SEVILLE, Spain — Football sometimes can be a beautiful thing. In the 2016 final of the Taca de Portugal—the country's cup competition, which has been contested in various guises for almost a century—Braga took a 2-0 lead. Andre Silva, Porto's 20-year-old striker, nicked one back on 61 minutes.
As the clock ticked past the 90-minute mark, Porto, who had been laying siege to Braga's goal, swung in a corner. Porto's goalkeeper threw his body at the corner kick, but one of Braga's defenders cleared it from under his nose. The ball flew to the edge of the box. A deflected shot by one of Porto's defenders looped over the Braga defence. A Porto player brought it down and from the byline sent it high across Braga's goal.
Silva looked at the ball as it dropped, turned his back to goal and jumped skyward, meeting the ball with a bicycle kick and bouncing it into Braga's net. The stadium erupted. Silva ran toward the corner flag, and his teammates engulfed him. Porto lost in a penalty shoot-out, but Silva's dramatic equaliser will be a moment he will never forget.
Silva is still only 22 years old, but he's been making history on several fronts as a classic centre-forward. He scored four goals in a match against Hungary in the finals of the UEFA European Under-19 Championship. He's already scored 13 goals for the Portugal national team in 28 games; it took Cristiano Ronaldo 41 matches to reach that figure.
Silva's precociousness had been identified early on.
"He's not particularly big physically," says Tom Kundert, author and editor of the football website PortuGOAL. "He's not outrageously skilful. He's not especially fast. But he's just got that football intelligence to get the job done. Most of his goals for Portugal or Porto haven't been flamboyant or spectacular. Few of them are 'worldies.' A lot of them have resulted from being in the right place, at the right time. He knows how to position himself. He's a goal-poacher."
Silva has excited fans of the Portuguese national team since making his debut in 2016, as the country has struggled to find a good centre-forward for the guts of two decades. Against the Faroe Islands in his second appearance for his country, he became the youngest Portuguese player to score a hat-trick and scored nine goals in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
"What made people so excited—apart from the goals he scored—was his partnership with Ronaldo. They just clicked. Silva's a tireless worker. He never stops running, so he does Ronaldo's running for him. They have a wonderful chemistry together. Between them, they scored 24 goals in that qualifying campaign in nine matches [together]. He quickly realised his potential. He was a star in the making..."
Silva followed his star to Italy last season. Porto—under pressure to balance the books because of UEFA financial fair play regulations, according to Kundert—were forced to cash in on their prodigy. Milan paid €38 million for Silva in June 2017 and gave him the No. 9 shirt.
Things started brightly for him—he scored a hat-trick in September 2017 in a UEFA Europa League tie against Austria Vienna—but then the goals dried up. He failed to score a goal in Serie A until March, by which time his number was up.
"His body language was all off. He walked around like the weight of the world was on his shoulders," says David Schiavone, Milan-based editor of English-language website Forza Italian Football. "It was known around March-time in the season that the club was going to get rid of him. He said it to one of my colleagues off the record when he was walking through the press area's mixed zone. 'Yeah, I'm going to be going somewhere else.' I don't think Gennaro Gattuso, Milan's coach, trusted him."
The figures said it all. Silva rarely got many starting chances—only seven in Serie A, as well as 17 as a substitute. He ended up with only two goals in the league. It was a turbulent season at Milan: The club finished sixth in the standings, 31 points adrift of champions Juventus.
Gattuso took over in November 2017, but Schiavone says there was no evidence of a personality clash between the 2006 FIFA World Cup winner and Silva.
"Silva seems like quite a quiet lad," Schiavone says. "You don't see him joking around if he's walking around with mates. He's not like, say, Adil Rami—I remember seeing him when he was at Milan walk through the mixed zone with a beer in his hand after a game.
"It doesn't seem like Silva is a big personality. Gattuso is a big personality—he's an angry man. If Gattuso wanted something, I don't think Andre Silva would argue with him. It was more like Silva was bottling his emotions up. He probably felt he wasn't getting a fair crack at the whip, which in hindsight he probably didn't."
Milan has been a graveyard for numerous international star players. It's a tough city to crack. Schiavone cites the case of Jose Mari, who came with a vaunted reputation from Atletico Madrid in 2000 but bombed at Milan, only scoring five goals in over 50 Serie A games; it's something in the air there.
"Milan is very like Inter. I put both in the same bag," says Francisco Jose Ortega, sports editor of Diario de Sevilla. "The number of players who fail at both clubs is very high, and they seem to play well again when they leave the city. I can think of a lot of cases—of players who had fundamentally frustrating experiences when they went to Milan or Inter.
"For example, Carlos Bacca, who was very good at Sevilla. Luiz Adriano had a bad spell when he went to Milan from Shakhtar Donetsk. He's revived his career at Spartak Moscow. The case of Ever Banega is another. There's something about the city—it can gobble up its players."
Silva has got his second chance at Sevilla. When he moved to the La Liga club on loan during the summer, however, their fans were underwhelmed.
"On social media, there was a lot of criticism of the signature of Andre Silva amongst Sevillismo because he arrived from Milan as a failure," Ortega says. "In Seville, people preferred players like Michy Batshuayi or Anthony Martial. They considered them 'cracks' [star players], but Andre Silva wasn't at that level. Silva was 'a patch job.'"
From the moment he arrived, Silva has proved the doubters wrong. He put in a half-hour shift as a substitute in the Spanish Super Cup final, in which Sevilla were unlucky to lose 2-1 to Barcelona. In the league, Silva has exploded, scoring seven goals in seven games, including a brace in a memorable 3-0 defeat of Real Madrid last week. He is the league's top scorer, with two more goals than Lionel Messi.
"He's a complete forward," Ortega says. "He isn't just a goalscorer. He's also a creator. He has the vision to make a good pass. He's strong for the skills he has. His ability to keep the ball with his back to goal reminds me of Kanoute, but he's not equal to him yet. Kanoute was taller—Silva is shorter—but Silva is similar to Kanoute in that he creates as well as scores."
To be mentioned in the same breath as Frederic Kanoute, who was a legend in Seville, is high praise. Whisper it, but Silva could help Sevilla mount a title challenge similar to the thrilling charge led by Kanoute during the 2006-07 season.
The club is only one point behind Barcelona—who are struggling and have dropped seven points in three games—and the Ronaldo-less Real Madrid, who have scored only two goals in their last four games.
One thing is for sure: If he keeps his strike rate up—after a horrid season in Milan—Silva could become king of Seville.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz.