Three games had passed since the man who adorns their iconic 21 was seen or heard from. His absence was shrouded in mystery, with various theories snaking through the local pubs and stands of the Etihad Stadium. Reports so far had been deficient of much information yet the games were not going to play themselves.
Manchester City were flying high, 12 points ahead of their nearest rivals in the league all the while playing some of the most attractive football the continent had witnessed. It was easy to forget the ones missing out when the demolition ball of victory continued to plough through the opposition but not all members of the squad are created equal. He is far more than just a player. He is their symbol.
As the clock ticked onto the 21 minute mark during the first half of Manchester City’s FA Cup game with Burnley, fans at the Etihad rose to their feet and roared in applause. The crescendo of sound was, in fact, a hug of support, wrapping its loving and appreciative arms around David Silva in one of his greatest times of need. In the lead up to the game, he had finally revealed why he had missed several games in recent weeks.
His partner, Yessica, had prematurely given birth to their son. He was fighting for his life. “I want to thank all of you for the love and good wishes received in the last few weeks,” he said. “Special thanks to my teammates, the manager and all at the club for understanding my situation. Also I want to share with you the birth of my son Mateo, who was born extremely preterm and is fighting day by day with the help of the medical team.”
It was a startling revelation from a man whose private life has been more protected than Fort Knox. We as fans tend to act like we know our sporting heroes. For 90 minutes a couple of times a week, we sit back and play armchair psychiatrist. We dissect the way they dribble or shoot, pass or defend, hustle or sulk. This microscope into their attributes as a footballer is somehow transformed as a dive into the depths of their personality. Fan to fan, we cultivate profiles that can define a player for eternity. We forget that they too are human and everyone is going through something that we cannot see.
Silva’s disclosure was a rare glimpse into that repressed reality. The outpouring of love and adulation he received after the announcement was hardly surprising, though. Such a distressing time would’ve crippled the ability for most of us to play, let alone at such a high level. It is in his strength and resolve that we gain inspiration. It is who he is and always has been.
Nestled along the southern coast of Gran Canaria, the sleepy fishing village of Arguineguín remains a bastion of tranquillity. Life in these parts moves at a slower pace than the bustling metropolises of the globe and football in mainland Spain can appear as a distant reality for many.
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Born in 1986 to a Japanese mother, Eva, and his police officer father, Fernando, David Silva has always been unique. He was introduced to the beautiful game by his dad in front of their house wearing a diaper for a kit and fresh produce for a ball. Using anything he could get his infant feet to, Silva would kick fruits and potatoes around while shouting “fútbol” incessantly to the point his family worried it would be the only word to emerge from his vocabulary.
It quickly dawned on them that quashing the boy’s new-found obsession had become an exercise in futility, so at the age of three, they relented and gifted him his very first football. Roaming the touchlines while his father played semi-professionally for their local side, Silva would try to imitate all that he saw. Observing the boy, fishermen around the town would come to call David “El Chino” due to his small eyes and reticent nature.
Ultimately, the game became Silva’s form of personal expression and playing it alone would not suffice. His footballing education would continue within the confines of the home, directed by his idol, Michael Laudrup, via way of the television. The Dane’s exquisite technical ability and unrivalled vision were exhilarating to Silva. He would exhaust hours from the clock, meticulously taking notes in an effort to replicate all of Laudrup’s magic, hoping one day all of the hard work would also transport him to a starring role on the hallowed pitches of LaLiga.
At just the age of just nine, Silva’s progression had become evident enough to be recruited by the youth team of third tier side UD San Fernando to play as a goalkeeper. It wouldn’t take long before the club recognised the fault in their thinking and moved him to the wing, where he belonged. It was here that Silva felt most at home, unleashing a creative genius that would become increasingly difficult for the Canary Islands to conceal. As a 14-year-old, Silva’s mentor, Vicente Miranda, persuaded he and his family to travel to the Spanish capital and take their talented son for a trial with Real Madrid.
The fanfare left behind back home would reach a fevered pitch at the prospect of one of their own suiting up for the royal whites. Day after day, Silva would be put through a gauntlet of drills in order to prove his worth. Real Madrid manager Vicente del Bosque became intrigued after a string of positive reports, so much so that every afternoon, he would come down from his lofty office to observe the little midfielders progression. “He was very young and I knew he had so much potential,” said Miranda. ‘Everyone was going crazy for him at the Real Madrid trials. He was so excited about the idea of playing for them.”
