When Rafael and Fabio da Silva were first unveiled at Manchester United Football Club, you couldn’t tell them apart. Indeed, the only way Sir Alex Ferguson could make out who was whom was because Fabio sported a wedding ring on his ring finger. On one occasion, Fabio received a booking for a foul his twin brother had committed!
When the duo first arrived in England, Fabio was presented with the number 20, Rafael the number 21: standard-issue squad numbers that you would assign to someone who was to feature in a team but not (not yet anyway) take centre stage.
That, however, was four years ago.
Since then, Rafael has moved up the Manchester United ranks, is currently in possession of the iconic number two shirt, worn in the past by legends such as Gary Neville – the man Rafael replaced at right back – and has represented Brazil at the Olympics.
On the other hand, Fabio has just swallowed the bitter pill of relegation with Queens Park Rangers, having temporarily moved there last season. Now back at United, he has seen his shirt go to Robin van Persie, who was last season the difference between United and the rest of the 19 teams in the Premier League, having now given the number 20 shirt cult status at the Theatre of Dreams.
Fabio is currently without a number. It is in a way symbolic of how the careers of the talented twins have taken off in contrasting directions.
From the top of their curly-haired hairdos to the bottom of their identically-sized feet, Rafael and Fabio da Silva are mirror images of each other in every aspect. In fact, when they were first discovered by former United scout Les Kershaw when playing in a youth tournament in Hong Kong, it was Fabio who was deemed the more talented of the two. On seeing them, Kershaw said:
“As United’s Academy manager at the time, I went over with our young players to take part,” he says regarding his time in the Orient. “While I was there I was asked by the tournament sponsors Nike to be part of a scouting team who watched other matches and assessed the best players so they could name a Most Valuable Player of the Tournament award at the end.
“I went to see Fluminense play and Rafael and Fabio stuck out a mile. I can’t take credit for picking them out because you didn’t have to be a super scout to realise they were something special. It was there for all to see. They were very, very talented.”
Rolling off the Fluminense production line which delivered players such as Thiago Silva and Marcelo, Fabio and Rafael were expected to achieve greatness and inherit Brazil’s famed fullback positions for years to come. But should Luis Felipe Scolari decide to announce his 23-man roster for next year’s World Cup now, few would disagree with me when I say that only Rafael would make the list.
Sad, but true.
On the basis of merit, Fabio deserved to represent his nation on world football’s biggest stage on home soil. Indeed, the only reason he shifted to left-back at Fluminense was because, even at that young age, he was extremely adept playing on both flanks, while his brother excelled when he was stationed on the right.
But Fabio’s recent lack of football in a Manchester United shirt is not of his own doing and is largely circumstantial.
While Rafael was cutting his teeth at right-back, Fabio faced competition from club captain Gary Neville and the versatile John O’Shea. Because of Neville’s decision to hang up his boots midway through United’s 2011 season and Irishman O’Shea’s services being required all over the park, Rafael was handed a clear path to nailing down a permanent position for himself at right-back.
Injuries to new arrivals Chris Smalling and Phil Jones (both of whom were also utilised in other defensive positions) meant he could continue to make the right-back berth his own.
In a team that has been constantly tinkered with at the back throughout Rafael’s time at Old Trafford, his place in the United rearguard was more or less guaranteed.
But Fabio’s route was a lot more complicated.
His competitive début for the Red Devils was delayed after he had to undergo surgery and that début (against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup) was to be ended prematurely: he’d picked up a calf strain in that game, further stunting his development as those who jostled for a starting position at left-back were put through the motions while the talented Brazilian recovered.
And while Fabio was on the treatment table, Rafael added more to his game. Dr. Zarshis Avari was attached to United when they recently travelled to Australia and having seen them in action, had much to say about them:
“Rafael last season was probably the best right back in the league, only behind Pablo Zabaleta. He was rash when he started, but always had an attacking flair, which he as kept, but added to it with defensive stability and better positioning and awareness.
