By Sushant Sharma
Sibling pairings in sport at the highest level are a rarity. Whenever they work, they present a great sight - the Williams sisters, the Waugh brothers and our very own Nevilles. The novelty of novelties, however, is a pair of identical twins. When United are at the top of their game, opponents start seeing two's and three's of every Red. Imagine that you're one such dazzled opponent, and you're now faced with two of the same person. You'd be extremely disoriented. Even referees are confounded by this sight sometimes, not even knowing which one to book! So when United brought the Da Silva's to Manchester, they knew they were doing an incredibly astute piece of business, working on breaking down the opposition on multiple levels.
For a pair of Brazilians with the exact same DNA, however, Rafael and Fabio da Silva have had contrasting careers so far at Manchester United. Brought in from Fluminese before they had even turned 18, they came with "Right" and "Married" labels attached to their ring fingers. Contrary to what many fans believe, however, the twins were not arbitrarily assigned wings. in fact, Fabio very much preferred the left wing, having turned in some imperious performances from that position in the U-17 World Cup for the Brazilian national team. Indeed, even when they were asked during an interview to pinpoint the better one, Rafael pointed out matter-of-factly, "I'm better on the right, he's better on the left."
Before coming to Manchester, these two versions of the same zygote had done everything together, whether it be playing for Fluminese in the Nike Youth Cup, getting picked up by then Academy manager Les Kershaw (who lovingly called them "whippets") or turning down a clandestine training session with le Professeur de l'Arse. Upon landing in Manchester, their paths began to diverge. The challenges they faced were no longer equivalent. On the one hand, there was Rafael, competing with Gary Neville (suffering a series of long term injuries), and knock-prone stand-ins Wes Brown and John O'Shea, while on the other hand, Fabio was tasked with the unenviable job of dislodging from the starting line-up one of the best left backs in the world in Patrice Evra.
Expected though it was, Rafael's involvement in the first team for the first time against Newcastle in August 08 still took everyone by surprise. This didn't have as much to do with his appearance itself as it did with the quality of his performances. He reinvigorated the part of United's pitch that had started to look barren and ultra-slow. Fabio, unfortunately, could not even challenge for a place in the team, as he was out at the time with a shoulder injury.
Rafael developed in leaps and bounds, showing great skill on the ball, and improvement in his defensive skills with every passing game. He was always willing to challenge for the ball, sometimes a bit overzealous, but almost always precise. His eagerness to prove himself and do his job was evident in the way he tracked back as soon as he lost the ball, often winning it back from the opposition immediately. With time, he developed a sense of positioning - he stopped overcommitting himself - and also, an extraordinary leap. At times last season, he looked like he was jumping to a level two times his height! His first goal for the club came against Arsenal at the Emirates and was an absolute scorcher, albeit only a stoppage time consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat. His erroneous decision-making, however, got him sent off in a very crucial match against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford, a decision that turned out to be the turning point in a quarter final tie that United looked set to win. Few would've imagined the effect that match would have on Rafael's next season.
The da Silvas of Petropolis had grown up playing in very different positions in the hills of the Serra dos Orgaos, playing for their amateur club, Boa Esperanca. Rafael was the striker, while Fabio screened his defence, playing as a defensive midfielder. Their career as full backs started with their induction into Fluminese, where their coach saw their potential to be successors of the great Brazilian full backs. Fabio's adaptation to his new role was much quicker, probably because he already knew most defensive drills well, and started showcasing his attacking flair. He grew ever more influential in his role, earning the captain's armband when they represented their country in the U17 World Cup in South Korea. Here, he top-scored for his team, too, pulling the strings from this unusual position for puppeteers on a football pitch. Presumably, when they arrived across the Atlantic, Fabio was the one expected to be the one to break into the team first. What everyone seemed to forget was that he had just married. When bad luck comes it comes in droves, apparently, and Fabio suffered a spate of minor injuries, and as is customary, almost always just before Evra's place in the team opened up. In among these injuries, he did manage to make his first appearance against Spurs in the FA cup. He became a regular in the Carling Cup squad, and was awarded with a start at Wembley in that semi final against Everton. This was the first time both played in the same team, but was surely the beginning of many more such outings to come. Last season, both played as wingers against Arsenal in the FA cup and combined brilliantly for a goal.
Rafael was no stranger to taking up a challenge, and relished every job he was given. He had the privilege of facing some of the very best in the world - Ronaldinho at the San Siro, Ribery, and even Cristiano Ronaldo (day in and day out in training). He stamped his authority in each of these encounters, unlucky to be sent off against Bayern for a cynical challenge on Ribery. He was also known as the toughest right back to face in training, a great compliment coming from the United attack. That sending-off left him distraught, but in return, he learned some valuable lessons. In 2010-11, Rafael returned a transformed footballer, very composed in defence, diligently doing his job, crushing Gareth Bale, Maicon-skinner. So good was he at his job, that Gary Neville's retirement mid-season didn't give the manager any problems. Rafael cemented his place on the right side of defence, and was considered as first-choice until he injured his knee at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League quarter final in April. As fate would have it, Fabio (finally) was available and challenging for a place in the first team, and seamlessly slotted in to fill the void. So good were his performances that he earned a place in the line-up against Barcelona in the Champions League final. He showed great composure whenever he played at right back, sometimes looking even better than Rafael. His refined attacking skills and the timing of his attacking runs were what separated him, even if only barely, from his younger twin.
Three games into the new season, as we look ahead at our new generation, the picture is incomplete without the Da Silvas. With Evra's form looking suspect and Smalling only a stop-gap at right back, the twins are very much a part of United's present as well as long-term future. Rafael, unfortunately, is out of the reckoning for another two months, having suffered a shoulder dislocation, but we could see Fabio in the mix very soon indeed. This season could see the less experienced of the two get a lot more game time (on the left as well as on the right), and establish himself as Evra's replacement as the Frenchman progresses into his thirties. It is unlikely that we will see both brothers in the team on a regular basis just yet, as the need for experience on the pitch alongside the youngsters will preclude their simultaneous selection. My belief is that if the class of '11, as they're fondly called, can keep up this level of performance and gain some valuable big-game experience, then following with his trend of trust in youth, Sir Alex could well give Fabio a prolonged stint in the first team (something he hasn't had yet) - an opportunity to assert his claim for a regular place in the team, for both club and country. What we tend to forget however, is that they have only just turned 21, and another decade of top level football beckons...
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