Ryan Baldi’s book Next Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind seeks to shine a light on why some of the game’s outstanding talents never quite live up to their potential, why talent and desire alone often aren’t enough to ‘make it’, and what happens when the stars don’t align for these young men.
Fifteen such players – some long retired, some still playing – have shared their stories in Next Next Big Thing, each detailing their own unique path to unfulfillment, and exposing the many different factors – such as injuries, relationships with coaching staff, personal problems, timing and plain luck – that can affect a young footballer’s development.
This is an extract from the chapter on Fábio da Silva, a gifted Brazilian full-back who joined Manchester United aged 18, alongside identical twin brother Rafael. Here, Fábio details the competing emotions given rise by watching his brother establish himself in the Old Trafford first team in a way he himself was never able to, despite being considered the more talented of the pair.
We also learn, through his own insights and contributions from former United coach Rene Meulensteen, how Fábio was a victim of timing, while the twins’ arrival at United couldn’t have been more opportune and timely for Rafael.
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In 2008, two teenage brothers from Petrópolis – a mountain town an hour outside Rio de Janeiro – signed for United, hailing from a location so far flung from Manchester that even their wildest dreams could not have pictured them under the glare of the Old Trafford floodlights. Fábio and Rafael da Silva, identical twins aged 18 – so alike, indeed, that manager Sir Alex Ferguson could only tell the pair apart by the fact Fábio wore a wedding ring – became the first pair of brothers from outside the UK to represent the club.
Although identical by appearance, their first-team prospects at Old Trafford proved to be very different. Rafael, a right-back, found himself immediately a contender to assume a position ageing club captain Gary Neville was poised to vacate – between the start of the 2007-08 season until his eventual retirement in 2011, the long-time United No.2 made just 36 Premier League appearances. Left-back Fábio, however, faced the ultimately insurmountable task of supplanting a prime Patrice Evra, arguably the best left-back in the world at the time. And Fábio’s hopes of doing so were hampered by a shoulder injury that would require surgery accompanying his move to Manchester, robbing him of the chance to make the kind of first impression his brother made.
In the end, Fábio would depart Old Trafford in August 2013, with just 56 first-team appearances under his belt, first signing with Cardiff City, then Middlesbrough in England’s second tier; Rafael was a long-time mainstay of the United back four and racked up 169 appearances for the club before joining Lyon in 2015. The two brothers’ diverging fortunes with the Red Devils exposes a rarely considered dynamic: one twin brother watching the other fulfil their dual dream, while his own prospects fade, gives rise to a conflicting and confusing set of emotions.
“Me and my brother have a relationship like no one realises; we are so close together,” Fábio begins, prefacing his explanation of how he fought to prevent envy from becoming a bedfellow of the pride he felt for his sibling. “Of course, I am so happy for everything that is happening to him. I’m not playing regularly but I’m still very happy for him”
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We knew that, at 18 years old, coming to Man United, not speaking the language, it’s never easy. We were 18 but we left home when we were 11; we were mature for that age.”
What made Fábio’s predicament doubly hard to reconcile with was the fact that, before they joined United, he was regarded as the brighter prospect of the two. Having started his footballing life as a striker in Fluminense’s youth ranks, he retained an eye for goal even after being redeployed at left-back, scoring ten times in 13 appearances for Brazil’s under-17 side, a team he captained. “I’m not going to lie, I lost confidence a bit,” Fábio resumes, maintaining a fixed gaze as we sit in an empty press room at Middlesbrough’s training ground. “When we came over, everyone spoke about me: “Oh, Fabio is the good one from them both.” I had been the captain, scoring goals. Everyone was saying, “This boy, he is going to better than the other one.”
“It’s never easy, even when it’s your brother. I dealt with that and I tried my best, but it wasn’t easy to replace Patrice at that time. It was in and out. I had some confidence. I reached the national team. But I had some bad moments, no confidence. But,” he concludes, philosophically, “that’s football. That’s life.”
