The renaissance of Thiago Silva
Europe is very Neymar-literate, we tend to know our Willians and Philippe Coutinhos and can probably spin a good verse or two on Douglas Costa. But it will come as a surprise to most people to hear that João Miranda, for instance, is one of Brazil’s most important players. In a team that has conceded just 5 goals in their last 21 matches, Miranda has been an absolute mainstay of a stingy defence.
Back in 2014, people looked on incredulously as a half-fit Fred was Brazil’s starting number 9. Whilst far from the vintage of Ronaldo, Romário or even Gabriel Jesus, Fred was the best option for the position at the time and was actually in excellent form in 2012 and 2013, before a major hamstring tear inhibited him in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup.
It looks as though Thiago Silva has just edged himself back into a starting spot in the centre of the Seleção defence in time for the World Cup. Viewers that have not had ‘contact’ with Brazil since the 2014 edition would be entitled to think that his international story has been linear. But it has not. In fact, Thiago pretty much lost his starting berth in the wake of the last tournament and is only just getting it back.
Dunga’s appointment back in 2014 created an immediate crease in Silva’s storyline. Dunga took the captaincy away from him and transferred it to Neymar. It seemed a ludicrous decision at the time and hindsight supports that view. Neymar was already an indulged talent shouldering the burden of expectation for a whole nation.
Saddling him with the captaincy was an unnecessary additional responsibility for someone who was already close to a one man team. The Brazilian press came to refer to this brand of dependence as “Neymar-dependência.” The decision upset Thiago Silva, who had endured criticism for refusing to watch Brazil’s penalties in their World Cup round of 16 shootout against Chile.
Brazil were heavily criticised for their emotional fragility during the 2014 tournament under the avuncular, indulgent tutelage of Felipe Scolari. Dunga was an intentionally icy antidote to Felipão’s arm around the shoulder style and Silva, a little unfairly, became the poster boy for the Seleção’s team of cry-babies.
Having sat out the 7-1 semi-final humiliation against Germany, Thiago might have expected to be spared some of the naval gazing, especially given his defensive partner David Luiz’s erratic displays during the tournament. So perhaps his reputation as an emotionally incontinent captain took him by surprise.
The PSG centre-half went public on his disappointment at being passed over for the armband, “He [Dunga] didn't come to speak to me, I spoke to nobody in fact. That's what annoys me a bit. I'm not going to tell you I'm happy as it's not true. I have the impression that something that belonged to me has been taken away. Losing the armband is painful."
Dunga’s response was typically unsympathetic. He dropped Silva from the squad altogether, feeling that Silva’s ‘outburst’ was further evidence of his emotional instability. Which is pretty remarkable from a character like Dunga, nicknamed ‘Dunga the Angry’ by the Brazilian press. (His nickname ‘Dunga’ is Portuguese for ‘Dopey’, a tag his uncle gave him as a child due to his resemblance to the character from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves- hence, ‘Dopey the Angry’).
Silva was banished from the squad, until the 2015 Copa América, when he earned a shot at redemption. Dunga surprisingly picked him for the squad in Chile. David Luiz confirmed his unreliability when he made a horrendous error in the opening minutes of the opening match against Peru. Dunga wobbled and dropped Luiz in favour of Silva. It looked like Thiago Silva had been ushered in from the cold, when in fact, he was just warming up for another spell of isolation.
The Seleção led Paraguay in the quarter-final, until the 71 st minute, when Silva inexplicably reached up and punched a cross in his penalty area. Paraguay equalised from the spot. The game eventually went to penalties and in the build-up to the shootout, this time Silva was not on his haunches in the semi-circle with his back turned. This time he was fending off an inquisition from his own teammates.
Robinho led the debate, in which he made absolutely no attempt to disguise his bafflement, constantly waving his arm in the air in Silva’s face. Around an hour after the incident had taken place, Silva’s teammates wanted to know what on earth he was thinking in that moment of madness. Perhaps unsurprisingly against this backdrop of mutiny, Brazil lost the resulting shootout.
The incident redoubled Dunga’s suspicion that Silva was too emotionally unstable to rely on. He never picked him again. The PSG captain had to wait another year, until Dunga’s painful reign was brought to an end by a disastrous group stage exit at the 2016 Copa América. The CBF went cap in hand to Tite, easily the most gifted Brazilian coach of his generation. Tite reintroduced Silva into the fold, but only as a first reserve. Instead, the new coach gave Silva’s PSG apprentice Marquinhos the chance to form a symbiotic partnership with João Miranda.
The upshot was that Brazil conceded only once in Tite’s opening eight matches, so there was little need to change. Thiago kept his lip buttoned, kept clocking in and kept returning to Paris with no further caps to add to his collection. That was until March, when Marquinhos picked up an injury and opened the door for his clubmate.
Silva was exemplary in a hard fought 1-0 win in Berlin. Alongside the equally experienced Miranda, he provided assurance, a steady hand and economic passing from the back. It’s true that Brazil have occasionally been guilty of over valuing largely insignificant wins against European opposition in the past. Who can forget the 2013 Confederations Cup triumph against a half interested Spain side, which over inflated Scolari’s opinion of his squad?
But Tite has not treated these friendlies like friendlies at all. Brazil’s qualification for Russia was sealed over a year ago and ever since, every game has been treated as a meticulous part of this summer’s preparation (with the possible exception of a couple of commercially driven exhibition matches against Australia and Argentina in Sydney last summer).
Performing so masterfully in Berlin appears to have convinced Tite to reinvest faith in the 33 year old. Silva turns 34 in September and once Russia is done and dusted, Tite will have to look beyond the ageing pair of Silva and Miranda (as well as 34 year old Dani Alves). But this summer represents a four year road to redemption for Thiago Silva’s international career.