At 37, Silva is comfortably the oldest member in the senior squad, so the task of leading by example is a natural fit. If Chelsea are to end one of the most challenging seasons in their history on a high by lifting the FA Cup at Wembley, the centre-back is going to have to play an integral role.
It is a responsibility he has been used to most of his professional life. There is arguably no greater burden than playing for Brazil. He has done it 105 times and also captained them at two World Cups, so the prospect of trying to stop the much-feared Liverpool attack shouldn’t faze him.
Whatever happens, when Chelsea fans vote for the club’s player of the season award, Silva is going to be one of the main contenders due to the consistent level of his performances. The fact he is playing to such a standard at his age in arguably the most physically demanding league is a remarkable achievement in itself.
But to one of the people who has known him since he was a teenager, it is no surprise at all.
“For him to do what he did, to have won the Copa do Brasil (equivalent of FA Cup) with Fluminense in 2007 and to still be competing at the highest level 15 years later? That is not something for ordinary people.”
Michael Simoni first met Silva when he was a teenager. He was the head of Fluminense’s medical department, so got to forge a close bond from an early juncture, saw what he’s really like and how committed he was to staying in the best physical shape.
“Thiago was always very reserved and discreet, a very good athlete,” Simoni tells The Athletic. “It was very easy for us in the medical department to work with him, to help him. He was very professional. He takes his job very seriously.
“There are a lot of kids in Brazil who have the dream of playing football. Most of them come from poor backgrounds or areas. To just get to a professional team like Fluminense is very hard. But we got to see that his dream was coming.
“He looked after his body from the outset. He was always a family guy, he wasn’t a party guy. OK, there may be times he’d go out with the family or parents, but he wasn’t partying. What he is at Chelsea is exactly what he was like at Fluminense, but with several years more maturity.”
Simoni got to see Silva at his lowest ebb both physically and mentally in 2006. After starting out in Fluminense’s academy, Silva began playing professionally at RS Futebol and then Juventude. He was so good in only one season for the latter, Porto signed him for just over £2 million when he was 20. After spending several months in the reserves, he was loaned out to Dynamo Moscow to get first-team football.
Through no fault of his own, the move was a disaster. Little did he know, but Silva had been developing tuberculosis symptoms for six months. By the time he was diagnosed soon after arriving in Russia, it was serious and he had to be hospitalised.
“I was in hospital for six months,” Silva told Gazzetta dello Sport magazine Sport Week in 2011. “The doctors would tell me to get up and go for a walk, but I couldn’t do it. This disease is also contagious, so I was put in isolation, only able to play computer games and go on the internet. Every now and then a doctor would come in and give me an injection, three or four times a day, plus 10-15 pills. The doctors said if another two weeks had passed (before getting treatment), I might not have been able to recover. I almost died.”
It took going back to Brazil to get his life, as well as his football ambitions, back on track. At one point he had considered quitting, only to be talked out of it by his mother, Angela. Fortunately the coach he thrived under at Juventude, Ivo Wortmann, was now manager of Fluminense and he gave him an opportunity to impress.
Silva grasped it, quickly earning the nickname “O Monstro” (The monster) as a tribute to his defending. Inevitably, Simoni could see a change in the young man’s psyche from the one who had left a few years before.
“Of course he was a little bit frightened by what had happened,” Simoni says. “Coming back to Brazil for a few years was very important for his career. Sometimes young players leave too early. Some young players need to experience something bad to get more mature, to be able to face something bigger. Clinically he was OK, but psychologically it was very useful for him to stay with us a few more years.
“When you have a crisis situation you’re always going to have a negative trend, but he was surrounded by fans, friends and family. Maybe the experience gave him more resilience, but determination to succeed? He had that before. Of course, facing something as big as that can make you stronger. I’m sure it gave him more power, more appreciation to be back on the pitch. When he was back on the field, he’d have been thinking, ‘God gave me this chance, I have to take it’.
“I remember we had a big match with Sao Paulo coming up and he suffered a bad muscle injury a few weeks before. He couldn’t even walk and had to use crutches. He was dedicated to come back as soon as possible, getting treatment and working on his recovery every day, all day. He ended up playing and helped us win the game. That’s Thiago.
“I think he can play on at this level until he’s 40. He is 37 now and the way he treats himself, he won’t decline fast. It is a reasonable target for him. It delights me to hear Chelsea fans sing his name and appreciate him as much as we do.”
It was at Porto where Silva was given another reminder of how cruel football can be. A year after losing the Champions League final with Paris Saint-Germain, the Brazilian was given a second chance to lift the European Cup with Chelsea in 2021.
This was an opportunity for redemption, perhaps his last to claim one of world football’s biggest prizes. But he lasted only 39 minutes of the final against Manchester City due to a groin injury and had to be replaced by Andreas Christensen.