Although they tended to play on opposite sides of the defence, Fábio, being right-footed, was also a selection consideration for right-back, meaning he was occasionally in direct competition with Rafael. A particularly significant instance of this came during the 2010/11 season, when a purple patch toward the back on of the campaign saw Fábio start six of United’s final ten league games ahead of Rafael at right-back. Had they been competitive growing up? “Always,” asserts Fábio, but this time was different: now they were competing with one another for a starting place in the Champions League final, at Wembley, against the great Barcelona team of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Fábio got the nod; Rafael didn’t even make the bench.
“It was different, to be honest with you, competing like that. [Rafael] had been on the bench two years earlier, for the Champions League final in Rome. I think he wanted to play so much in that final [in 2011].
“To see that frustration…Of course, he was happy for me to play, but for it to actually come from you [that he missed out]…” It was bitter-sweet. “Yeah. Because it’s your dream too, but to see him like that, it’s sad. But the other side: I’m over the moon. I’m going to play in the final of the Champions League. I dreamed of that when I was ten years old. Even five years old. To play in that final. That was the best Barcelona team ever.”
Facing a difficult transition, and despite Fábio being already married, the Da Silvas lived together for the entirety of their time at United, even when Rafael was also married a few years after their arrival. The club set the Brazilian duo up with a house and an English tutor, but having each other, living side by side, made their assimilation to their new life ‘one hundred per cent’ easier, as Fábio sees it.
“It’s tough. People don’t realise how hard it is, because the culture is so completely different. If you grew up in Brazil and you only know Brazil, it’s completely different. When we arrived at United, in Manchester, we couldn’t speak one word of English – not even “water”. Like I said, we didn’t come from a poor family, but our schooling level wasn’t great, so we didn’t learn English. For us, it was hard, but we learned so much.”
Lessons were also gleaned from the failure of older brother Luiz Henrique, seven years the twins’ senior, to settle in Europe and make the most of his opportunity when signed by Italian side Brescia at 17. A precociously talented midfielder, Luiz, in the eyes of his younger brother, lacked the required focus and professionalism to forge a sustained career in Serie A.
“He came on his own,” Fábio recalls. “He came to Brescia. He was very young. I’m not meant to say but my brother is more talented than us. Actually, everyone said that in Brazil, from our city. But he came young. Me and [Rafael], we came to play football. My other brother had other things. [Luiz] is my brother but I’m here to tell the truth: my brother is not really focused on football. To be professional and to reach a high level, you have to be focused one hundred per cent on football.”
So, arriving in Manchester, Fábio and Rafael had learned how not to do things, courtesy of Luiz. And their older brother, who moved to England with them and trained with semi-professional sides Altrincham and Radcliffe Borough, encouraged them not to make the mistakes he made. “Oh, yeah. He pushed us to be professional. If you ask Rafael, he’d say the same thing.
“I’m not going to say we came from a very poor family, but you have a difficulty of life, living in Brazil. We didn’t have money. My dad and mama never let us starve – they worked very hard. To see what happened with my brother was actually very frustrating. You see some things you don’t want to see, so you want to do it for you, and for your family more. It frustrated my mum and dad to see that my older brother wasn’t professional.
“When he was at Brescia, the club were already talking about bringing us over. But my older brother didn’t want to stay there. We were ten or 11 years old. We were just joining Fluminense, and Brescia said, “If you’re going to stay here, bring your brothers as well for the academy.” But my brother was not focused. He was crying, homesick.”
When the Da Silva twins arrived in Manchester, owing to his remarkable scoring record at youth level with Brazil given his full-back position, Fábio was preceded by slightly more hype than Rafael, although both, while identical in appearance – so much so that Fábio was once booked for a foul Rafael had committed, in a League Cup tie against Barnsley – offered different strengths.
René Meulensteen was a first-team coach at United from 2007 to 2013, and he remembers his first impression of the pair: “They were slightly different. Fabio was more of a fluid footballer. They were both right-footed, but because I think Fábio was more of a talented player, he was capable of playing on the left as well.
