TFN editor Greg Johnson on Fabio Pereira da Silva the right-footed left-back at risk of fading away into his brother’s shadow…
Long before the sight of Marouane Fellaini and his infamous barnet in a Manchester United shirt inspired afro wigs in the stands, the curly mops of the da Silva twins led them to become the club’s first microphone-headed mascots-cum-players.
Having arrived fresh from captaining Brazil in the U-17 World Cup in 2007, Fabio da Silva was initially considered to be the more naturally talented brother; a right-footed, marauding left back who enjoyed terrorising defences and scoring goals when cutting inside onto his stronger foot.
United hadn’t snapped up the next Cafu or Roberto Carlos—that was a lineage for his sibling Rafael to chase—but a more unorthodox prospect half-jokingly referred to as Brazil’s answer to Philipp Lahm in more than one online discussion.
Fabio even pre-empted the German’s recent transformation into an occasional anchorman under Pep Guardiola, having started out as a defensive midfielder and featured in central midfield for his country at various youth levels.
Yet while Rafael has developed into arguably the best right-back in the Premier League, his identical twin has struggled to make a lasting impression at Old Trafford.
In many ways their two-tiered progression echoes the split careers of the club’s last highly rated sibling duo, the Neville brothers.
Some fans remain convinced that Phil Neville, as well as being the more versatile brother, was also the most gifted, while as a more conventional and combative right-back Gary, much like Rafael today, was able to make a greater impact as a first team regular.
It may be that Fabio, like Phil, will have to leave United in order to fulfil his potential as a top-flight footballer which would be a shame in the minds of those who dreamed of seeing both da Silvas boys dominate the flanks for years to come.
The evergreen Patrice Evra remains ever-present on the left however, while the purchase of Alexander Buttner last summer further complicated matters for the Brazilian. Having been sent out on-loan to the omnishambles that was Queens Park Rangers for the 2012/13 season he continues to be largely overlooked under new manager David Moyes.
Injuries have also played their part in checking Fabio’s progress, yet when fit and given the opportunity to play he has rarely struggled to impress.
His competitive debut against Tottenham in January 2009 drew plaudits for his attack-minded display from left-back, following on from his well-received first friendly appearance against Peterborough United a few months earlier in August.
Manchester United had “finally found out what they were missing” Today Online told their readers following that turn out against The Posh, yet it wasn’t until 2011 that Fabio made a real breakthrough under Sir Alex Ferguson.
While he had recorded a hat-trick for the reserves against Rochdale in 2009, the Brazilian had to wait February 2011 to score his first goal for the club in a 4-0 away mauling of Wigan Athletic. His first goal at Old Trafford followed soon after in a thrilling 2-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal with both Rafael and Fabio played higher up the pitch as wingers to dramatic effect against The Gunners.
He was later trusted over his brother as the club’s starting right-back against Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final, with Fabio’s less hasty and more calm and composed demeanour favoured against the clinical Catalans. Sadly, United were again crushed by Guardiola’s men 3-1 just two years after suffering a 2-0 loss in the 2009 final.
Somehow that game has become something of a high-water mark for Fabio, with the left-back’s somehow losing his forward momentum in the aftermath rather than capitalised upon his achievement.
Instead he had to move to QPR to make further headway and regular Premier League appearances, with his temporary displacement also offering him and his inseparable twin an opportunity to mature mentally apart. “It’s been a good experience. It’s made me grow up a lot. I’ve had to change and become more responsible. Those first few weeks were really tough – 22 years and we’d hardly spent any time away from each other,” Rafael told the press last year.
That sense of a growing self-sufficiency is thought to have been shared if not felt even more deeply by Fabio who spent the last season separated not only from his brother, but also the comfortably familiar routines of his parent club in the North West.
While Fabio’s interpretation of the left-back role has long appeared to be an ideal alternative option for United, if not a direct replacement for Evra, he has so far seemed to be rejected or preferred as a back-up to his brother.
The addition of Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa on the left wing, along with a midfield in constant need of support, at one suggested that the Brazilian’s energetic, under-lapping drives may have been a boon to the team, but that all remains as paperwork and theory.
It looks as though a starting role is beyond Fabio at United regardless of the faith shown by fans still hoping both da Silva siblings will become permanent fixtures of the near future.
His muted celebrations after scoring United’s fourth against Norwich City in a 4-0 Capital One Cup home victory in October 2013 felt like a goodbye gesture, resigned to his fate rather than invigorated with any hope of emulating Rafael’s advancement.
Whether he now moves on to another Premier League staple such as Everton, like Phil Neville before him, or leaves to pursue his career abroad, Fabio will be sure to win friends and admirers at whichever club he finds himself at in the future.
Yet many United fans will still be hoping for a change of heart, either from the management or the player, in order to keep the dream of reading two da Silvas on the regular team sheet alive.