Silva was crushed. For a brief period, he sat on the sidelines with a towel over his head, clearly emotional. But club personnel noticed how soon enough, Silva had put the heartbreak to one side, was up on his feet cheering and shouting encouragement or instructions to his team-mates.
This attitude is why he has become so beloved in such a short time at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea went on to win the game and held a big party at a venue in the city afterwards. But those who attended don’t remember Silva trying to take centre stage or dominate proceedings. He was very much in the periphery, just savouring the moment with his family.
The respect for Silva is clear. As Reece James said: “Everyone can see what he brings whenever he sets foot on the pitch. He is quality. He’s a good professional and a good person — he wouldn’t be playing at 37 years old at the highest level if he wasn’t. He’s a great person, a great leader and a great footballer.
“Does he set the tone for playing out of defence? It helps a lot and his experience helps a lot. He’s been around in the game a long time and has played many good games — and probably many bad games as well. And that all helps.”
When Chelsea signed Silva after his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expired in 2020, it didn’t earn universal praise. Coming to the Premier League in your mid-thirties, having grown accustomed to dominating fixtures on a regular basis in Ligue 1, raised some doubts over whether it would work. Making a sloppy mistake on his debut against West Brom did little to ease those concerns.
There were a number of good displays under his first Chelsea coach Frank Lampard, but it was the arrival of Thomas Tuchel in January 2021 which really made everything click.
Tim Vickery, a journalist who has covered South American football for the likes of the BBC since 1994, says: “The best thing that could have happened to him was Tuchel taking over. Obviously, they know and trust each other from their time together at PSG.
“Chelsea have got a lot more out of him than many expected. I remember people talking about his age and having played in France. It wasn’t very respectful.
“With Tuchel identifying he wasn’t as quick as he used to be, he cleverly put Silva in the middle of a back three and then used the pace of Antonio Rudiger next to him to offer some protection. It has given Silva a new lease of life.”
But Silva has played a big part in getting some kind of second wind. Those who follow him on Instagram will know he has installed exercise equipment at his house in Surrey to help stay in shape away from the training ground. However, it is not the only extra work he does. It is commonplace for the staff to tell the squad they have the day off only for him to reply, “No, I’m coming in” and he will do a light drill on his own, go in the pool or have an ice bath.
Inevitably, how he conducts himself, especially given he’s playing so well at 37, is closely monitored by the younger men in the dressing room. Seeing him still excel provides hope they can prolong careers well into their 30s too.
He has taken English lessons, but not enough to be confident to talk extensively. Non-coaching staff occasionally use Google Translate to ensure the right message is conveyed. And yet, there is no language barrier with his team-mates on the pitch. It helps that Silva can speak French, Portuguese and Italian. But a simple gesture, command or a short bark in English works just as efficiently.
Tuchel told Trevoh Chalobah last summer that he’d be better off being around someone like Silva for a season than going away on loan again. And so it’s proved. Chalobah said as much recently, saying: “When I came to Chelsea I was a striker at eight or nine years old. But then I got moved to centre-back and I always used to look at Thiago as one of my top centre-backs to watch on YouTube. I wanted to implement elements of him into my game. Now to share a pitch with him is unreal. I’ve told him that I used to watch videos of him all the time and he says to keep going. I hope to get to his level.”
The news that Silva had agreed to stay for a third season, by signing a 12-month extension in January, was welcomed by all Chelsea fans. Tuchel was certainly pushing for it. A measure of the esteem the German has for him is that he will talk and bounce ideas off the centre-half about football and tactics, sometimes even during games.
Securing the contract looks an even better bit of business now with Rudiger agreeing to join Real Madrid, plus the possibility of Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta leaving for Barcelona. Also, if both parties had left it until the end of the season to make a decision, negotiations wouldn’t have been able to take place because of owner Roman Abramovich being sanctioned in March and the takeover taking a while to finalise.
“Every decision you do, you are convinced is a good decision no matter when you do it,” Tuchel said when asked about the situation by The Athletic this month. “Nobody could see this coming, when you are sanctioned and cannot act on the transfer market and cannot act with our players so of course we are happy (to have kept Silva).
“We wanted to do it. We did it in the moment where it was not done not because a sanction was coming. It was done because we were convinced this is the most important. We had a reason, the player wants to stay, he sees his role, we see his influence.
“It will be a huge challenge for Thiago also (next season). We are aware he is not in the beginning of his career. It will be a huge challenge to keep the level up. If it stays like this, it is a good decision.”
