How Thiago Silva overcame tuberculosis and a year out to become one of the world’s best defenders

How Thiago Silva overcame tuberculosis and a year out to become one of the world’s best defenders

At the age of 34, now is a curious time for Thiago Silva to become known to those outside of football in the UK. Thanks to what has become an instantly iconic Glastonbury moment, during Dave’s set, the rapper called out to the crowd, “Who’s sober enough to sing these lyrics with me?” In the middle of the revellers was a 15-year old kid with a bucket hat and Paris Saint-Germain jersey. “He looks like he knows the lyrics. Yeah, let’s take a chance.”

Three minutes later and Alex was a social media star racking up hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets on Twitter, even getting public acknowledgement from Thiago Silva, the man whose named adorned the back of his kit and whom the song was named after.

To the uninitiated, Thiago Silva is a Brazilian defender currently plying his trade in Paris for the mega-rich PSG. His powers are perhaps on the wane now as he winds down towards the end of his career, but that hasn’t stopped him providing a rock-solid base for club and country as he nears a century of international caps.

For almost a decade now, he’s been one of the most formidable defenders on the planet, the great Franco Baresi praising his during his stint at AC Milan: “I would like him to stay in Milan for several years. He’s a player who has proven he has great qualities and that he is important for the future of AC Milan. It’s difficult to identify where he can still improve. He has already proven to have everything.”

Most recently seen winning Brazil’s first Copa América in 12 years, Thiago Silva has established himself as a Parisian legend, winning an astounding 19 honours in his time at the Parc des Princes as well being a major part of the last AC Milan team to win the Scudetto. 

But it all so nearly never happened. A catastrophic and potentially fatal spell in Russia saw the Brazilian almost quit football for good.

Abandoned by his father aged five, Thiago Silva didn’t have the most stable of early lives, unsuccessfully trialling at a number of Brazilian clubs including as Botafogo, Olaria, Flamengo and Madureira until he was eventually picked up by Barcelona (no, not that one), who saw him as a potential holding midfielder.

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Eventually, Silva would join Esporte Club Juventude, where his career would begin to take shape, with no small thanks to two men, Brazilian manager Ivo Wortmann and everyone’s favourite Portuguese super-agent, Jorge Mendes. 

Wortmann, a member of Brazil’s 1975 Copa América squad, recognised Silva’s natural leadership and strength and moved him into defence to play alongside Indio and future Werder Bremen stalwart, Naldo. Physically imposing and positionally astute, Silva excelled at centre-half and started to garner the attention of big clubs in Europe. 

Thanks to Mendes’ connections, he would end up making a €2.5m switch to Portuguese giants Porto. Brought in as part of the rebuild operation in the wake of José Mourinho’s departure to Chelsea, Silva initially struggled, only featuring for the second string and failing to make a single first-team appearance.

Unable to keep up with the pace of the game in Portugal, he had also started to complain to the medical team about flu-like symptoms. Nothing was found and Porto, losing patience with the youngster, were only too happy to send him out on loan to Dinamo Moscow, where he would reunite with his former Juventude manager, Wortmann.

Speaking to Bleacher Report, Wortmann recounted how alarmed he was when he first saw his former protégé in Russia: “I was devastated when I saw him. He showed up at the box and I barely recognised him. He was all deformed, seemed swollen, had gained over ten kilograms. I would find out later that it was because of the medicine he had been taking. I was really worried about him.”

Like other Dinamo additions at the times, Silva was signed without undergoing a medical. Indeed, if he had one – as he should’ve – maybe his debilitating condition would’ve been diagnosed sooner. Instead, he progressively worsened until he returned to Moscow after a pre-season tour to Lisbon where he looked “strangely weak”. Soon after, the doctors diagnosed him with tuberculosis. 

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Tuberculosis is an undignified illness. It starts out in a similar fashion to the flu: there are chills, night sweats, nausea, chest pain, weight loss, intense fatigue and a persistent cough that just won’t go, which can sometimes involve blood. Despite the fact that almost one in three people in the world – that’s a staggering two billion people – are infected with the disease, it can take months to correctly diagnose, in part because it’s difficult to contract. It’s a bacterial infection, caught by inhaling tiny droplets, and because TB is spread through moisture and can affect the lungs, it needs prolonged exposure to an infected person. 

It’s the kind of disease that usually occurs in developing nations, in low-income areas, making it all the more strange that Thiago Silva, still only 20, a footballer and athlete in the prime of his life, contracted it and wasn’t diagnosed for six months. 

Not permitted to leave or have visitors in his “pocket-sized room that included only a freezer and a small bathroom”, Russian doctors found that Silva’s health continued to plummet. “One day, the doctors told me Thiago had a hole in his lung and had to go through a surgery. They warned me, ‘Do not to expect him to go back to training.’ It would mean the end of his career,” Wortmann recounted.

Thiago Silva was all for it, unable to kick a ball for months and trapped inside a Russian hospital for nearly a year. All he wanted was for his nightmare to end. Thankfully, his mother wouldn’t allow it: “Nobody touches my son’s body.” Together with Wortmann and Mendes, they managed to get Thiago Silva out of Moscow and back to Porto, where he started his road to recovery.

What was supposed to be a 12-week illness turned into a year-long ordeal that almost cost the young Brazilian his career and his life. 

He returned to Brazil and joined Fluminese, where he rebuilt, again with Wortmann in charge, going on to claim the 2007 Copa do Brasil and earning the nickname O Monstro – The Monster – thanks to his performances for the Tricolor. 

He would leave Fluminese a club icon, dubbed as “the best central defender in Brazil” by the media, and the platitudes would continue with Alessandro Nesta considering him to have the “physical and technical characteristics of a champion”.

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Since his recovery, Silva has excelled in the club game: there were Scudetto and Supercoppa triumphs during his time in Italy, while after his mega-money move to PSG for €42m, he’s dominated French football, winning every competition the country has to offer.

His time for Brazil, however, has been more difficult and, until this summer, puncutated by heartbreak, something that led to the controversial and inaccurate suggestions by some journalists that he lacked “mental strength”.

The 2014 World Cup started off with Brazil favourites and looking good to bring glory back to the South American nation. Ultimately, the tournament would end in humiliation for the Seleção, humbled 7-1 by eventual champions Germany. The cracks started to show during the last-16 game against Chile.

Tied at 1-1 after 120 minutes, the game went to extra-time and, in what has become an enduring image of the tournament, Thiago Silva couldn’t bring himself to watch the ensuing penalty shootout. It later emerged that he had refused to take a penalty himself, prompting criticism that he was not providing the leadership required at the finals. In reality, he simply believed that there were better options.

In the quarter-final against Colombia, he would only invite more critique, earning a needless yellow card and getting himself banned for the semis. He would watch in horror as Germany stunned Brazil – and the world – to produce one of the most astonishing results in World Cup history. Would the game have been different if Brazil had their captain and best defender on the pitch? For many, his loss was greater than Neymar’s.

For all the hardships Thiago Silva has faced throughout his life, he will probably feel he deserves more recognition on the international stage, although the recent Copa América win will go some way to calming that particular itch. 

Regardless of what transpired during that fateful 2014 World Cup, he has already demonstrated mental fortitude and determination far beyond what his critics can comprehend. He’s risen above setbacks many would’ve succumbed to, traversing the highest peaks at club level, something once believed impossible. For his recovery from tuberculosis alone, he deserves the respect of the football community.

By Matthew Gibbs @MatthewIeuan

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