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Chelsea’s Thiago Silva has been guided through a glittering sporting career by the greatest coach he has ever worked with – God, as he tells Matt Lee.

The life of a footballer is determined and directed by so many things, including loyalty, family, traditions and heritage. There are also the recommendations of agents and advisors, and let’s not pretend money isn’t one of the main determining factors in the decision-making process. 

Yet when mercurial Brazilian defender Thiago Silva signed for Chelsea in 2020, the then 35-year-old pointed to divine intervention, no less, as a major factor in his move to west London.

The veteran centre-back had just brought to a close a hugely successful spell at Paris Saint-Germain, but the French champions were looking to bring the average age of their squad down, so the Brazil international, who has over 100 caps for his country, was deemed surplus to requirements. This was despite Silva having just played one of his most complete and flawless domestic campaigns, one that saw ‘Les Rouge-et-Bleu’ claim a seventh French crown in eight years.

“Projects come to an end in football and, when you have played the game for a long time, you come to realise that is just how it goes,” Silva begins.

“Every year in sport is very different from the last. In almost no time at all you can have a team that goes from the greatest to a much lower level; and by the same process, in under 12 months, the opposite.

“It is for this reason that I have become very philosophical about football, and my faith has certainly been there with me to help me find a path through some of the disappointments and challenges.”

Crucially, Silva had promised he would complete his PSG project, and that meant, in a Covid-extended campaign, the club didn’t play their Champions League final against Bayern Munich until late August. He subsequently signed for Chelsea just a fortnight before the new season began.

“I took time to make the decision,” he offers. “It was vital for perhaps my last contract in football that I found a new club that, in the same way as did Paris, really spoke to me as being good for me and my family. 

“My faith in Chelsea was so strong, and God steered me to a place in which now I am very happy.”

Thiago Silva’s contentment is in direct correlation to his success on the pitch. He joined the Blues during a period of rapid change at the club; they had only recently emerged from a transfer embargo, and had been forced to rush a number of youth-team graduates through into first-team action during the previous season.

Under his leadership on the pitch, and with the help of other senior pros at the club, including fellow defenders Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso, Silva oversaw the emergence of  players such as Reece James, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori – who has since departed for Silva’s former employer AC Milan – Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi.

“I think we had a number of players who got the opportunity to make something of themselves much earlier than would normally have been expected, and that turned out to be a really good thing,” he says. “Their development was accelerated forward and that only served to build the project higher and stronger than we imagined.

“It goes to show – sometimes adversity in football, and in life, is a very good thing.”

But where does Silva’s dedication to God come in? Simply, the Rio-born defensive lynchpin professes that while he is in control of who he is and what he does on the pitch, he will always be guided by his faith.

“I believe God sets me challenges and asks me to do my best to fulfil them,” he says. “That is my duty and my obligation to him, and it is a role I take seriously.

“When I joined Chelsea, I obviously turned away offers from elsewhere – some would have made playing very easy, others would have earned me more money, or taken me and my family to live in absolute comfort; but very quickly I knew that God wanted me to come here to do something special… to help the next generation of players, and to serve a club that needed help.”

Silva firmly believes in the power of action, too – both mental and physical. “God has always put me on a path, but the impetus to walk down it has to come from within.

“I always feel as though he is watching me, expecting me to stand up and take those steps, and it is my duty and privilege to do that.

 “I don’t think anyone can expect something to happen unless they truly put the effort in to make change, and that’s why people from very humble and limited backgrounds, such as myself and so many others who have emerged from the streets of Brazil, can achieve important things, and inspire others to do the same. This, to me, is God’s influence.”

Silva, who is a Christian, admits he has had to adapt to the UK football schedule, not least during the festive calendar. When playing at PSG, and previously at AC Milan, where he starred for three years from 2012, players were given Christmas off to spend time with their families.

In the Premier League, however, the festive football schedule is one of English football’s finest traditions, so being apart from loved ones was something the defender had to get used to. “Again, I feel it was God asking me to sacrifice something of myself for other people, and I was happy to do that.

“Time with my family is incredibly precious to me, and to them, but experiencing English football at Christmas and sampling that incredible atmosphere that comes at that time of the year, was something I found very special, and the joy I could see on fans’ faces was unique. It all made sense to me.”

