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Chelsea's Thiago Silva: “One of my lungs was completely white. I spent six months in a Russian hospital. But now I can say I’m a life champion, too!”

(Image credit: PA Images)

This feature first appeared in the March 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now (opens in new tab) and get first five issues for just £5! The interview was conducted before Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard in the Chelsea dugout.

Flying a kite might feel to most people like a pastime from the last century, but it’s up there as one of Thiago Silva’s favourite activities to help him disconnect from football. More than that, though, it takes the 36-year-old Chelsea (opens in new tab) defender back to his rough but joyful childhood in western Rio de Janeiro. 

“I was more passionate about kites than football,” he tells FFT in his first major interview with British media since crossing the English Channel from Paris Saint-Germain (opens in new tab) last summer. “If I was having a kickaround with my friends and saw a kite up in the sky, I would leave the ball behind straight away, take my string and head over for the battle.” 

As competitive as he can be, however, the Brazilian doesn’t waste time doing it during the season. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge with no other kites in the London sky – as if the rain would even allow it. Silva’s aerial duels are hosted in his hometown. “The feeling of cutting someone’s kite is as good as scoring a goal,” he chuckles.

The centre-back has always been about beauty over brutality. The legendary Paolo Maldini, his former Milan (opens in new tab) team-mate, once hailed him as “the only defender who can change the outcome of the game”. 

Silva also has a few things that he would like to get off his chest. Over the course of a remarkable three-hour interview with FFT, Chelsea’s No.6 is terrific company, discussing everything from his distressing PSG departure and Frank Lampard’s charm offensive, to the devastating time that tuberculosis nearly cost him his life in Russia. Silva also reveals fresh details of his unique individual preparations for Premier League life, with one eye on going to a fourth World Cup at Qatar 2022. 

It’s about to get emotional...

Why did you leave PSG last summer?
A lot was said about it – that I didn’t want to reduce my salary to stay at PSG – but there’s only one truth. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March, I went back to Brazil. One day, [PSG sporting director] Leonardo called me. He praised me for the winning story I’d had at the club, and also thanked me for my dedication and service. 

At the end of the call, he said that the club had decided not to keep me, but asked if I would be up for renewing my contract for three months to cover the closing stages of the Champions League in Lisbon. Jumping ship wasn’t for me, so, after a few seconds of silence, I decided to accept it. I said to him, “Leo, I should have prepared myself for this, but you could have at least offered me something, or even asked what I wanted. But it’s OK.” 

We had another meeting in Lisbon, which was better – we had only spoken about my future over the phone, which is never a nice situation. Leo said that he was quite surprised by how upbeat I was, despite knowing that I wouldn’t be staying. I told him it was down to my character. Regardless of how long I’d be staying, I wanted to leave the club winning every trophy possible.

At what point did Chelsea come calling?
Before going to Lisbon, I told my agent that he could start finding a new club for me, but that he was forbidden to tell me anything until after our last Champions League game. The morning after the final against Bayern Munich (opens in new tab), I bumped into the [PSG] president Nasser [Al-Khelaifi] in the hotel lift, and he told me that Leo wanted to talk to me again once we were back in Paris. I imagined what was coming, although my mind was already away from PSG. As soon as the final whistle went in Portugal, I felt like that was my last appearance for the club. 

The Monday after the final, my agent called to say that an offer from Chelsea was on the table, and I had only a few days to decide. I accepted the next day, before my meeting with Leo. Later, he asked me whether I had already signed for another club, but it wasn’t the cleverest question. I told him I hadn’t, but that I had given my word to Chelsea and that it was worth more than any money. He asked, “But is there any way we can…?” “No, my mind is already out of the club and Paris.” 

How gutted were you with the way that PSG handled your exit?
They never offered me a single thing; not even, “Thiago, do you accept €1 to stay with us?” Absolutely nothing, which was very upsetting. There’s something worse than that, though. Even in the middle of a pandemic, they had three months to plan a farewell, but nothing was done. Man, I wasn’t there for only one season, or a few months – it was an eight-year spell as a captain who lifted a number of trophies at the club. I deserved much more respect than that. The same thing happened to [Edinson] Cavani.

That said, I’m really grateful for the things I experienced there. The final bit aside, I was happy and always well treated by everyone. I did everything I could to take the club to where they are now: we got to a Champions League final for the first time ever. PSG will always be in my heart.

