When Rafael and Fabio da Silva were first unveiled at Manchester United Football Club, you couldn’t tell them apart. Indeed, the only way Sir Alex Ferguson could make out who was whom was because Fabio sported a wedding ring on his ring finger and on one occasion, Fabio received a booking for a foul his twin brother had committed.
When the duo first arrived in England, Fabio was presented with the number 20, Rafael the number 21: standard-issue squad numbers that you would assign to someone who was to feature in a team but not (not yet anyway) take centre stage.
That, however, was four years ago.
Since then, Rafael has moved up the Manchester United ranks and is currently in possession of the iconic number two shirt, worn in the past by legends such as Gary Neville – the man Rafael replaced at right back – and has represented Brazil at the Olympics.
On the other hand, Fabio has just swallowed the bitter pill of relegation with Queens Park Rangers, having temporarily moved there last season. Now back at United, he has seen his shirt go to Robin van Persie, who was last season the difference between United and the rest of the 19 teams in the Premier League, having now given the number 20 shirt cult status at the Theatre of Dreams.
Fabio is currently without a number. It is in a way symbolic of how the careers of the talented twins have taken off in contrasting directions.
From the top of their curly-haired does to the bottom of their identically-sized feet, Rafael and Fabio da Silva are mirror images of each other in every aspect. In fact, when they were first discovered by former United scout Les Kershaw when playing in a youth tournament in Hong Kong, it was Fabio who was deemed the more talented of the two. On seeing them, Kershaw said:
“As United’s Academy manager at the time, I went over with our young players to take part,” he says regarding his time in the Orient. “While I was there I was asked by the tournament sponsors Nike to be part of a scouting team who watched other matches and assessed the best players so they could name a Most Valuable Player of the Tournament award at the end.
“I went to see Fluminense play and Rafael and Fabio stuck out a mile. I can’t take credit for picking them out because you didn’t have to be a super scout to realise they were something special. It was there for all to see. They were very, very talented.”
Rolling off the Fluminense production line which delivered players such as Thiago Silva and Marcelo, Fabio and Rafael were expected to achieve greatness and inherit Brazil’s famed fullback positions for years to come. But should Luis Felipe Scolari decide to announce his 23-man roster for next year’s World Cup now, few would disagree with me when I say that only Rafael would make the list.
Sad, but true.
On the basis of merit, Fabio deserved to represent his nation on world football’s biggest stage on home soil. Indeed, the only reason he shifted to left-back at Fluminense was because, even at that young age, he was extremely adept playing on both flanks, while his brother excelled when he was stationed on the right.
But Fabio’s recent lack of football in a Manchester United shirt is not of his own doing and is largely circumstantial.
While Rafael was cutting his teeth at right-back, Fabio faced competition from club captain Gary Neville and the versatile John O’Shea. Neville’s decision to hang up his boots midway through United’s 2011 season and Irishman O’Shea’s services being required all over the park, Rafael was handed a clear path to nailing down a permanent position for himself at right-back.
Injuries to new arrivals Chris Smalling and Phil Jones (both of whom were also utilised in other defensive positions) meant he could continue to make the right-back berth his own.
In a team that has been constantly tinkered with at the back throughout Rafael’s time at Old Trafford, his place in the United rearguard was more or less guaranteed.
But Fabio’s route was a lot more complicated.
His competitive début for the Red Devils was delayed after he had to undergo surgery and that début (against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup) was to be ended prematurely: he’d picked up a calf strain in that game, further stunting his development as those who jostled for a starting position at left-back were put through the motions while the talented Brazilian recovered.