It helps that his family are so settled, despite the inconsistent weather he was warned about. Sons Iago and Isago are training with the academy. Wife Belle Silva, the most vocal member of the household, provides mainly upbeat posts on social media — unless someone has criticised her husband’s performance on the field that is. You will be hard-pressed to see a picture of him living the high life in London though. Just like in his youth, he prefers to keep a low profile and spends a lot of time at home rather than at nightspots.
He regularly watches academy games — he was among the group of senior players who supported the under-23s as they beat Tottenham to stay in Premier League 2 Division One. Unsurprisingly, Tuchel was nearby.
In December, Thiago revealed how he rates Tuchel along with current Brazil coach Tite as the best he’s ever played under. Having that trust and personal relationship is vital.
“I just hope to give back some of what they have given to me,” he told the club’s 5th Stand app. “Right now, I’m living this amazing moment in my career. It’s just an honour to play for them and I hope I continue to repay them.
“They [Tuchel and Tite] are just two great guys and I find it very easy to speak about their human side. In my career, I’ve had great managers, but they’re really at the very top.
“It’s so special for me, at 37 years of age, to still be playing at the highest level. There are two that have made and continue to make that possible for me and that’s Tuchel here at Chelsea and Tite, the coach of the Brazilian national team.
“First of all, Tuchel is an excellent coach. Tactically, technically, and on the mental side, he is first-rate — but the other thing about him is how he is as a human being. He really just is an incredible guy. If I didn’t have ambitions and dreams then there’s no way that I’d be where I am here at Chelsea.”
As with most big games, the FA Cup final will be broadcast on television in Brazil but there is a question mark on just how much support Silva will receive on the day.
Despite all his achievements in club football, Silva splits opinion somewhat. Memories of the 2014 World Cup, when Brazil hoped to win the competition as hosts only to lose to Germany 7-1 in the semi-final, can’t be erased.
“Thiago is a little bit divisive because he is a class act, but he wasn’t a good captain in the 2014 World Cup,” Vickery claims. “It is something that people in Europe may have forgotten, but he was saying before the tournament that he was having sleepless nights about it, which wasn’t perhaps the message you wanted to hear from your captain.
“When the last-16 game against Chile went to penalties, he was expected to take one. He’s the captain and was a free kick specialist. Is he rallying the troops, preparing to take one? No, he’s sitting on his own a long way from everyone, crying his eyes out.
“Then, in the quarter-final, he stupidly got booked against Colombia by blocking their keeper (David Ospina) to stop him from releasing the ball. So he’s suspended for the semi (for getting two yellow cards in the tournament), which of course Brazil lost 7-1. Some people still hold all this against him.”
A more unkind appraisal is used by some of those Silva angered in his homeland. They refer to his 2014 World Cup campaign as “pipocar”, which translates in English to “chicken out”.
Simoni thinks club rivalry plays a part in those who see him in a negative light. “Obviously if you talk to those from a rival club, like Flamengo, of course they’re not going to say great things about him. But generally, it is impossible for those that like football to not acknowledge that he is one of the best defenders Brazil have produced,” he says.
“What happened in 2014 is something that shouldn’t be taken into account. I can’t accept the chat he was unstable or not the leader the team needed at that time. He has his own personality. If Brazil had 11 athletes like him, maybe we’d win the tournament again.
“Neymar is huge in Brazil and people cheer for him, but there are those that don’t like him. If he wins they’re not going to be happy for him because he doesn’t have the same personality as Thiago. A lot of people love and like him. I’m not sure many dislike him.”
Obviously, lifting the FA Cup for Chelsea is Silva’s main priority, but a strong display in front of a worldwide audience will also help his cause as he battles to make Tite’s starting line-up for the World Cup later this year.
There seems to be a straight fight between Real Madrid defender Eder Militao and him for one spot as PSG’s Marquinhos has established himself as first choice.
“In the minds of the wide Brazilian public Thiago is in front, but I get the feeling the coach is leaning towards Militao,” Vickery says. “Marquinhos and Militao didn’t concede a goal when paired together in qualifying. They can press higher because they have the speed. Militao can make mistakes but he has the pace to recover.
“Silva is still magnificent but he doesn’t have the speed anymore, plus Brazil play with a back four rather than a three. That will be in the Brazil coach’s mind. But basically it comes down to the class and experience of Silva versus the extra speed of Militao.”
On the eve of the final, Silva spoke about his ambitions to play on until he’s 40 and see out his playing days at Fluminense in the future. Such talk came as no surprise to Simoni, who concluded: “I always think Brazilians want to return home. He is Fluminense fan and posts clips of their games on his Instagram. He will want to play for Fluminense again. But he won’t go for a while yet. Now he is at Chelsea, he will give his best as long as he is able to.”
Nothing sums up Thiago Silva better.
Additional contributor: Liam Twomey
(Photo: Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)