When footballers talk about their former clubs you will often hear them say that they still look out for their results, that it’s one of the first scores they look for when they return to their new dressing room. It can be something of a cliche, but they know the fans will love it.
Fabio da Silva doesn’t need to look out for the Manchester United results more than six years since he left Old Trafford. He doesn’t need to check, because every time United score – or concede – his phone will light up, or buzz in his pocket.
There’s nothing for show about the way Fabio talks about United, about the way the club changed his life and the life of his twin brother, Rafael, who returns to Old Trafford with Istanbul Basaksehir tonight.
Fabio might have played only 56 games for United, but the Brazilian will never forget what the club, or Sir Alex Ferguson, did for him and his family. That’s why he has notifications set up to keep him as up-to-date as possible with events at Old Trafford. It’s why the brothers plan to be regulars on the weekend flights into Manchester when they retire, keen to watch United amongst the supporters who took them both to their hearts.
The full-back is now at Ligue 1 side Nantes, enjoying life in Brittany and, but for the COVID-19 pandemic, he might well have been at Old Trafford, watching his twin brother play for the Turkish champions at a stadium that means so much to both of them.
Fabio spoke to Rafael soon after the first game three weeks ago, which Istanbul Basaksehir won 2-1, and he reveals that his twin brother couldn’t hold back the tears when the group stage draw handed him a return to Old Trafford.
“To watch my brother and see him playing against United again, to see the way he played, it was fantastic,” Fabio told the MEN.
“He wanted to show something as well, in the end the way my brother left United was a bit rash, he really had a problem with [Louis] van Gaal, but he showed for himself that he could be there still. It’s good to see him like this, I loved it.
“When my brother saw the draw and he knew he would play at Old Trafford again and against United again he cried, his connection with Manchester United is something I’ve never seen before, it’s incredible.”
Now 30, Fabio and Rafael have come a long way since the teenagers with the infectious enthusiasm who turned up in Manchester and won hearts and minds at the club.
Ferguson took them under his wing, forming an unlikely bond between a fiery Scot and two laid-back teenagers from Rio.
During a phone conversation with the MEN Fabio cannot hide his reverence for Ferguson – “he’s not just a fantastic manager, he’s a fantastic person. I have no words to thank him for what he did for me and my brother and for my family” – and admits Ferguson’s departure in 2013 was bad news for him personally.
But first he takes us back to the start, to two 15-year-olds training with United during the freezing winter months.
“The first time I saw him I shook his hand,” remembers Fabio. “I was in a bit of a shock, I was shaking, I was so young. It was something you never expect at 15.
“It’s not just football, he liked us as people. The first week we came from Brazil at 15 to Manchester it was January, it was so cold, but it didn’t scare us.
“We got to the pitch, we worked hard, we ran, we fought for everything. I think he liked our attitude, the way we dealt with the cold from coming to a country with weather of 37 or 38 degrees.
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United get their Premier League campaign back underway on Saturday when they welcome strugglers West Brom to Old Trafford.
The under-pressure Reds came from behind to beat Everton last time out thanks to Bruno Fernandes’ double and Edinson Cavani’s first goal for United.
The players are returning from the two-week international break, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping to have as few injury and fitness concerns as possible among the stars coming back from international duty.
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“We came out with shorts, sometimes when players come from Brazil they have gloves on and everything to train, we had shorts and just ran everywhere. I think he saw something extra in us.”
That was the personality that made Fabio and Rafael such popular members of the United dressing room and amongst the supporters.
They signed for United at 17 – but couldn’t be registered until they turned 18 – and the way they’d been treated by Ferguson made it easier for their parents to let them leave Brazil.
“When we came back [permanently], the way Manchester United treat us made it more special. My mum loved the way they treated us there, it was something very special, they loved Manchester United because of that,” said Fabio.
“As young boys growing up in Brazil, it’s not easy for my parents, they worked hard to give the best to us. At that age you have no idea what’s going to be.
“We don’t have everything but we had what we needed, then Sir Alex is the guy who changed our lives.”
Rafael ended up playing 170 times for United, but while Fabio managed less than a third of that total there was a time he looked like he might be securing a long-term future at right-back.
He began the 2011 Champions League final in that position, which came during his best run in the side, with the vacancy opening up due to an injury to Rafael.
But ultimately a pact the twins made with Ferguson when they joined United meant Fabio never saw that role as his likely path to a long-term future at Old Trafford.
“It’s hard for me because my brother is a right-back as well. The first thing me and my brother spoke about with Sir Alex is that we didn’t want to have competition with each other,” said the full-back whose book, The Sunshine Kids, written with Rafael, is out next year.
“For us it was very hard like that. I’m right-footed but that’s why I play left-back, but in the end my brother was injured and I had a good run in the team, it was my best run at Man United. I was playing well, I played the Champions League final at right-back.”
That would be as good as it got at United, however. Fabio mentions that Wembley final and an FA Cup quarter-final win against Arsenal at Old Trafford, when he played in a midfield four with Rafael and scored, with his parents in the crowd, as his highlights, but after a season on loan at Queens Park Rangers the departure of Ferguson and the arrival of David Moyes signalled the beginning of the end.
“I cannot blame anyone apart from myself. I was young, I was immature, I started to play very young but now I think I’d be much different, my mentality would be different,” Fabio said of the way it ended for him at Old Trafford.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself then, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. That’s just how I am, my brother always complains to me about this.
“I don’t want to let anyone down, I liked everyone in that team, they liked me, I didn’t want to let them down, but I think I put too much pressure on myself, I look now and think I should have taken some pressure off myself.”
Fabio would play just three times in six months under Moyes before joining Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Cardiff and he cites a lack of trust as a major issue with Ferguson’s replacement.
His United career would end on a sad note, a red card in an FA Cup third-round defeat to Swansea City. As Fabio made that long walk to the tunnel at Old Trafford he knew he’d just played his last game for the club of his dreams.
“With [Moyes] it was different. I play one game against Crystal Palace and I play well and I never have another chance,” he said.
“I was very frustrated, the way everything was happening. I should have started that game [against Swansea], then Moyes came to me and said I was on the bench and I knew he didn’t trust me.
“That’s why I came on in the game and I got sent-off within a few minutes, it was frustration. I was tackled and lost my head, I regret it.
“I knew then it was my last game. I knew it was my time to go.”
But the twins have never forgotten what United did for them and, one day when they’ve hung their boots up, they will be back to support their club in person, when Fabio can finally turn those notifications off.