Shortly after Thiago Silva arrived from Paris Saint-Germain, a senior member of the club overheard Chelsea talking excitedly about signing a “real adult”.
Silva, 37, is the oldest member of the senior team, so it’s natural to set an example. If Chelsea want to finish one of the most challenging seasons in history at the highest level by lifting the FA Cup at Wembley, the center-back must play an integral role.
This is a responsibility he has been accustomed to for most of his professional life. It can be said that there is no load like playing for Brazil. He has done this 105 times and has captained both World Cups, so trying to stop Liverpool’s attack shouldn’t stop him.
In any case, when Chelsea fans vote for the best player of the season, Silva will be one of the main rivals due to the stability of his game. It’s a remarkable achievement for him to play in such a standard in the most physically demanding leagues of his age.
But not surprisingly, one of the people who has known him since adolescence.
“What did he do to win the Brazilian Cup with Flumines in 2007 and still compete at the highest level 15 years later? It’s not for ordinary people.”
Michael Simony first met Silva in his teens. He was the head of Fluminense’s health department, and from an early age, he became intimately acquainted with what kind of person he was and how determined he was to maintain his best physical condition.
“Thiago has always been very humble, smart and a great athlete,” Simoni told Athletic magazine. “In the medical department, we were very easy to work with and help him. He was very professional. He took his job very seriously.
“There are a lot of kids in Brazil who dream of playing football,” he said. Most of them are poor or from the region. It’s very difficult to get into a professional team like Fluminense. But we saw his dream come true.
“She saw her body from the beginning. He was always a family man and didn’t go to parties. Yes, there were times when he went out with his family or parents, but he didn’t have a party. He’s like he was at Chelsea, just like he was at Flumines, but he’s a few years older. “
Simoni saw Silva at the lowest level in 2006, both physically and mentally. After studying at Fluminense’s academy, Silva started playing professionally for RS Futebol and then for Juventus. He played very well in the last season, so Porto recruited him at the age of 20 for more than 2 million pounds. After a few months in reserve, he was loaned out to Dynamo Moscow to play in the first team.
This step was a disaster because of his own fault. He didn’t know it, but Silva had been showing signs of TB for six months. Shortly after his arrival in Russia, he was diagnosed and his condition worsened and he had to be hospitalized.
“I was hospitalized for six months,” Silva told Gazzetta dello Sport’s Sport Week in 2011. “The doctors told me to get up and walk, but I couldn’t do it. The disease was also contagious, so I was isolated and could only play computer games and access the Internet. Sometimes a doctor would come and give me injections 3-4 times a day, plus 10-15 The doctors said that if another two weeks had passed (before the treatment), I would not have been able to recover. I was about to die. ”
He returned to Brazil to regain his life and his passion for football. At one point, he thought about quitting his job, but his mother, Angela, left him. Fortunately, his successful coach at Juventus, Ivo Wortmann, was now the manager of Fluminense and gave him the opportunity to impress.
Silva understood this and paid tribute to his protection, earning him the nickname “Oh Monster” (Monster). Simoni will no doubt notice a change in the mentality of the young man who left a few years ago.
“Of course he was a little scared of what happened,” Simony said. “Coming back to Brazil for a few years was very important in his career. Sometimes young players leave too early. Some young players need to feel something bad in order to mature and face something bigger. Clinically fine, but psychologically a few more. He really needed to be with us for a year.
“When you have a crisis situation you’re always going to have a negative trend, but he was surrounded by fans, friends and family. Maybe the experience gave him more resilience, but determination to succeed? He had that before. Of course, facing something as big as that can make you stronger. I’m sure it gave him more power, more appreciation to be back on the pitch. When he was back on the field, he’d have been thinking, ‘God gave me this chance, I have to take it’.
“I remember we had a big match with Sao Paulo coming up and he suffered a bad muscle injury a few weeks before. He couldn’t even walk and had to use crutches. He was dedicated to come back as soon as possible, getting treatment and working on his recovery every day, all day. He ended up playing and helped us win the game. That’s Thiago.
“I think he can play on at this level until he’s 40. He is 37 now and the way he treats himself, he won’t decline fast. It is a reasonable target for him. It delights me to hear Chelsea fans sing his name and appreciate him as much as we do.”
It was at Porto where Silva was given another reminder of how cruel football can be. A year after losing the Champions League final with Paris Saint-Germain, the Brazilian was given a second chance to lift the European Cup with Chelsea in 2021.
This was an opportunity for redemption, perhaps his last to claim one of world football’s biggest prizes. But he lasted only 39 minutes of the final against Manchester City due to a groin injury and had to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.
Silva was crushed. For a brief period, he sat on the sidelines with a towel over his head, clearly emotional. But club personnel noticed how soon enough, Silva had put the heartbreak to one side, was up on his feet cheering and shouting encouragement or instructions to his team-mates.
This attitude is why he has become so beloved in such a short time at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea went on to win the game and held a big party at a venue in the city afterwards. But those who attended don’t remember Silva trying to take centre stage or dominate proceedings. He was very much in the periphery, just savouring the moment with his family.
The respect for Silva is clear. As Reece James said: “Everyone can see what he brings whenever he sets foot on the pitch. He is quality. He’s a good professional and a good person — he wouldn’t be playing at 37 years old at the highest level if he wasn’t. He’s a great person, a great leader and a great footballer.
