Despite Brazil’s reputation as a prolific exporter of footballing talent, cases of players leaving the country even before making their debuts in the professional game remain rare. Rarer still are those that move directly into the first-team squads at a club of Manchester United's stature.
Yet that was exactly the case with Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio da Silva, who were plucked from the youth ranks of Rio de Janeiro outfit Fluminense. FIFA.com caught up with the gifted siblings to find out how things were going under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
“We came here when we were very young, so it’s normal that we’ve only started to get more opportunities now,” said Rafael, quickly answering on behalf of himself and his brother. “It’s funny isn’t it? I’m used to always speaking in the plural form. Even though we do have different experiences here and there, we go through so much together that it can get confusing at times.”
Those guys are monsters. But what can I do? I just need to keep playing my football for Manchester United and who knows, maybe I’ll be able to overtake at least one of those two.
Not content with being side by side from birth, Rafael and Fabio shot to prominence together as youngsters at Flu, were both picked for Brazil’s U-17 squad and both defended their country at the 2007 edition of the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. Seeming to match each other stride for stride, the pair then earned a switch to the Red Devils and made the move to England in July 2008, though their rates of progress since have been somewhat different.
With Rafael brought into the United squad with a view to succeeding veteran right-back Gary Neville, who has now hung up his boots, left-back Fabio has had found his path blocked by a man still at the peak of his powers: Patrice Evra. Indeed, it was less than two years ago that the France international was voted the best player in his position by his fellow professionals, when earning a spot in the 2009 edition of the FIFA/FIFPro World XI.
“It’s been a slow process, but we knew that’s the way it’d be," said Rafael. "And Ferguson is great at that: he knows exactly how much time to give each player out on the pitch.”
The United No21 admits that having initially simply savoured every first-team appearance, he is now determined to play in as many big games as possible, such as tonight's UEFA Champions League quarter-final, first leg against Chelsea.
“Of course when a game like this comes around you still get butterflies in your stomach," he conceded. "That never changes and it can even do you good. But I’m full of confidence at the moment. I want to play in every game, and especially ones like Champions League matches and English derbies.”
Though Rafael has benefitted directly from the denouement of Neville’s glittering career on the right of United’s back four, winning a spot in the senior Brazil side is another matter. Barring his way are the last two players to claim the right-back spot in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI: Barcelona’s Daniel Alves (2009) and Inter Milan’s Maicon (2010).
“Everyone is always saying that to me, and the worst thing is it’s true!” Rafael revealed, laughing. “Those guys are monsters. But what can I do? I just need to keep playing my football for Manchester United and who knows, maybe I’ll be able to overtake at least one of those two.”
We want to win titles here in Manchester, become Olympic champions in London and play in the 2014 World Cup.
Even so, Rafael’s emergence at Old Trafford has not gone unnoticed by Mano Menezes, who handed the player a maiden call-up for the July 2010 friendly against USA, in what was the coach's first match at the Brazil reins. Fabio, by contrast, was struggling to get even a few minutes on the pitch for United at the time, a situation that triggered a serious rethink.
“I arrived here at the age of 17 and was happy just being in the squad at a great club like this, and to be second-choice behind a player like Evra,” said the left-sided member of the duo, who are now 20. “But when I saw my brother getting called up to A Seleção, despite having Daniel Alves and Maicon as competition, I thought: ‘I want to play’.
“I looked around me and I saw that I’d let myself get comfortable. I was getting older and was content to be in the same situation as when I’d arrived. That’s when I said to myself, 'Now’s the time. I’ve been here for the last three and a half years, just training with these class players, and now I want to play'. I’ve got a different mentality now and scoring my first goal (on 26 February against Wigan Athletic, followed two weeks later by another against Arsenal) helped me get that clear.”
And as the interview concluded, it was Fabio's turn to speak for both twins when outlining their shared objectives for the next phase of their careers: "We want to play in the important games, win titles here in Manchester, become Olympic champions in London (in 2012) and play in the 2014 World Cup.”