“They had grown up in Brazil and been educated to play as wing-backs, rather than full-backs, which was a transition for them. Rafael was that sort of no-nonsense, quick, aggressive, tenacious defender, who still had qualities going forward; Fábio was more the sort of gentle type. Maybe gentle is not the right word, but more of a fluid footballer, who could play in different positions as well.”
The ‘fluid’ skills that Fábio possessed, along with his eye for goal, were honed further up the pitch, having begun his footballing life as a striker, before being moved back to join his brother in defence. “At Fluminense,” Fábio remembers, “when we were 11, my brother started to play right-back, because the coach there at the time said, “I think you’re a right-back.” But he kept me as a striker for maybe another year. So my brother moved to right-back, and after a year or maybe nine months, I go to left-back.
“In the beginning, I liked to score goals, so I thought it was going to be hard for me to score goals. But we did anything the coach said, whatever he thought was going to be good for us.”
This ability to follow instructions to the letter, having complete trust in – and deference to – their manager was a trait the Da Silvas shared, and one that was perhaps the most valued among their arsenal of attributes.
“If you speak with people [who have worked with me] that is one of the things they are going to say,” Fábio says. “That’s one of the best attributes of me and my brother. If a coach says something to us, we’re going to do exactly what he says. The coach normally likes that.”
Such tactical discipline was the driving factor behind Ferguson famously deploying the pair in midfield for an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, with eyebrows raised when the team-sheet showed Fábio on the left wing, Rafael right, and a central midfield pairing of youngster Darron Gibson and versatile defender John O’Shea. The Telegraph’s Jim White was present at Old Trafford that day and he recalls his surprise: “I said, “We’re doomed here.” [But] it was clear as soon as the game started there was a tactical reason they were there.”
Remember when Rafael + Fabio tore Arsenal apart on the wings in the FA Cup in a team with 7 defenders? Good times. pic.twitter.com/1ATqm7uYqf
— The Peoples Person (@PeoplesPerson_) August 3, 2015
That reason, as Meulensteen has detailed, was to cut off the supply line to playmaker Cesc Fàbregas by applying relentless pressure on the Arsenal full-backs, Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs; stop Fàbregas, the theory ran, and you stop Arsenal. United won 2-0, with Fábio scoring his second goal for the club with game’s opening goal, just two weeks after opening his account for United in a 4-0 Premier League win over Wigan Athletic.
There was an inevitable buzz surrounding United signing of two such highly regarded talents, not least because they hailed from Brazil, the motherland of exciting, attack-minded full-backs – Fábio names Roberto Carlos and Marcelo as his inspirations, the latter especially, whom he describes as “magic; so technical” and who was a teenager in the Fluminense first team when the Da Sivas were beginning to alert global scouts. But beyond any technical gifts, it was the Da Silva twins’ work ethic and unfaltering application that quickly saw them revered inside Old Trafford.
“You wouldn’t say they were the quickest,” SB Nation’s Andi Thomas reasons, “but they were quick, and basically they seemed very well put together and very resilient; if they got kicked, they would get back up; if something went wrong they would carry on at the same speed and try to fix it. I remember one of the earlier bits about them referring to them as terriers or whippets or some kind of particularly tenacious dog. There was that kind of thing about them: they were always very hard-working, very yappy, almost, in a complimentary way.
“It was exactly what you want from youth-team prospect. They were so obviously keen to get about the pitch and do what they were there to do. You wouldn’t confuse it with arrogance, or even necessarily a kind of overwhelming confidence; it was just a desire to be involved in the football that was going on around them. It was quite heart-warming.
“As a United fan, I felt like I desperately wanted them to succeed in a way I wasn’t too bothered about quite a lot of players who passed through United. And it helps that it’s quite a funny story to have two identical twins playing opposing sides of the pitch for United, and they’ve both got these kind of cherubic curls in their hair. There was one point where it looked like they were both going to play on the same wing and just overlap each other all the way down the pitch, which would have been quite a sight – “Is my TV broken?””
Five other sets of twins have featured together in the #PL
— Premier League (@premierleague) July 27, 2018
“When we were fifteen, we went to the first trial,” Fábio says, detailing he and his brother’s earliest Manchester movements. “My brother went first and straight away he trained with Ferguson and the first team – at 15! When Ferguson falls in love with someone, it’s just . . . and with my brother it was like this: “I want this boy and I want his brother here as well.” So I started to come over every three to six months.’
