Lifted from Fluminense to the opulence of Old Trafford without having played a senior match, there was a romance and a pleasing symmetry to Fabio and Rafael da Silva’s start to life in English football. Identical Brazilian twins playing parallel to one another on either side of the Manchester United defence. So evocative was this samba mirror image that one English newspaper described the curly-topped duo as “Brazil’s answer to the Neville brothers.”
Tongue in cheek headlines aside, the two were unable to match the achievements of their Mancunian counterparts – in terms of decisive contribution to silverware, at least. Not that there’s any shame in that. The pair are still remembered fondly in Manchester; a testament to a rough-and-smooth approach to the game which generated cult appeal.
Together they acted as serrated edges on either side of the United defence, capable of both cutting and ensnaring, bristling with proactive and preventative energy. As schoolkids, one imagines they’d return from a lunchtime kickabout with inflated egos having run rings around their classmates, but with a fair amount of gravel in their knees for their troubles.
Both were reflexively daring and had a performative element to their game too, qualities which Sir Alex Ferguson perhaps hoped the relentless culture of discipline and professionalism at Carrington might squash. It didn’t, and this propensity for adventure made for compelling viewing at Old Trafford from the moment they arrived in July 2008.
In the end, Rafael played over three times as many matches for United as his twin. As juniors, however, it was Fabio who had to shoulder the greater weight of expectation. Then a defensive midfielder, he scored ten times in 13 appearances for Brazil at under-17 level, as well as captaining the side at the 2007 World Cup. Rafael was in that team too, playing as a full-back having been converted from a striker during his time in the Fluminense academy.
As with when they joined United, the twins came as a package when first recruited as extraordinarily talented 11-year-olds. A Fluminense scout spotted them playing five-a-side in Petrópolis, the boys’ hometown, an hour or so drive away from Rio de Janeiro. Soon after, they moved to the city to be closer to the club. “I cried a lot,” said Rafael, the more introverted of the pair, “but I got used to it after a while.”
In 2005, Manchester United chief scout Les Kershaw saw the Da Silvas playing for Fluminense at the Nike Premier Cup, a youth tournament in Hong Kong. “There are twins here who are just unbelievable,” he eulogised down the phone to a presumably already-scheming Ferguson. “You didn’t have to be a special scout to notice them,” Kershaw later claimed. “What impressed me most was the way that, when they got knocked down, they just got straight back up again and got on with it. They were like bouncing balls … very, very quick.”
Kershaw and Ferguson weren’t the only ones whose interest was piqued. Arsenal and Real Madrid were tracking the extravagant duo, impressed by their boundless kinetic energy and technical superiority over their peers. In the end, it was United that prevailed. The pair signed in February 2007, but couldn’t be registered until their 18th birthday in July 2008.
While his brother eventually became United’s first-choice right-back, Fabio struggled to overcome two obstacles in his early days with the club: injuries and Patrice Evra. The youngster endured a series of muscle strains early on in his time with United, limiting his game time and thus his development. Away from the treatment room, Gary Neville had retired at the end of the 2010/11 season, leaving the right-back position vacant for Rafael. But Evra was still going strong, leaving Fabio watching on from the bench.
Fabio did, however, start the Champions League final against Barcelona in 2011. United were sucked in and spat out by the tiki-taka tornado just as they were two years earlier in Rome, but one imagines that silver medal will still feature prominently in Fabio’s trophy cabinet come the end of his career.
That season was his best in terms of appearances for United. He featured in 25 matches, three less than his twin who by this point had asserted himself as starting right-back. Rafael’s comparative wealth of game time meant he finished his United career with three Premier League winners’ medals compared to Fabio’s one.
At the age of 23, the twins were separated for the first time. Fabio was loaned to Queens Park Rangers at the beginning of the 2012/13 campaign, as one of a plethora of glitzy but ultimately unsuccessful signings. He left United permanently in 2014 to play under Ole Gunnar Solskjær at Cardiff. Rafael stayed for another season but quit for Lyon in 2015 after United appointed Louis van Gaal, a man ex-Barcelona forward Giovanni once described as “a Hitler for Brazilian players”.
Even in his absence, Rafael endeared himself to United fans. “I never lost here,” he said after Champions League group stage victory with Lyon over Manchester City at the Etihad in 2018. “Everyone knows I’m a Man United supporter … [the fans] are happy, surely.”
Fabio stayed in the Championship with Cardiff for two seasons before following his brother to France to play for Nantes in 2018, where he remains to this day. After five seasons and nearly 150 appearances, Rafael departed Lyon for İstanbul Başakşehir this summer, leaving another adoring fanbase behind.
“I might put Rafael in there. They wouldn’t know the difference,” Ferguson once said after Fabio was sent off against Tottenham in 2011, leaving a curly-haired hole in the defence for the following match. Though indistinguishable in image, the pair’s legacies are varied.
Assuming neither earns a surprise call-up, they will finish their careers with two Brazil caps apiece- and there is at least some symmetry in that. Yet at the outset of their journeys, the twins were equally gifted. Injuries and circumstance stalled Fabio’s career, while serendipity allowed Rafael’s to flourish.
By Adam Williams @adam___williams