With the news at Edu looks set to join Arsenal in July as their Technical Director, let’s take a look back at one of Arsenal’s most under-rated and oft-forgotten players – Eduardo César Daude Gaspar.
When people talk of the Invincibles, the discussion typically centres on 11 players who are widely acknowledged as the first choice team, despite the modern adage that you need a squad to win anything.
The premise went that these 11 men, subject to the usual caveats of injury and suspension, would be selected by Arsène Wenger no matter the circumstances or the competition.
A crazy German ‘keeper in Lehmann, protected by a back four of Lauren, Toure, Campbell and Cole. A perfectly balanced midfield pair of Gilberto and Vieira, flanked by two goalscoring wingers in Ljungberg and Pires. And, of course, one of the greatest forward pairings ever seen: Arsenal’s record goalscorer Henry and a player he considered greater still in Bergkamp.
11 men who made 347 of the 418 possible starts in 2003-04.
In this context, it’s occasionally hard to think there is room for any other player to make 30 league appearances (and 48 in total) in that Invincible season, but that is Edu’s achievement. No one outside that perceived first XI played more games and only Ray Parlour had more starts (16 to Edu’s 13), yet the Brazilian is often a footnote in the history of that great side.
Not to Thierry Henry.
Speaking to GQ Magazine, the Frenchman was in no doubt about the value of his midfield teammate, stating simply: “You need to have an Edu.”
So why was the boy from Sao Paulo so integral, yet so underrated?
Four-and-a-half seasons, 127 appearances and 15 goals – the numbers don’t really tell the story of a talented and selfless footballer whose greatest gift was perhaps his ability to slide seamlessly into one of the most heralded Arsenal midfields of all-time.
Gilberto and Vieira were the undisputed picks in the centre of the park for much of Edu’s time in North London, but his versatility meant that he was able to replace either player with ease. An excellent passing game allied to an indefatigable work-rate formed the key elements that enabled the Brazilian to play both the nominal creator and destroyer roles as required.
Possibly his best goal came against Celta Vigo in the 2003-04 Champions League when, having already notched the opener in the scrappiest of fashions, Edu pounced on the ball following a number of ricochets. Feigning to shoot with his left foot, he dipped inside a hapless defender before whipping a curling shot into the top corner with his weaker right. The goalkeeper remained rooted to the spot. As with all his goals the celebration was ardent, cupping a hand to his ear to energise the away fans.
But it wasn’t always so easy for Eduardo Cesar Daude Gaspar, a man rarely to be found without a smile on his face.
Another Brazilian, Sylvinho, is perhaps more famous for passport troubles, but Edu’s arrival at Arsenal was also overshadowed by allegations of a counterfeit Portuguese passport. This was required to allow him to play in the Premier League as he was not yet a full international and caused his transfer to be delayed until the January transfer window of 2001.
It did, however, lead to one of the more creative player chants in recent years: “His name is short, he’s got a fake passport! Edu, Edu!”
His troubles didn’t end there though.
A 15 minute debut to forget, where he suffered an injury shortly after being substituted on, and an own goal in his second appearance contributed to a tough start to London life for a 22-year old Edu, as he also had to deal with his family being held at gunpoint and the death of his sister in a car accident.
A lesser character would have crumbled.
Instead, the cultured midfielder became the first Brazilian to win the Premier League title in 2001-02, and again in 2003-04, this time with Gilberto alongside him. This remarkable turnaround from such an inauspicious start was a sign of the resilience, determination and strength of character which served him so well during his spell at Highbury, as he played understudy to his more illustrious colleagues yet still remained poised and ready when called upon.
Perhaps it helped that he was particularly close to both Vieira and Gilberto, perhaps it made it all the harder, but he never lost his respect for those around him, and in turn, he was treated with the respect he deserved.
The beauty of Edu’s game was the ease with which he flicked between the modes of practical team player and skilful individual, one moment spreading play with a deft touch of his left foot or playing a simple lay-off for a colleague, the next dropping a shoulder and shimmying past a player with the ball apparently glued to his feet. Everything about his game was elegant, seemingly even when crunching into a tackle.
Intelligence shone through in his ability to adapt not only to the players around him but to the state of the game and the opposition. Given that he was only just 27 when he left Highbury, he played with maturity and experience far beyond his years, and when Vieira or Gilberto were absent, along with their complementary leadership styles, the younger Brazilian was able to pick up the mantle and stand tall in the middle of the park.
Over the intervening years the need to score first has taken on a mythical level of importance, but six of Edu’s fifteen goals came as the opening strikes of the match. Two further equalisers and the winner against Chelsea in 2003-04 underlined his habit of popping up with a goal just when Arsenal needed one. Indeed, just two of his strikes came in defeat, both put Arsenal back on level terms (albeit temporarily), and in one of the two games the Gunners were already down to ten men.
This was a man who would stand up to be counted when his team needed him most.
One particular game stands out, in the autumn of 2003.
Arsenal were in the throes of the title race at the top of the Premier League, but results in Europe had been rather less kind. Four fixtures down, with just four points to show from them, Arsenal were struggling to qualify from the group and travelled to face an Inter Milan team who had torn them apart earlier in the season at Highbury missing a raft of the perceived first team.
Vieira and Gilberto were among the absentees, but Edu picked up the baton in the centre of midfield with Ray Parlour alongside him, and completely dominated the game. The fourth goal on the night was the icing on the cake for our cultured Brazilian as Arsenal ran out 5-1 winners in a night that electrified the travelling fans and transmitted itself through the airwaves to all those sitting in front of their television sets at home.
Speaking to Amy Lawrence for her book Invincible, Edu described his impression of the game simply but perfectly: “Beautiful.”
In the modern game, it is not uncommon to see squad players rotated in for the cups or the supposedly easier Premier League fixtures, but 21 of Edu’s appearances came in the Champions League – hardly the sign of a bit-part player. And the player himself does not regard Arsenal as a fleeting moment in his well-travelled life – he still followed the club’s results and retained more than a passing interest in their success before Arsenal recently got in touch about the current vacancy.
Speaking to Lawrence, he was at pains to stress: “I always have Arsenal with me.”
As with so many of his generation at the club, it seems you can take the boy out of Arsenal, but you can’t take Arsenal out of the boy.
Nor can we take Edu out of Arsenal’s history.
His contribution to one of the club’s most successful periods cannot be understated, and along the way he was rewarded with seven domestic trophies.
The star players usually take the plaudits, but in the Invincibles side of 2003-04 every player was a star in their own right by dent of their achievement in going a full season unbeaten. Edu was a man willing to make the difference between a good squad and a great squad – whether slotting in and out as required or playing a step away from the spotlight to enhance his more celebrated colleagues, he was prepared to sacrifice his own star for the greater success of the team.
But that doesn’t change the fact that he was both an excellent footballer, and an excellent man too. Gilberto Silva credits his compatriot with helping him to settle in both London and Arsenal, even to the point of understanding how best to play with Vieira despite it being to his own potential detriment. But this generosity is a fundamental part of who Edu is, and it’s little surprise to those who know him well that he took on a more paternal role as director of football for his first love, Corinthians.
In many other Arsenal teams, the man from Sao Paulo would have been not only the first pick midfielder, but a player worshipped for his mix of silk and steel, his character and his leadership. As it is, he played in probably the greatest Premier League team in history and his name was not sung quite as loudly as it should have been.