“Does he set the tone for playing out of defence? It helps a lot and his experience helps a lot. He’s been around in the game a long time and has played many good games — and probably many bad games as well. And that all helps.”
When Chelsea signed Silva after his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expired in 2020, it didn’t earn universal praise. Coming to the Premier League in your mid-thirties, having grown accustomed to dominating fixtures on a regular basis in Ligue 1, raised some doubts over whether it would work. Making a sloppy mistake on his debut against West Brom did little to ease those concerns.
There were a number of good displays under his first Chelsea coach Frank Lampard, but it was the arrival of Thomas Tuchel in January 2021 which really made everything click.
Tim Vickery, a journalist who has covered South American football for the likes of the BBC since 1994, says: “The best thing that could have happened to him was Tuchel taking over. Obviously, they know and trust each other from their time together at PSG.
“Chelsea have got a lot more out of him than many expected. I remember people talking about his age and having played in France. It wasn’t very respectful.
“With Tuchel identifying he wasn’t as quick as he used to be, he cleverly put Silva in the middle of a back three and then used the pace of Antonio Rudiger next to him to offer some protection. It has given Silva a new lease of life.”
But Silva has played a big part in getting some kind of second wind. Those who follow him on Instagram will know he has installed exercise equipment at his house in Surrey to help stay in shape away from the training ground. However, it is not the only extra work he does. It is commonplace for the staff to tell the squad they have the day off only for him to reply, “No, I’m coming in” and he will do a light drill on his own, go in the pool or have an ice bath.
Inevitably, how he conducts himself, especially given he’s playing so well at 37, is closely monitored by the younger men in the dressing room. Seeing him still excel provides hope they can prolong careers well into their 30s too.
He has taken English lessons, but not enough to be confident to talk extensively. Non-coaching staff occasionally use Google Translate to ensure the right message is conveyed. And yet, there is no language barrier with his team-mates on the pitch. It helps that Silva can speak French, Portuguese and Italian. But a simple gesture, command or a short bark in English works just as efficiently.
Tuchel told Trevoh Chalobah last summer that he’d be better off being around someone like Silva for a season than going away on loan again. And so it’s proved. Chalobah said as much recently, saying: “When I came to Chelsea I was a striker at eight or nine years old. But then I got moved to centre-back and I always used to look at Thiago as one of my top centre-backs to watch on YouTube. I wanted to implement elements of him into my game. Now to share a pitch with him is unreal. I’ve told him that I used to watch videos of him all the time and he says to keep going. I hope to get to his level.”
The news that Silva had agreed to stay for a third season, by signing a 12-month extension in January, was welcomed by all Chelsea fans. Tuchel was certainly pushing for it. A measure of the esteem the German has for him is that he will talk and bounce ideas off the centre-half about football and tactics, sometimes even during games.
Securing the contract looks an even better bit of business now with Rudiger agreeing to join Real Madrid, plus the possibility of Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta leaving for Barcelona. Also, if both parties had left it until the end of the season to make a decision, negotiations wouldn’t have been able to take place because of owner Roman Abramovich being sanctioned in March and the takeover taking a while to finalise.
“Every decision you do, you are convinced is a good decision no matter when you do it,” Tuchel said when asked about the situation by The Athletic this month. “Nobody could see this coming, when you are sanctioned and cannot act on the transfer market and cannot act with our players so of course we are happy (to have kept Silva).
“We wanted to do it. We did it in the moment where it was not done not because a sanction was coming. It was done because we were convinced this is the most important. We had a reason, the player wants to stay, he sees his role, we see his influence.
“It will be a huge challenge for Thiago also (next season). We are aware he is not in the beginning of his career. It will be a huge challenge to keep the level up. If it stays like this, it is a good decision.”
It helps that his family are so settled, despite the inconsistent weather he was warned about. Sons Iago and Isago are training with the academy. Wife Belle Silva, the most vocal member of the household, provides mainly upbeat posts on social media — unless someone has criticised her husband’s performance on the field that is. You will be hard-pressed to see a picture of him living the high life in London though. Just like in his youth, he prefers to keep a low profile and spends a lot of time at home rather than at nightspots.
He regularly watches academy games — he was among the group of senior players who supported the under-23s as they beat Tottenham to stay in Premier League 2 Division One. Unsurprisingly, Tuchel was nearby.
In December, Thiago revealed how he rates Tuchel along with current Brazil coach Tite as the best he’s ever played under. Having that trust and personal relationship is vital.
“I just hope to give back some of what they have given to me,” he told the club’s 5th Stand app. “Right now, I’m living this amazing moment in my career. It’s just an honour to play for them and I hope I continue to repay them.
“They [Tuchel and Tite] are just two great guys and I find it very easy to speak about their human side. In my career, I’ve had great managers, but they’re really at the very top.
“It’s so special for me, at 37 years of age, to still be playing at the highest level. There are two that have made and continue to make that possible for me and that’s Tuchel here at Chelsea and Tite, the coach of the Brazilian national team.
“First of all, Tuchel is an excellent coach. Tactically, technically, and on the mental side, he is first-rate — but the other thing about him is how he is as a human being. He really just is an incredible guy. If I didn’t have ambitions and dreams then there’s no way that I’d be where I am here at Chelsea.”