Thiago Silva, Chelsea

(Image credit: Getty)

Man, I wasn’t at PSG for only one season, or a few months – it was an eight-year spell as a captain who lifted a number of trophies at the club. I deserved much more respect than that

What role did Frank Lampard play in your move to Stamford Bridge?
As soon as I said yes, he sent me a picture of us both shaking hands as national team captains in 2013. It was a nice surprise. He understood exactly what I needed at this stage of my career, probably because he had made a similar move when he was also 36, from Chelsea to Manchester City (opens in new tab). I didn’t think twice when I heard Chelsea were interested in me – not only because of their history, but also because Willian and David Luiz invariably spoke highly of them.

Marina [Granovskaia, club director] called me after I’d agreed, then passed me on to Frank. It was through a translator, because I still don’t speak English and his accent was even tougher for me! [Laughs] He hit the nail on the head from day one, saying, “Thiago, you don’t need to worry about your age – it’s not a concern for me at all. I’ll count on you absolutely, and I want to listen to what you have to say.” I was over the moon with that; knowing everyone at the club, top to bottom, wanted me here. My mission now is to keep up with what everybody expects from me.

He said several times how impressed he was with your professionalism on and off the pitch. What stood out, do you think?
I take massive pride in that, because it came from a legend of the game – a born winner. It meant a lot when he said that, at my age, you still play at the highest level because of your passion for the game and dedication to your career. You have to forgo many things if you want the very best post-match recovery possible, especially in a hectic campaign like this one. Sometimes I can’t play with my kids because I’ve got to spend a bit of time doing something specific that will pay off later in my career. At times I can include them in my recovery routine, like exercising in the pool, but it’s not always like that. Actually, while we speak I’m sat doing my Compex recovery, with pads on my thigh to accelerate muscle recovery using electrical stimulation. Having a family who understands all the duties of a professional athlete is crucial, which is why I’m forever grateful for my wife and kids.

What other practices have you adopted in order to prolong your career?
There are a few but, for example, before this interview I also did a daily two-hour session of hyperbaric oxygen therapy to speed up my recovery. I have a special chamber set up at home, where I breathe pure oxygen at high pressure – that helps to increase levels in the blood. I started doing it seven years ago in Paris, when I was struggling to fully recover from an injury.

The physiotherapist I used to work with at Fluminense (opens in new tab) and Milan, Marcelo Costa, began to research recovery measures and looked at what NBA players do. Given they play loads of matches in a really short time period, their recovery must be spot on, so we felt it would be an excellent benchmark. As it was for the benefit of my career in the long term, I saw it as an investment rather than an expense – it cost $23,000 to get one from the US! Last year, I decided to invest in a bigger one for $24,000, with more space to move my body and be comfortable. I lent my old one to Luiz Gustavo and then to Dante, who was on the mend from a serious knee problem. Jorginho saw a photo I posted online and asked what it was, so I invited him to my place to give it a try. He’s since bought one for himself – but I don’t earn commission at all, OK? [Laughs] I usually use it after lunch every day – if I’m injured, it’s twice daily.

Were you surprised to be named Chelsea captain in only your second match?
It was a huge surprise. The first two captains, Azpi [Cesar Azpilicueta] and Jorginho, were substitutes in that game against West Brom (opens in new tab), and Frank didn’t even ask me anything – he just gave me the armband and said, “This is yours today.” My reaction was like, “Bloody hell!” Straight after the game, I made a point of talking to both Azpi and Jorginho, saying I joined Chelsea to help the squad regardless of being captain or not. In football, situations like that can end up in envy, but it’s not the armband that will make me better or worse.

How is it possible to be a leader without speaking the language?
It’s very easy to understand the language of football. I don’t speak English and understand little of it at the moment, but Azpi can speak French and Spanish, N’Golo Kante also speaks French, and [Mateo] Kovacic speaks Spanish and Italian... I’ve already picked up a couple of phrases to help guide the other defenders back and forth, right and left. Away from the pitch I’m quite shy but sometimes when I’m on it I find myself speaking Spanish, French and even a few unexpected words in English that I didn’t know I spoke! [Laughs]

In a viral moment at Glastonbury in 2019, rapper Dave invited a fan – Alex, who was wearing your PSG jersey – on stage to sing his Thiago Silva tune. What did you think?
I received so many messages after that! My reaction was, “Wow, they’re singing a song about me in England?!” It touched me. Even though Paris and London aren’t that far from each other, at the time it seemed like a great distance from me. PSG did something with the fan in Paris, and I had the opportunity to meet him and give him a signed shirt.

Funnily enough, after my first goal, against Sheffield United (opens in new tab), Reece [James] came in my direction and started to sing, “Ohhh, Thiago Silva.” When we welcomed 2,000 fans back to Stamford Bridge, the fans chanted it, and it felt incredible to hear that. Unfortunately, we’re going through very difficult times right now, but I can’t wait to see Stamford Bridge packed with supporters, singing their songs. It will be sensational!

