Fabio da Silva isn’t a household name but he and twin brother Rafael are cult heroes among some sections of Man United fans. He arrived at Old Trafford at just 16 years old with Rafael and won a Premier League title there before fighting through the pain of relegation with QPR, Cardiff City and Middlesbrough.
He played in a Champions League final against Lionel Messi. He was mentored by United’s legendary coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, and, at Cardiff, by Man United’s current manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Now, he’s in France where he was a teammate to Emiliano Sala before the Argentine striker’s fatal flight to join Cardiff.
As he prepares for the rest of the season in Ligue 1, he sits with ESPN to reflect on the progression of his career.
“I’m shyer than my twin brother.”
This is how Fabio da Silva starts his ESPN interview at his home in Nantes, France’s sixth biggest city by the Atlantic. It’s the afternoon after Manchester United beat Paris Saint-Germain, a result that made Fabio smile. He’s due to play PSG in a few days, a game that would end up being postponed because of security issues and protests in France.
Fabio’s partner and daughters watch on as he speaks. “If I don’t like something, I will not come to your face and shout at you,” he says. “I will hold it to myself. My brother [Lyon full-back Rafael] is the opposite. He will shout at you if he doesn’t like something. Not being like that made my life a bit difficult when I arrived at Manchester United when we were 16.
“I was surrounded by these great stars and felt intimidated. My brother didn’t care. I also had an injury at the beginning and I didn’t develop maybe like everyone expected. I had flashes of good moments but not enough. I had injuries but I had six years at United, I won my first cap for Brazil and won the Premier League. I was not a failure and I learned so much.
How often do you speak to Rafael?
Every day, many times. We have arguments and fight really strongly, yet two minutes later we say good words to each other. We know we are not going to have a fight where we don’t speak.
I’m close to our other brother, Luiz, too. He was like a dad to us for many years. We benefitted from his mistakes when he tried to be a footballer, and we can be like a dad to him now.
Sir Alex Ferguson was worried that you and your brother didn’t stop playing football all summer on the pitch built at your house near Rio de Janeiro.
He was, and he told us, but we always came back fit. We were never fat; we always had the best body fat levels because we played every day at home. We never stopped. Our friends are so good at football. You don’t realise how high the standard is in a Brazilian five-a-side game with friends. Even my fat friends have so much talent.
You arrived in Manchester after being spotted in an international tournament in Hong Kong at 15 years old. What were your first impressions?
Some people were incredibly kind to us [Fabio and Rafael], like Darren Fletcher. He helped us a lot and we’re still friends. Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano [Ronaldo], who spoke Portuguese, were a big help. We didn’t know a single word of English. I’ve heard Cristiano called selfish but he gave us non-stop advice on and off the pitch.
When I made my debut against Tottenham, I played alongside him. Cristiano told me not to take risks in our half because he might not be able to get back to help me. ‘But when you get in the opponents’ half you can do whatever you like,’ he said. With Cristiano supporting me, I felt so positive. And that debut game came after being out for six months with a shoulder injury, but I picked up another injury in that game…
Anderson was another friend. Cristiano and Fletch were older, more serious. Anderson was more my age. We’d go to a Brazilian restaurant with Anderson and he offered to teach us English for free, which was nice of him but his own English was not the best. He did teach us lots of swear words in English.
Everyone loved Anderson; he has the biggest heart. Even now we have a group chat of former players and Anderson is in there, still writing in English and still using words only he understands.
English football is very different from Brazilian football…
In Brazil, I’d been captain of the national team at the U-17 level. I scored lots of goals for that team and I would dribble, because that’s what we did. Not in Manchester. Maybe I didn’t develop enough, but I was also in competition with Patrice Evra and he was always fit. He was helpful to me and we had a good relationship. He didn’t make it easy on me and he was honest. He even said ‘Fabio, I can give you a chance [to play] but imagine if you do well and I lose my place?’
Even without Patrice, I had too many injuries and that stopped me getting into the rhythm of playing every week.
You played in a Champions League final at 19 years old. How did you concentrate ahead of such a huge match?
I struggled to sleep the night before the game in the hotel and maybe got three hours. My life flashed before me. I’d watched these games as a child and now I was about to play for Manchester United against Barcelona at Wembley in the final of the Champions League.
Were you confident of beating them?
Well, that was the very best that Barcelona have been. They were good when they beat us in Rome; they were even better two years later. I was so focused in the dressing room before the game. The hairs stood up on my neck. Nemanja Vidic looked at me and said: ‘Play well, but calm down.’ He could see how motivated I was.
Barcelona scored first but it was 1-1 at halftime after Wayne [Rooney] scored a great goal. Then [Lionel] Messi scored, he’s not human. He was the difference but it’s hard to touch the ball when Barcelona pass it so well. We defended well and I always believed that we could break and score, but no.