Thiago Silva’s journey through football started in the Campo Grande district, located on the western side of Rio de Janeiro. The shantytown environment wasn’t conducive to sporting prowess, a drawback compounded by the fact he had no immediate father figure in his life after his parents separated. Instead, he grew up with his mother, two brothers – and a God-fearing stepfather.

A promising young footballer who had been spotted by Fluminense at the age of 14 when playing in midfield, his early development was stunted, and he trialled for various other local sides, eventually being picked up by hometown side Barcelona Esporte Clube, a small Rio-based outfit from the lower divisions of Brazilian football.

His career suddenly took off in 2001 when he earned his first professional contract, with RS Futebol (now Pedrabranca) and within a year had been spotted by Roma coach Bruno Conte. Despite pleas to travel to Italy, Silva signed for Brazilian club Juventude, where he was converted into a powerful, skilful centre-back.

A move to Porto followed, and then he joined Dynamo Moscow on loan. However, Silva was struck down with tuberculosis in Russia and was hospitalised for six months. “The pain and the length of time I suffered took away so much from me,” he says. Doctors had to be on hand several times a day to administer injections and tablets that would eventually lead him to a place of recovery.

“In many periods it felt like I was never going to get better, and at many points they were worried I may deteriorate and, ultimately, die,” he reveals.

“I have never felt closer to God than in those moments, nor further away from myself. It was a very strange thing to go through – it was terrifying and sad, but as I gradually managed to pull myself away from the darkness, I felt confidence and courage like never before, and many times in the years since I have tapped into that spirit as a way of helping me use God and faith to overcome challenges.

“Sometimes adversity in football, and in life, is a very good thing”

“I will not say that contracting tuberculosis created the person I am today, but it is certainly true that I would have been a different person had it not happened, and I do think a lot of my strength has come from proving to myself that I could overcome what happened.”

During his treatment, Silva frequently expressed a desire to quit football, though he credits God and his mother for convincing him to pursue with a career that still offered so much potential, despite the long-term implications of the illness.

As it transpired, Fluminense offered the defender a contract when he returned to full fitness in 2006, and after three hugely successful years at the Maracanã – during which time he broke into the Brazil national squad – Silva secured a £8million move to AC Milan. Once there, he excelled, guiding the club to the Serie A and Italian Super Cup titles. And when the time came to join PSG, a £40million fee made him the most expensive defender ever to play the game.

The centre-back’s slew of awards and trophies since is like something out of Roy of the Rovers. After seven league titles with PSG and 18 other domestic cup triumphs in France, his switch to Chelsea was noted by some as the actions of a player winding down his career. After all, he was less than a month away from his 36th birthday when he put pen to contract.

Yet at Stamford Bridge he claimed the one trophy that had eluded him for 19 years as a professional footballer – the Champions League title – as the Blues saw off Manchester City 1-0 in the 2021 final at the Estádio do Dragão stadium in Porto.

“To win the Champions League, after so many years of trying with Milan and PSG, was so special. I feel it was something given me by God as a gift for everything I had tried to do.

“I know I worked so hard for what I earned, though I still believe none of it would have been possible without my faith.”

Silva followed up that success with the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup, as Chelsea ascended to their highest ebb.

At the start of 2022, Silva extended his playing contract with the west London club, which means the upcoming season – one that features the unique interruption of a winter World Cup in Dubai – will again see the Brazilian legend battle for his first domestic trophy in England.

His Chelsea side came close last season, losing FA Cup and League Cup finals to Liverpool, both times on penalties, but there is one title Silva wants more than any other.

“Mostly I pray for happiness and security for myself, my friends and my family; but sometimes when thoughts creep in about football, it is the Premier League title that is the thing that I would like to bring home,” he smiles.

“I know I have been so lucky in my life and in the things I have achieved, but perhaps there is room for one more thing!”

“I know I worked so hard for what I earned, though I still believe none of it would have been possible without my faith.”

Whether he succeeds in that aim – and Chelsea will almost certainly have to see off the challenges of Manchester City and Liverpool to achieve that – the defender’s legacy in the sport will always be about so much more than just silverware.

A champion who has recovered from so much adversity; an advocate of God; an exemplar for the next generation of players and those who want to give back as they have received… football has its critics, but it is a better place for Thiago Silva’s presence. 

Guest Writer

In the quest to bring you more insights Sorted includes interesting articles from specially selected Guest Writers. Each piece is carefully chosen and edited by our own Editorial Team to inform, inspire and entertain our readers.
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