Chelsea have won the Champions League already, so can you enjoy the tournament more, after the colossal pressure at PSG?
I believe so, yes. At PSG, the pressure to win a first Champions League title is immense. The team works around this objective, not to win Ligue 1. It’s no use doing a clean sweep of the domestic titles, as we did a few times, but being knocked out in the last 16 or last eight of Europe. It always seemed like if that happened, the whole season was s**t – it felt over once we exited the Champions League. At Chelsea, however, there’s a very different atmosphere regarding European football: the club has already managed to lift that trophy, and winning the Premier League title is also one of our priorities.

How much longer are you planning to play before hanging up your boots?
I have it settled in my mind: I’m working my body to play until I’m 40. I’m not sure if it’s because I played with Maldini and he carried on until he turned 41, but I watched the last six months of his great career and could see it’s possible to get there. It was impressive, the way he prepared himself for games, and how he dedicated himself to the team. My plan is to be at the next World Cup in 2022.

Many people said I was a crybaby and failure. Who has never cried in their life? The emotion comes when we go through huge moments and really care about them

Speaking of Brazil, how did the 2014 World Cup – playing as hosts, progressing to the semi-finals, only to lose 7-1 to Germany – impact your career and your life, given that you were the national team captain?
It had a negative impact, of course, but at the same time it gave me strength to keep going forward. It’s a scar I’ll never be able to fully get rid of. I was heavily criticised during that World Cup over a few things: for instance, because I cried and sat on a ball by myself to pray before the shootout against Chile in the last 16. I didn’t understand the outcry about it back then and still don’t understand it now. Many people said I was a crybaby and failure. Who has never cried in their life? The emotion comes when we go through huge moments and really care about them, and that World Cup meant a great deal to me. I was crying for happiness, not sadness.

Even after the 7-1 defeat against Germany, when I didn’t play [due to a ban], people tried to blame me. I was suffering from up in the stands as much as every Brazilian. Although I wasn’t allowed to go into the dressing room, I went down at half-time, trying to help; to cheer my team-mates up. I screamed, but it was no use at that point. I wish I could erase that horrendous day from my memory, but it’s not possible.

Is it true you want to become a manager after you retire?
I’d be lying if I said that isn’t the plan. I do think about it, but it’s still a bit far away yet. I’ve started to prepare myself, though: last year I earned my first badges with the CBF [Brazil’s FA]. I’m fortunate to have had many great coaches, like Carlo Ancelotti and Tite, so I’ve learned lots under them. I also spoke to Lampard and Thomas Tuchel about my desire to become a manager.

Thiago Silva, PSG

(Image credit: Getty)

Born in Santa Cruz, Rio de Janeiro, Silva had to overcome hardship, violence, rejection and a life-threatening disease on his journey to becoming O Monstro – the nickname given to him by Fluminense fans during their 2008 Copa Libertadores runners-up campaign. They knocked out Juan Roman Riquelme’s Boca Juniors in the semi-finals, with their defensive titan scoring a header in the first leg’s 2-2 draw in Buenos Aires. From there, the Brazilian centre-back joined Milan, won Serie A and became such a Rossoneri icon that supporters protested when he was sold to PSG in the summer of 2012.

Prior to that, however, came challenges beyond comprehension. Silva had left Brazil for Portugal in 2004, and spent one season with Porto B before joining Dynamo Moscow on loan a year later. He had faced struggles in the past, back home – but nothing could prepare him for what happened in Russia.

To what extent did you deal with violence when you were growing up in Rio during the ’80s and ’90s?
It was a complicated situation but I strongly believe those moments strengthened me as I was growing up. Life is like that, with tough but also happier times. Everything was quite hard in my childhood due to violence, which was getting worse in Rio back then. It wasn’t a good idea to stay out late at night, as after a certain hour you wouldn’t be able to return home 100 per cent safe.

My family’s place, in a favela in western Rio de Janeiro, was less than 1km away from my grandmother’s and I used to play football in a square near her place until late. On my way back home, though, I had to take a path that was slightly darker and riddled with thieves. I had to get lucky not to pass them at the same time as a police raid. Sometimes I had to wait at my grandmother’s place, or go to a friend’s house right at the entrance of that favela. I used to lower my head and just run straight home – there was always a big relief when I got there.