It was difficult after the game not to be disappointed. You relive moments in the game in your mind, then finally, you accept that it was not meant to be.
Remember when you played together in midfield for Manchester United against Arsenal?
Of course! I scored, my brother set up a goal and we won. My best position was right-back but I played few games there. I became a left-back because my brother was a right-back, but I was better with my left foot than him!
How did you end up at Nantes?
I was happy to go to France. [Editor’s Note: Fabio spent four seasons in England after leaving Man United in 2014 before deciding to try Ligue 1.] Rafael was enjoying being at Lyon and I liked the idea of playing in a new country. I moved in 2016. My wife and kids like it here, the weather is better. Nantes is a beautiful city and Nantes is a big club. Only St Etienne and Marseille have won more league titles than Nantes. The Nantes fans are passionate, very noisy. I feel settled here.
How does Ligue 1 compare to the Premier League?
The Premier League is the best league in the world by a mile. The way they treat footballers, the organisation, the atmosphere.
But the atmosphere in French stadiums is much louder than in England.
It’s different. Here they sing all game long, they never stop. In France, it’s like Brazil. Fans sing so much that some fans don’t even watch the game.
How is it going as a player?
I pulled a hamstring in the first game of preseason and was out for one-and-a-half months. I always get injured when I join a new club… but after that things have gone well.
And they were going well for your forward, Emiliano Sala.
It’s hard to speak about this, but Emiliano asked me about Cardiff because I had been there. I told him that Cardiff City was a great club. Cardiff fans also told me to tell him about the club, which I did.
Neil Warnock came to watch Sala play when we beat Marseille 3-2. Sala played very well that day, scoring and setting up a goal. He was a fantastic guy, extremely professional and he scored lots of goals. We had a good relationship; it’s just so hard what happened.
He came back to say goodbye to his Nantes teammates.
[Nods] He didn’t need to come back because he had already said goodbye. It was not like he was coming back to collect his family. He came back because Cardiff had played at Newcastle and the players had two days off. Emiliano knew he had two days and wanted to say goodbye to the club where the fans loved him.
He’d been here for four years. He arrived as an unknown and became the main guy in the team. He wasn’t technically unbelievable but he worked so hard for the team, he fought for every ball, he never stopped running. Fans loved him.
Emiliano ate lunch with us on Monday and my last words to him were ‘If there’s anything I can help you with in Cardiff, please tell me because I know the club and the city.’ He nodded and said he would text me.
What happened next?
We came into training on Tuesday morning and Nico [Pallois], our centre-back, said to Anthony, who works at the club, during breakfast: ‘Just check what time Sala arrived in Cardiff because he never texted me back. He texted me when he was on the plane and he said he would text when he arrived.’ Nico wasn’t worried. We sat down for breakfast, the players have every meal together at Nantes.
Anthony came back and said: ‘Nico, come here.’ Then he said: ‘The plane is missing.’
Nico was destroyed. Then Anthony told everyone. People started to cry. When you hear that the plane is missing you fear — you know — that something terrible has happened. You want to believe something else, but you know. The coach [Vahid Halilhodzic] was very upset and the players went home. The preparation for the cup game stopped. The coach didn’t care if we lost points or got fined: he said we were not playing. The coach had cried in front of us when he said Sala was leaving — he was very close to him.
I went home and grabbed and hugged my family, my daughters.
The next game was postponed and the one after that was against Saint-Etienne at home. That night was so, so emotional. Everyone was crying before the game — everyone — including me. We played a football game in that environment, with fans singing Sala’s name again and again. I was sent off: the referees are stronger here in France.
What happened to Emiliano was tragic. When you’re a footballer, you see more of your teammates than you do of your family because you are always training and travelling. And one day your friend is here and the next he is not.
You’re 28 and playing in a top-five league. What happens next?
I miss Brazil; I’ve never played [professionally] there. My parents are getting older; I want to be close to them, but I feel I should also stay here a few years more. I like Nantes the club, the city, the fans, the people. My family are happy here, but I would like to play for Botafogo in Rio before I finish.
I could never play for Flamengo and nor could my brother. He was linked with them two months ago and said “no” straightaway. Flamengo are the most popular team in Brazil, but I’m Botafogo and that’s it.
When I was little, I never expected this. I saw my older brother try to be a professional footballer and fail. My brother was a better player than us, but he made mistakes, the bad agents, the lies, and we learned from them. That made us stronger as a family.
Out of every 10 children born in Brazil, nine want to be a footballer. I’ve had downs of course, but I was having them at a high level and they allowed me to learn so much. I played for Manchester United and I played in a Champions League final. And I played for Brazil, the dream of every young boy from my country.