Thiago Silva Almost Died in Russia; Now He Has Returned for Glory with Brazil

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IJuly 5, 2018

Brazil's defender Thiago Silva greets fans as he celebrates with teammates at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between Brazil and Mexico at the Samara Arena in Samara on July 2, 2018. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

When Ivo Wortmann signed a contract and arrived to take over as Dynamo Moscow coach in July 2005, he had little time to lose.

Wortmann, who as a player was part of Brazil's 1975 Copa America squad, headed straight to the stadium to watch his new side in action from a private box with his assistants.

Wortmann knew he had at least one exciting talent at his new club. Dynamo offered him a chance to reunite with Thiago Silva, a 20-year-old protege who he worked with at Juventude—his previous club back in Brazil.

Silva left Juventude for Portuguese giant Porto, who subsequently sent him to Russia on loan. Wortmann knew that his former player was currently sidelined, but even so, he was shocked when they were reacquainted.

"I was devastated when I saw him," he told Bleacher Report.

"He showed up at the box and I barely recognized him," he added. "He was all deformed, seemed swollen, had gained over 10 kilograms, around 12 kilograms. I would find out later that it was because of the medicine he had been taking. I was really worried about him."

This was not the Thiago Silva he had known at Juventude. There the centre-back had excelled in a three-man line with Schalke 04's veteran defender Naldo and Internacional de Porto Alegre's legend Indio. Such was Silva's prodigious talent that Cristiano Ronaldo's agent, Jorge Mendes, travelled all the way from Portugal to check on him and arrange his transfer to Porto.

However, the Silva that Wortmann found in Moscow had contracted tuberculosis. He had already been sidelined from training for nearly three months, and his problems were far from finished.

Silva was under treatment at a hospital in the Sokolniki area. For some time, he was not even allowed to have visitors in a pocket-sized room that included only a freezer and a small bathroom. After a while, he was able to go home on weekends, but his nightmare situation endured.

"One day, the doctors told me Thiago had a hole in his lung and had to go through a surgery. They warned me, 'Do not to expect him to go back to training.' It would mean the end of his career," Wortmann says. "How could he run without a part of his lung?

"The risk of death was real."

Silva's agent, Paulo Tonietto, knew the situation was grave and worked on getting his client out of the country.

"We didn't let them operate on him and asked for Mendes' assistance to take him back to Portugal. We could not let him die in Russia," Tonietto explained to B/R.

Timo Buckets @TimoBuckets

Recognizing the chubby kid? 20 year old Thiago Silva joining Dynamo Moscow on loan from Porto in 2005. The docs diagnosed him with open tuberculosis, the kid nearly died during a year-long therapy. Long story short, he is now your captain @ PSG and team Brazil. So happy for him!! https://t.co/zepvwRfojf

Finally, in early September of that year, the defender was discharged from the hospital after six months of fighting for his life. Four days later, he arrived back in Portugal to start a new course of treatment. It would take another three months before he finally got the news he longed to hear: He could return to football. Silva cried tears of joy.

As fate would have it, Thiago Silva is now back in Russia, the country where his career and even his life almost ended.

Now 33 years old, Silva has been superb on Brazil's road to the World Cup quarter-finals. The man whose lungs caused doctors such concern has covered an impressive 32 kilometres in four matches, according to FIFA's stats.

And he will not rest until he conquers a sixth world title for Brazil. Next up: Belgium.

Whenever Thiago Silva plays, he still thinks back to those nights in a Moscow hospital.

"That [the illness] could have ended my career; I needed guardian angels to take me away [from that condition]," he told reporters after the 2-0 win against Serbia in the group stage. "It was one of the worst moments of my personal life. Fortunately, I'm enjoying everything [here] much more this time."

Silva's Russian nightmare started a few months before he arrived there, back in Porto. That's when he realised something was wrong—he could not stop coughing and had chest pains during training. However, despite several medical exams, nothing was diagnosed.

Silva had joined Porto for $3.8 million from second-tier Juventude but was to start his time there with the B team. Wortmann was against the move from the start, and he told Mendes as much.

"I warned him in a conversation, 'Hear me out, Jorge. He is a first-team player; you're going to lose time if you take him to the [Porto] reserves,' but he didn't listen to me," he explains.

"He had come to watch our matches in Caxias do Sul. Silva was in such a good form, really impressive and had the media asking around about him."

TOPSHOT - Brazil's defender Thiago Silva (L) is congratulated on his goal by Brazil's forward Neymar during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Serbia and Brazil at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on June 27, 2018. (Photo by Kirill KUDR

Silva did not play a single minute for Porto's first team and was loaned out to Dynamo Moscow, another club in Mendes' network. The Russians had brought in seven players from Portugal in January 2005, among them the Brazilian centre-back.

Like some of the other new recruits, Silva was signed without undergoing a medical. It didn't take long for the Muscovites to regret that decision. "They traveled to Lisbon as part of their pre-season, but he was not training well, feeling strangely weak. When they returned to Moscow, he was then diagnosed with tuberculosis," Tonietto says.

It would later be revealed that Silva had been carrying the disease for six months before arriving in Russia.

