. Shortly after signing from Sao Paulo for £6 million, he arrived in England only to be sent back home for having a forged passport. Not long after, his sister was tragically killed in a car accident. His life had gone from dream to disaster in a flash, and he admitted his head was ‘wrecked’.
After being granted an EU passport he brought his extended family with him to London, where they were supported and given time by his new club.
“What we all went through made me mentally much tougher. I had come to a new country with a new language and I had to make new friends” he admitted to the Evening Standard in 2001.
Edu’s class off the field was matched by his displays on it. For most Arsenal fans, the highlight was a frosty Milan evening in November 2003 against Inter. The Italians had outclassed Arsenal in the return fixture at Highbury a few months before, and the Gunners needed a win to secure passage to the next round of the Champions League.
Whilst two clinical goals saw Henry take the plaudits, Edu led a pack of non-regulars in delivering an audacious performance, helping Pascal Cygan and Ray Parlour give the Milanese a 5-1 pasting. As he whipped off his shirt in celebration after scoring the fourth goal, he slammed on the dividing glass between the fans and the pitch. This really was happening, he seemed to say. This really was real.
For all of his ability though, Edu is probably best remembered for what he represented to the club. Class, yes. Grace, indisputably.
Most of all, though, he represented quality. Having a player of his calibre on the bench was a luxury Arsenal could afford. Seeing him replace Patrick Vieira after 65 minutes never concerned the Highbury crowd. Likewise, coming on to replace Pirès in that FA Cup final, Gunners fans knew what they were getting – a reliable performer. It’s a shame the club didn’t realise what they were losing that summer, nor how long it would take them to replace it.
Edu’s time at Valencia was marred by injury, the Brazilian only managing fifty appearances in his four years at the Mestalla. His five year contract was terminated with one year to spare, and his fortunes didn’t change when he signed a short deal with Corinthians back home in Sao Paulo. Again, his contract was cancelled, this time after just four games in 2010. It was a disappointing finish to a career that had so often been frustrated by injury and bad timing.
Still – class and grace, graça e classe.
In Amy Lawrence’s aforementioned tome, Edu’s description as a man “much loved for his effortless friendliness” helps explain his appointment as Corinthians Director of Football in early 2011. At 34, he was helping manage Brazil’s richest football club, brokering Paulinho’s transfer to Tottenham Hotspur. A final gift to the Arsenal faithful, perhaps.
More recently, he helped facilitate Alexandre Pato’s January transfer to Chelsea in 2016. It seems a role well-suited to a footballer universally liked and respected, wherever he’s been.
Edu Gaspar should always be remembered for his skills on the pitch. He epitomised class and grace, and in doing so symbolised everything that made Arsenal Invincible. How they’d love to have him now.