Factors out of their control disadvantaged the brothers in the infancy of their United careers, with a regime change at Fluminense complicating, and almost compromising, the deal, leaving the twins in limbo for six months. ‘From January 2008 to July 2008 was very tough, because we couldn’t play football. And then you are already six months without playing football, games or anything, [when starting at United], so we struggled a little bit.
‘In January we came to stay in the first team, but we were not training very well because we had no match-fitness. So we then trained a few days [with the first team] and a few days with the under-23s.”
By the time pre-season warm-up fixtures for the 2008/9 campaign came around, Rafael had regained sharpness and was raring to go, impressing on the field with the first team. Fábio, however, could only watch on, a shoulder injury which required surgery keeping him out for five months – “For me, it was a setback,” he confesses, before highlighting the biggest roadblock to his longevity at United, “and to have Patrice [Evra] in front of me as well…”
In 2008, France international Evra was arguably the best left-back in the world, a Champions League winner who would go on to accumulate 82 caps for his country and monopolise the left side of the United back line between 2006 and 2014. As undeniably gifted as Fábio was, displacing Evra was a practically unwinnable battle for the then-teenager, even without a shoulder injury. Rafael, by contrast, enjoyed a virtually clear pathway to regular first-team football. Long-time right-back and club captain Gary Neville was well into his thirties, battling the effects of age and injuries as his career wound down towards retirement in 2011.
“Patrice was so consistent,” Fábio says, confiding that the Frenchman was at once the perfect role model for the young Brazilian while also an insurmountable positional rival. “He was amazing. At that time, yes, I think he was the best left-back in the world. From there, I was in and out, in and out. But my brother was more consistent. He started to play every game.”
“Yes. Yes, that was it: Patrice Evra,” says Meulensteen, when I ask if the world-class French full-back’s presence was the main reason behind Fábio’s inability to truly establish himself at Old Trafford. “And there was no discussion about that, because Patrice was naturally left-footed, was a big character in the team, a big character in the dressing room. He was always fit; never injured, never suspended. He was a very reliable character that Ferguson could count on, week in, week out. For a young boy to break in in that position is very, very difficult.
“It was a bit unlucky for Fábio,” Meulensteen continues,” because at the beginning he got forced to play on the left-hand side, whereas naturally he was a right-footed player. I could also see different positions for Fábio. I could have also seen him as a tandem, with Rafael at right-back and Fábio right wing or right midfield, because Rafael could have bombed forward, Fábio could have played a bit more inside.
“But, again, [there was] competition in those positions: we had [Antonio] Valencia, we had Nani at the time, even Cristiano Ronaldo, so it was very hard. Those two young boys broke into one of the best teams United ever had; to then try and establish yourself is obviously very, very difficult.”
Meulensteen then goes on to give a peek behind the curtain at how any hopeful at United was assessed. “Every game you play is an exam, because you’re under the magnifying glass – 99.9% of the games are broadcast on TV, so there is no hiding place. Sometimes, if you are a young player, that can become a bit of a burden. Every position, you look at the player and ask: “Is this player making a difference, to enable Manchester United to win the Premier League or to get to the Champions League final?” If the answer is no, it’s simple: they’re not good enough.
“The difference is: to be able to succeed at the highest level, which is Man United, you have to have an unbelievable level of consistency in your game, to perform week in, week out, and most likely two times a week, at the very highest level.
“And then you get a cocktail, a combination of things: the quality that you need, but you need intelligence for the game – can you make the right decisions at the right times? Can you make the right decisions in high-profile games? Can you make the right decisions in pressure situations? What is your mental quality? To be able to relax after game and get your mind on to the next one. All those things come into it. That is different from the top level to any other level.”
If you’d like to read Fábio’s story in full, along with the stories of other lost wonderkids from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, Ajax, Inter MIlan and more, order your copy of Next Next Big Thing here.