The culmination of the trial had expected to yield a formal offer in the Silva camp but Real had other ideas. Although he possessed a myriad of skills that many would be hard-pressed to replicate at his age, Silva’s diminutive size could not be overlooked. He returned home burdened with the cruel realisation of the physical stereotypes that permeated throughout the footballing landscape. Was his place in the beautiful game limited to the shadows of the third division? It was a thought that crept through the bowels of his mind yet Silva and his family remained steadfast that his big break was just around the corner.
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His faith was soon rewarded as Silva was approached by Valencia with an offer to join their youth academy after witnessing him light up a junior tournament. Los Che provided an incredible opportunity as an environment for football, but Silva felt hesitant personally. Being over 2,000 kilometres away from his family for an extended period was a sobering realisation. Undaunted, his parents pushed Silva passed his insecurities and onto the flight that would change his life forever.
Immersing himself into the Valencia academy at the age of 14, Silva’s adjustment to his new surroundings would take patience and a support system critical to any developing prospect. Through the help from coaches and new-found friends, Silva would begin to grow as a young man and as a student of the game. He would spend three years honing his craft in the youth ranks before the club deemed him ready for the step up to professional life. He played 14 games for Valencia B at a time when their senior team went on to win their second LaLiga title in three years and the UEFA Cup.
The strength of the squad made it nearly impossible for a young player to crack, so in an effort to give him consistent playing time, the 2004/05 season would see Silva sent on loan to Eibar. He would feature 35 times for the Segunda División side and help them to a fourth-place finish – the highest in their history at the time. Silva’s performance at the Ipurua warranted a grander stage and Valencia would oblige with another loan. Newly-promoted Celta Vigo would be the beneficiaries, and Silva would help guide them to a sixth-place finish in the league and a spot in the UEFA Cup. That same season, Eibar were relegated from the Segunda without his services.
At last, the time had come for Silva to validate himself in the eyes of the Valencia faithful. His first season at the Mestalla would see Quique Sánchez Flores reward him with 48 appearances across all competitions, scoring nine goals while handing out seven assists. Playing alongside the likes of David Villa and Joaquín, they would unleash an intoxicating mixture of youthful exuberance and enthusiasm that would permeate to supporters and neutrals alike. Their fourth-place finish in LaLiga was believed to be just the prerequisite stepping stone for an impending return to league glory. The reality, however, was far crueller.
Valencia would become a turnstile for managers the following season as three different voices would stand before the dressing room with different demeanours and tactical philosophies. The side would struggle as a result, finishing an embarrassing 10th in the league table despite a collection of talent that would leave the majority of clubs consumed by envy. Nevertheless, it was in the face of this disappointment that triumph would unexpectedly emerge. Silva’s virgin hands would finally clutch his first piece of silverware in the form of the Copa del Rey.
The victory had given the club a short reprieve, but it would prove to be little more than a band-aid for a festering wound. On the field, a chronic ankle injury would keep Silva on the sidelines for the first three months of the 2008/09 season. Behind the scenes, Los Che were bleeding money to the tune of €400 million, with reports claiming that players had gone weeks without being paid. A loan was eventually secured to cover the cost of wages but a sixth-place finish in the league denied them the invaluable funds that come with qualifying for the Champions League.
Sniffing the stench of desperation emanating from the Mestalla, Manchester City approached Valencia that season about signing both Silva and Villa, but were put off when Los Che quoted a £135 million price tag to secure both players. If the negotiations were indeed a game of poker, City knew it would only be a matter of time before their counterpart folded.
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Silva’s final season in Spain would be amongst his best. He scored a career-high eight league goals and led Valencia back onto Europe’s grandest stage. Alas, at season’s end, the long overdue teardown of the squad was set to commence. Villa would go first, shipped off to Barcelona for €40 million, before the attention would shift to SIlva. “Why did I leave Valencia? Because the club needed me to,” Silva said. “I was happy there and wouldn’t have left, but the situation the club was in demanded it.”
Manchester City had played their cards to perfection. A bargain fee of £25 million would pry him away, and the Spaniard would join a summer coup from the Citizens that included the likes of Yaya Touré and Mario Balotelli. The names on the squad list were championship worthy. Nevertheless, if City were truly interested in being recognised amongst the league’s elite, they would have to prove it on the pitch.
