The boys from Brazil! Twin brothers Rafael and Fabio da Silva open up on joining Man United as teenagers, their respect for Cristiano Ronaldo… and even confusing Sir Alex Ferguson!
- Rafael and Fabio da Silva are best known for their time with Manchester United
- Speaking to Sportsmail, they have opened up on their lifelong ‘special bond’
- They were told to join United as teenagers in a phone call by Cristiano Ronaldo
- Both twins also revealed boss Sir Alex Ferguson struggled to tell them apart
In the lockdown summer of 2020, two twin brothers would run together in the French countryside. Every day for five weeks. Thirty five consecutive days.
One of them, Fabio da Silva, was recovering from a dreadful knee injury suffered playing for Nantes. The other, Rafael, was there simply because he could not bear to think of his brother suffering alone.
‘We don’t hide for anyone,’ Fabio told Sportsmail this week. ‘We have a very, very special bond. To know he travelled with his family just for me. It didn’t just motivate me, it saved me.’
Rafael (right) and Fabio (left) da Silva have opened up on their careers and their ‘special bond’
The twin brothers are best known in England for their time together with Manchester United
It has always been this way. From the age of five, the Da Silvas played for the same junior team near their home in Petropolis, north of Rio.
When they were 11, they lived together in a dormitory at Fluminense’s academy, billeted with bigger, older boys.
‘For the first three weeks, my brother cried every night,’ said Rafael. ‘At times I cried, too. It was hard. We just had to stick together, as always.’
The Da Silva twins are known in England for their time playing together for Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. First spotted by the club aged 12, they arrived in Manchester when they were still only 17.
For both full-backs, the path to the first team was barred by Gary Neville, Patrice Evra, John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Neville is said to have uttered: ‘Rafael has been bought to retire me’.
Fabio found the challenge and the environment harder than his brother. He believes his innate nervousness stopped him achieving all that he may have. He suffered anxiety before matches.
Both full backs, Rafael (R) and Fabio (L) were spotted by the club at 12 and then arrived aged 17
Yet he played in United’s Champions League final defeat against Barcelona at Wembley in 2011 and won the Premier League. Rafael – the youngest Brazilian to play Premier League football – won the title three times.
‘In Brazil our story was seen as incredible,’ smiled Fabio on a Zoom call from France. ‘Not many young players went to England from our home like they do now.
‘But even though we both played for Brazil a few times (they have two caps each), I think we are now remembered more in Manchester.’
Fabio da Silva was at his parents’ home in Petropolis one rainy afternoon in 2005. Both boys had spent some time training at United but also had an offer from Arsenal. The phone rang.
‘First it was a Portuguese greeting,’ recalled Fabio. ‘Then the voice says: “It is Cristiano Ronaldo.” I think it is a joke but he says: “No, it is Cristiano here. I’m calling you to tell you to come to United. I can help you guys so you need to come. You’re going to enjoy.”
‘Sir Alex Ferguson must have known about Arsenal. This was his way of making sure we came to Manchester. It worked.’
Rafael (left) is currently a free agent but Fabio (right) has now been with Nantes for three years
The twins shared a dressing room with Ronaldo for just 18 months but it was long enough. Rafael used to try to ape Ronaldo’s self-belief.
‘He did extraordinary things and we gained our own confidence from that,’ he said.
For Fabio, the affection runs even deeper.
‘He is my hero, the best,’ he said. ‘He helped me a lot, saying: “Don’t worry, just play. Calm, cool. I will be here for you.”
‘That meant so much and, of course, his talent is something I’ve never seen in my life.
They have recalled being contacted by Cristiano Ronaldo, who told them to come to United
‘I love him because he set a very big example for young boys like us. That is what he will do for the players this second time.
‘The things I took from Cristiano are for life. The players about to play with him now at United should be thankful every day.’
The Da Silvas’ story is gently told in their newly-published book. The Sunshine Kids reads like a fairytale at times. Nevertheless, the challenges presented by their careers were real.
For Fabio, his route post-United to France came via spells at QPR, Cardiff and Middlesbrough. Rafael stayed at Old Trafford after Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 only to suffer the reigns of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.
‘Van Gaal hated instinct, hated one-touch football,’ Rafael says in the book. ‘He slowed us down so much our football was unrecognisable. He wanted no heart and all head. It felt like an army camp.’
Rafael stayed after Sir Alex Ferguson left but suffered under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Having spent five years at Lyon, Rafael is now a free agent after a short stay in Turkey. The fondness for United remains.
Both players name Rio Ferdinand – who Rafael called ‘the professor’ – Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick as formative influences.
Less fondness is felt for Carlos Tevez. ‘He didn’t respect me and the way he spoke to me on the field wasn’t nice,’ says Rafael. Michael Owen, meanwhile, seemed ‘more interested in horses than football’.