“[But] if David Moyes had faith in him (Fabio), he wouldn’t be bidding for Leighton Baines. Defensively, he has the tendency to go missing sometimes, even though he attacks fairly well.”
Even with his progress blighted by injury, the raw talent he possessed was clear for all to see whenever he did feature for Manchester United. With questions being asked over the performances of Patrice Evra, and critics forgetting that the 2010-11 season had been played following a World Cup, Fabio was able to put together a string of games in the United back line. During the 2010-11 season, Fabio made 25 appearances in all competitions for United. Rafael made just three more.
But like Christopher Turk in Scrubs, much of Fabio’s career has involved learning by doing.
He was chosen ahead of his brother to play at right-back (yes, right-back) for Manchester United when they took on Barcelona in the final of the UEFA Champions League. Despite United losing that game 3-1, one of Fabio’s fondest memories would have surely been featuring for the Red Devils on the famed Wembley turf.
Having come so tantalisingly close and yet so mundanely far to tasting success at the very pinnacle of European football, Fabio has also ingested the experiences one faces at the other end of the spectrum, having witnessed first-hand the ignominy of relegation while turning out at Loftus Road.
The reason he went there was because of the presence of Evra, who had silenced his critics by once again delivering the consistent performances that had been widely expected from him since he overthrew Mikael Silvestre and Gabriel Heinze to make the left-back spot his. The acquisition of Alexander Buttner further meant Fabio’s chances of featuring for United would’ve been extremely slim.
Funnily enough, Fabio’s temporary switch to London was the first time he and his brother had been separated since they had made a name for themselves at Fluminense.
Speaking to the Independent, Fabio said, “We spoke about [splitting] when we were 12 years old. We would say: ‘One day we are going to split because we cannot be together for ever’. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know when.
“Now we have split, it’s better. When he and I play together we look at each other. When I make a mistake, he doesn’t lose confidence but he gets [diminished] a little bit, ” he added. “Now we understand each other more. We are different. He is there, I am here. When we are together, we discuss this. I say: when I play bad you don’t have to be unhappy”.
Rafael echoed the same sentiments. “It’s not strange but it’s different,” he told Manchester United TV. “We’re close and I was always together with him but it’s been good for us, just to become more mature. I used to ask him all the time if I needed something but now I need more of my own mind so I’ve grown more mature. It’s bad because I miss him but it’s good to learn more.”
It is, therefore, a split that has made both brothers better footballers. And while it may not look like it on the surface, it is Fabio who has benefited more. His experiences at QPR would have made him a tougher player, and would have instilled in him a greater understanding of the English game, which is why he chose Rangers in the first place.
He had on the table offers from Germany and Portugal, but was determined on winning back a starting berth at United and knew that a different perspective on English football would help him achieve just that.
With the World Cup just around the corner, Fabio will be sure to give it his all in training. Not that he didn’t before: just ask Harry Redknapp.
“I think he learned a lot but it was a difficult year at QPR,” Redknapp told the Manchester Evening News. “He was playing in a struggling team and it wasn’t the best for him really. It probably opened his eyes a bit.
“I’m sure he found it very different to what he’s been used to at Old Trafford. But it’s all part of growing up and I’m sure he will have learned from the experience.”
“He’s a good little player,” added Redknapp. “I think he’s still learning the game and he’s got his brother there so there’s going to be some competition between them two. It’ll be interesting to see how he does. I wish him well. He’s a smashing lad and a good little pro. I’m sure David (Moyes) will give him an opportunity next season, have a good look at him, and then make his mind up.”
Fabio’s talent was never in question. Neither was his willingness to work. That was evident every time he stepped out onto the pitch, whether it was for club or country. He returns to United a better player than he was when he left last summer.
That is why this season will likely see the coming of age of the Da Silva twins (often touted to be Brazil’s answer to Gary and Phil Neville) at Old Trafford. And that is also why, come next summer, both of them should be representing Brazil when the World Cup comes to their homeland.
Big Phil, don’t put out your squad just yet.