What are your happiest memories about that time in Brazil?
Even though my family sometimes struggled to make ends meet, I have happy memories. Being where I am now and where I was as a child, I know and understand how football brings happiness and hope to people. When I lived in the Gongolo favela, I really dreamed of becoming a footballer. I remember clearly the day Brazil won the 1994 World Cup Final. As soon as [Roberto] Baggio shot his penalty over the crossbar, the whole neighbourhood went crazy celebrating – and, obviously, us boys headed straight over to the pitch to play football. Back then, I saw myself as a striker. I tried to copy Romario and Bebeto because they formed a legendary duo.

Living in the suburbs of Rio, what sort of sacrifices did you have to make in order to pursue your football dream?
I used to spend the whole day out, going to school and then training – very long journeys by bus on my own from when I was only 12, training at Fluminense’s academy in Xerem. Sometimes the journey could last two hours from my neighbourhood! My stepfather, who I sadly lost a few years ago, occasionally did it with me, but we didn’t have much money, so he couldn’t afford to keep accompanying me wherever I went. On my way to training, I had a free pass because I was wearing my school uniform, but in the evenings I had to spend money on the bus ticket. Sometimes I only had enough cash for either a ticket or a snack, but I had to go home!

That didn’t last very long, as I got released when I was about to step up to the under-14 team. The coach didn’t like my playing style; back then, I was a holding midfielder. Thank God that happened, though. Perhaps if I had carried on playing as a midfielder, I wouldn’t have become the Thiago Silva who people in football know today.

After a failed trial I wanted to give up. 'Then tomorrow at 4am you must be awake to join your brother in his transport van,' my mum told me. 'He leaves for work at 4.30am'

Later, Flamengo rejected you after a trial. Were you close to giving up at any point?
Yes, that was the big moment. I don’t carry bad feelings toward Flamengo any more, but obviously that day I was extremely angry and upset about it. When you’re being assessed, the least you can expect from coaches is to be properly watched by them. When you’re a youngster, it’s very natural to look over at them when you attempt a play or a pass, to check their reactions. But whenever I looked, they all had their backs to the pitch, chatting between themselves. They didn’t watch my trial at all, and I was livid. I went back home and said, “Mum, I’ve had enough.”

She stayed completely silent for a couple of minutes, then she rang my older brother. She said to me, “You have a dream and you can’t let other people crush it this way. You have to remain strong and keep going forward. If you don’t want this any more, that’s all right – it’s completely up to you. I won’t force you. But I am sure about something: if you decide to give up your dream, then tomorrow at 4am you must be awake to join your brother in his transport van. He leaves for work at 4.30am.” My brother came to me and also said, “Don’t choose this path for your life.” [Silva’s voice cracks] Their words made me really think for a while. Today, I can say proudly that I made it with their support.

What happened during your battle with tuberculosis in 2005?
It happened when I was playing for Porto B, and I started to feel a lot of pain in my chest. My friends joked about it, saying that I was just missing my girlfriend and family in Brazil. Five months later, some Portuguese players and I signed for Dynamo Moscow. We went back to Portugal for pre-season, and the pain only got worse. After loads of medical tests, they found out that I had tuberculosis. But they didn’t tell me straight away, so we all returned to Moscow.

When they showed me the results, one of my lungs was completely white. As the issue was already spreading to the other one, the doctor said I’d be hospitalised straight away for four months, which hit me very hard. The room was very tiny, with no bathroom – just a hole in the floor.

In the end, it wasn’t four months, but six. For the first three, I couldn’t see anyone. My mum and girlfriend flew to Russia – actually, Isabelle went there to break up with me but didn’t go through with it! She left everything behind in Brazil, and we’re still together. Her presence there gave me so much strength. Only God knows what would have happened if she’d broken up with me.

After six months I could leave the hospital, but I still wasn’t cured yet. There was a vital intervention from Ivo Wortmann, Dynamo’s coach, who had also been my manager at Juventude. He and my agent wouldn’t allow the doctor to take me for surgery to remove one lobe of the lung. I went back to Portugal, where I had a flat, and kept up my recovery there. A tuberculosis specialist recommended I go walking for half an hour in the mornings until I felt tired, then restart. Isabelle came with me by bike – but, man, I couldn’t do it for five minutes. I felt exhausted. But I didn’t stop – little by little, I improved, then began jogging. After three months, I was healed.

When I returned to Brazil, the opportunity arose to sign for Fluminense, my childhood team. I found out that it was Ivo who asked to sign me. But, just as I was about to play my first game, I injured my ankle – then Ivo was sacked after a run of bad results. I didn’t play for him at Dynamo or Fluminense, but he was a guardian angel sent to play a big part in my life. [Silva wells up] This is moving for me, regardless of how many times I tell the story. Once I played, I became a starter for Fluminense and never looked back. Then came Milan, PSG, now Chelsea. I take huge pride in saying that I’m a life champion, too!


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