On their very first day at training in January 2008, Fabio looped the ball over the head of Paul Scholes completely by accident, a ‘trick’ greeted wildly by a whooping Ferdinand.
‘At that moment I really thought I was in a dream,’ laughed Fabio.
Pictured playing against former club United, Rafael (L) remains a fan favourite at Old Trafford
Ferguson, for his part, loved both boys to a degree that he has penned the foreword to their book and, when Rafael returned to Old Trafford in the Champions League with Istanbul Basaksehir last November, he asked to see him after the final whistle.
‘He just wanted to see that I was OK,’ recalled Rafael. ‘We didn’t talk about football, just life. I was still in my boots and kit. What a man.’
Not that Ferguson could always tell the two Da Silvas apart. Rafael used to slip on his brother’s wedding ring just to confuse their manager but soon realised that was not necessary. Often, in serious moments, the wrong twin would find themselves on the end of a Ferguson rollocking.
‘Even after five or six years he never could tell us apart,’ laughed Fabio this week.
‘The boys – Fletch, Rio – they could. But the manager? Never.’
The early months at Manchester were spent in a small house with their parents, Laurinda and Jose Maria, near United’s Carrington training ground off the M60. Hardly footballer chic.
But during their time there, they grew from boys to men. They became serious competitors.
At Liverpool, Steven Gerrard despised them, describing them to Wayne Rooney as a ‘pair of p*****’.
The twins have hilariously revealed that the legendary Ferguson (right) couldn’t tell them apart
Rafael (left) and his brother recognise the standards they were introduced to under Ferguson
Fabio and Rafael laugh about that now. Equally, they recognise the standards to which they were introduced under Ferguson. Fabio saw precious little of that at other clubs, while Rafael saw things begin to slide under Moyes and Van Gaal.
‘I think that’s the big difference, you know,’ said Fabio.
‘The talent was still in these clubs but they didn’t have the commitment or the work rate.
‘At Cardiff I worked for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. I love Ole. He had been reserve manager for me at United. He is a nice guy and I hated it because I felt some players took advantage of that.
‘Me and my brother always had a desire but also we learned a lot from Cristiano and Fletcher, Carrick, Patrice. They each did it differently but they all worked so hard.
‘I achieved quite a few things but I didn’t do more because – I won’t say I was weak – but I was not brave enough. I never played free.
‘My brother was different. He went for the shirt. But maybe I never felt I was really equal to the others.’
Fabio saw precious little of the same demands at United with his other clubs, such as Cardiff
The Da Silva twins are only 31 and have some playing time ahead of them. Fabio is currently back in the Nantes first team.
Beyond that, they may coach. The vague plan is for Rafael, already doing his badges, to be manager and his brother his assistant.
The football has been fundamental to the last 20 years but, perhaps more than that, it is the journey they have made together that they value.
When Fabio left United for QPR a week shy of his 22nd birthday, it was the first time the two of them had ever been apart.
Fabio is back with Nantes’ first-team, but beyond his career, he may coach alongside Rafael
All of which begs the question: would one of them ever have contemplated coming to United without the other?
‘It’s very hard to say,’ replied Fabio. ‘Once, my brother had some trials while I was with the national team under 15s. Even for two weeks apart, it was very difficult for us.’
During his spell at Cardiff, Fabio would regularly drive 200 miles to Manchester to see Rafael, often with his heavily pregnant wife.
To this day, a shared purpose remains. To provide for their parents back home, to make them proud. They were housekeepers as the boys grew up, working seven days a week. To repay and care for them has always been the focus.
Rafael and Fabio’s main goal in football was to help their mother and father to stop working
‘Every time we played together in the United team my dad and mum were nearly crying,’ smiled Fabio.
‘Where we come from, if you went there you would realise how incredible it was for us to do what we did. It was all about getting out, to help our mum and dad. To stop them working.
‘If you had told us back then that all this would happen in our life, we would say no. Everything we did is incredible. We never dreamed of any of this.’
Both twins think the modern United will be OK under Solskjaer.
‘He will need a title win, though,’ laughed Fabio.
Both the twins think the modern United will be successful under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (above)
The current United manager was part of the effort to integrate the young Brazilians back in 2008 and they have not forgotten that. Some things, though, they always did their own way.
After they became first-team players for example, the twins were allocated their own rooms on away trips. Eventually, Ferguson was alerted to the fact that one of them was not being used.
‘We are simple boys,’ smiled Fabio. ‘We didn’t need two rooms. They were massive! So we used to share.
‘We are brothers. We wanted to be together. I love that story. It shows exactly who we are.’
The Sunshine Kids by Fabio & Rafael Da Silva with Wayne Barton, Pitch Publishing, out now for £19.99.
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