Andrey Kobelev, Dynamo's assistant coach at that time, could not believe it. "I had not seen such a promising defender for long while. He had amazing qualities," he told Russian outlet Sport-Express. "After a month, we found out Thiago had an illness. After that, we checked the whole team in case someone got infected while [Thiago] was forbidding from training."

If it had taken any more time to diagnose Silva with tuberculosis, he might not have made it at all.

Silva has never had it easy. From the favelas of Campo Grande, he was abandoned by his father at the age of five. He had to fight to make it as a footballer too after being rejected by a host Rio de Janeiro-based sides. Silva had trials with Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo, Madureira and Olaria, but none of them yielded a contract.

After going through all that, he was determined not to be defeated by tuberculosis when his career was finally taking off.

For that, Brazil's leader will be forever grateful to Wortmann, the man who stopped the Russian doctors from removing a part of his lung and searched for alternatives instead.

"Even though I'm not a doctor, I could not accept that someone could still die of tuberculosis in the 2000s," the veteran coach explains. "When they told me he would be submitted to surgery, I immediately called Tonietto and said we had to take him from there."

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 27: Thiago Silva, Paulinho of Brazil celebrate the victory following the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group E match between Serbia and Brazil at Spartak Stadium on June 27, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Silva's mother, Angela Silva, and his wife, Isabelle Silva, were on the same page as their compatriots. "They wanted to cut a part of his lung. I said, 'No, nobody touches my son's body,'" Angela revealed in an interview with Globo. "That was a very sad [moment]. I started to wonder if he would get out of that situation."

Tonietto's connection with Mendes proved crucial in finding a solution.

"I worked as his representative in Brazil," Tonietto explains. "[Mendes said] he would able to find a specialist doctor in Portugal and remove him from that place."

In September 2005, the Portuguese agent called a trusted doctor from Porto, Jose Carlos Noronha, to find out the best way to handle the situation. Noronha told Mendes he was not the most qualified person to treat Silva, but he would put him in touch with a professional who could, Ramalho de Almeida.

"He [Ramalho] was scandalised with the treatment [in Russia], how many ineffective medicines that lead to poisoning, with tragic after-effects [Silva was submitted to]," Noronha said in the Mendes biography La Clave Mendes: Todos los secretos del mejor agente de futbol del mundo, by Miguel Cuesta and Jonathan Sanchez.

The centre-back did not leave Portugal during the recovery period. "He remained in Matosinhos for three months and could only walk at the beginning; then, after a month-and-a-half, the doctor said he was released to run and play futsal, in a controlled way. Thankfully, it all worked out in the end," Tonietto recalls.

Ten years after almost coming to death in Russia, Silva starred in a Brazilian government campaign against tuberculosis with the slogan "testar, tratar e vencer" [test, treat and win].

"Whoever sees me running like this doesn't even imagine I already had tuberculosis. But I beat the illness and anyone can beat it," he said in a video.

Those who were by Silva's side during his battle against tuberculosis get frustrated when they see how some of their fellow Brazilians perceive the defender. He has been accused of being fragile and emotionally weak. Silva was roundly criticised for crying on the pitch and refusing to take a penalty in the shootout win over Chile at the 2014 World Cup.

As a captain, pundits said, he should not have broken down in tears at that moment and risked destabilising the rest of the team.

Silva was suspended for the crushing 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany that ended Brazil's hope of winning the World Cup on home soil and was then discarded by Dunga, who replaced Luiz Felipe Scolari as coach, after the tournament.

Silva's international career looked over, but after Tite took over in 2016, the manager surprised the nation by bringing him back. Then, four games away from Russia, Tite dropped Marquinhos, who had formed an excellent partnership with Miranda, to restore Silva as a starter.

He has now captained Brazil twice in the tournament to the general astonishment of pundits and fans. "Tite is a brave man," Folha de Sao Paulo columnist Juca Kfouri wrote. "He believed in Thiago Silva as a captain in a moment a true leader was essential and not somebody, say, still recovering from an emotional crisis."

Thiago Silva's tears in 2014 drew criticism
Thiago Silva's tears in 2014 drew criticismGUSTAVO ANDRADE/Getty Images

One verb is still used in the country to describe Silva's attitude in 2014: pipocar [chicken out].

"[People say] Thiago Silva is a chicken. Why is he a chicken? Why is he a crybaby? Do not judge him because of some tears; judge him because of what he did—if he did anything wrong," Silva's wife told Globo.

"We hear everyone saying he's weak. How can be weak after everything he suffered?" asks Wortmann, who signed him to Fluminense after his recovery. "In Brazil, we're always looking for a villain. But he's not a villain. No one has a clue how difficult it was for him. Others would have given up, despaired, drank heavily. He didn't."

"A centre-back like Thiago comes along every 50 years," Tonietto adds. "He's an introverted person, a low-profile man, doesn't like interviews. Some people prefer other kinds of footballers, more outgoing, that cause problems."

The former AC Milan and current Paris Saint-Germain defender finds himself three games away from World Cup glory in Russia, but his biggest battle in the country was fought long ago. If he is to cry any more tears in Moscow, he will hope they are tears of joy, shed with a World Cup winners' medal around his neck.

After all he's been through, it would take a brave person to bet against him.