The site was Bloomfield Road and the opponent was Blackpool. It was 17 October 2010 and the bright lights high atop the stadium’s perch beamed down over the stars of the show. With the match slowly reaching its dying embers and the scoreboard deadlocked at 2-2, Manchester City prepared for a set-piece just outside the right side of the penalty box.
Standing mere steps to the left of the kick taker, David Silva casted an unassuming yet mysterious shadow. To the surprise of Blackpool’s defence, James Milner decided against a delivery into the box and played it off to the solitary Spaniard. With the ball now rolling unhindered to his left foot, Stephen Crainey closed down quickly in an attempt to discourage any ideas Silva may have harboured for a long-range effort. Sensing the incoming danger quicker than Spiderman, Silva feinted the shot before dragging the ball to his right foot, leaving his marker seemingly stuck in quicksand.
David Vaughan was next to try his luck, sliding in from the right before Silva left him tackling his ghost in similar fashion. Left with just the cherry to be placed upon the sundae, Silva opened up his body and finessed the ball around Charlie Adam and into the net. It was the type of play that left jaws agape and journalists scrambling to scrub pieces that had grown critical of his signing. They said the foreigner was too frail and would not be able to contend with the speed or physicality of the English game. It was through this myopic lense that many became blind to Silva’s most precious gift – his intellect.
The more he played the more apparent it became that Silva’s skill set presented a challenge to defences that few have before. His ability to find space and take a mile with mere inches available left the opposition in a perpetual state of helplessness. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford in 2011/12, in which he assisted Edin Džeko with a volley and scored the fifth in the 6-1 demolition of their hated rivals.
It was merely a sign of things to come, as Silva would top the assist table with 15 to his name. His side’s enthralling play would eventually end in conquest; City would lift their very first Premier League crown after Sergio Agüero’s dramatic winner in added time. Silva would be named in the Premier League’s Team of the Year before being rewarded with a new five-year contract.
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On the international stage, Silva would start all six matches of Spain’s victorious Euro 2012 campaign, scoring the opening goal in the final to make it three consecutive major tournament wins for his beloved country. The ability to evolve to the needs of the team has seen him transform from facilitator to goal-scorer throughout the years. With 118 caps and 35 goals, he’s one of La Roja’s most decorated players in history.
Back in Manchester, years of domestic success had not translated to Europe. Sheikh Mansour’s seemingly endless pockets could not buy all that his heart desired, but Pep Guardiola would be the man to get him that much closer. An obscene £448m has been spent on player acquisitions over the past two years, littering the current squad with expensive young talent for a manager who demands nothing short of perfection.
Pockets of the footballing community were not convinced Silva could keep his place in the starting line-up. He could have easily bowed to the competition from less travelled legs and heftier price tags, yet the man they call Merlin reinvented himself once more, thriving in a deeper role while controlling the natural order on the pitch with relative ease.
According to The Times journalist Bill Edgar, Silva would leave victorious in 25 straight matches across all competitions earlier this season; the longest winning run of any player since the league began in 1888. In addition, Opta were able to confirm that his 19 consecutive Premier League victories were also a record. His calming character and ability to lift the performance of his teammates through his unselfishness has been on display since day one. Since he came to the Premier League in 2010, Silva has created more chances than any other player – and it is not particularly close.
Seven years on, two Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup later, the 32-year-old David Silva has signed a contract extension lasting until 2020, by which point he’ll have spent a decade at the club. “I admire him a lot,” Guardiola. “He perfectly suits Spanish football but here with the speed and the weather, the wind and the tough conditions, he has survived for a long time. I put a lot of attention on how players react in bad moments. David is always there and that’s so important for the club.”
In a footballing world slowly being overrun by solo acts drunk off the spirits of fame and fortune, David Silva lurks as the lucid maestro. He is in the ilk of train conductors and pilots; characters pivotal to your ultimate survival, far too often taken for granted because they steer you to an assumed destination.
Future generations will struggle to excavate his worth from his stats. Unlike a Messi or Ronaldo, Silva’s impact cannot be reinforced by YouTube compilations of long-range belters or even goals arising from dramatic 50-yard runs. He’s simply a man who can do anything he wishes on a football pitch but never feels the need to demonstrate the fact, shunning the outward fame for personal satisfaction.
So while the lion’s share of today’s attention is engulfed by Paul Pogba’s barbershop visits or Héctor Bellerin’s wardrobe choices, Manchester City’s greatest player ever sits perfectly content. He is seen and not heard; just the way he likes it.
By Justin Sherman @JShermOfficial