David Silva: Why the Silent Genius Is Still Somewhat Underappreciated in Spain
Sept. 11, 2019
David Silva called time on his career as an international footballer after this summer's FIFA World Cup finals in Russia. It has been a heck of a ride—a World Cup win, as well as two triumphs in the European Championship and over a century of caps going back more than a decade.
Silva first got on Spain's team in 2006. We didn't know it at the time but he was part of a wave of small, slight midfield geniuses—including Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta—that was set to revolutionise football.
What has marked out Silva—apart from his playmaking and silken skills—has been, perhaps surprisingly, his physical courage.
"I remember at the beginning when he arrived on the Spanish national team, he suffered from a lot of ankle injuries because he used to get kicked a lot on the ankles," says Joaquin Maroto, a journalist with Diario AS who has been covering Spain's national team for 30 years. "He moved his feet very fast, and he [circulated] the ball quickly to make the game flow and to help his team-mates.
"I asked him why he didn't use any bandages for his ankles, as he was the only player in the whole team that played without bandages on his ankles. He said: 'I prefer to take the risk of getting an injury. If I bandaged my ankles, it would be like blindfolding my eyes.' Beautiful, isn't it?"
Sid Lowe, the Guardian 's football correspondent in Spain, concurs: "One of the things I've always thought about him—and this is probably less true as time goes on—but I was very struck by it at the start of his career when he really stood out during loan periods at Eibar and Celta Vigo is that he's a tough little hombre. He's a lot harder than people appreciate."
Since leaving Valencia and La Liga in 2010, Silva has been a sensation in the English Premier League with Manchester City. He's won three championship titles and is beloved by the club's fans, beating the likes of Sergio Aguero—who has scored over 200 goals for the club along with the iconic, stoppage-time winner that sealed their first league title win in 44 years—in a Press Association vote (h/t City Watch ) for "best player of the Sheikh Mansour era."
Lowe believes it's almost counter-intuitive that Silva has managed to prosper so much in the rough and tumble of the Premier League: "Theoretically, it's a league that's not made for him—it's a very athletic league, a very direct league where players like him are bypassed because the ball is flying over their heads.
"But Silva—like lots of small Spanish players—has demonstrated that's not a problem. The pressure is so intense in English Premier League games, but it's high up the pitch. Once you learn to override that first wave of pressure and aggression—'Bloody hell, there are two six-footers running straight at me!'—the pitch opens up in front of you, in the final third of the pitch. They find it's almost easier.
"Also his adaptation under Pep Guardiola is [noteworthy]. He desperately needed a manager like Guardiola—with his vision, and to feel like things would fall into place and that they would compete again. It's interesting that Guardiola has put him in a deeper central midfield position. He gave him more responsibility, to run more of the game.
"It's not to say that [former City manager] Manuel Pellegrini didn't think he was a great player or that Roberto Mancini might have called him his 'Merlin,' but it was Guardiola who said, 'You know what? I'm going to put you right at the heart of this.'"
Interestingly, Lowe attributes the rise in interest in the fortunes of Manchester City around Spain, particularly in press coverage, more to a fascination with Guardiola than in Silva. This is telling. Being the centre of attention isn't the Silva way.
There is a sense that he is underappreciated among the general public in Spain. He doesn't have the exalted status of Xavi and Iniesta, or, for example, Real Madrid's Raul from a generation just before him. It's partly because he's played the bulk of his career overseas. Out of sight, out of mind. Also he hasn't played for either of Spain's two defining clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Maroto agrees with the perception, adding two points in explanation: "First of all because he was born in the Canaries, in a very small town, far away from the peninsula, and he didn't play in the first division in his home place—he had to come to Valencia.
"The second reason is that he went to play abroad—to Manchester City in England. That is far away for us. The regular fan—who might work as a butcher or a bus driver—only really follows the league of his or her own country. That has counted against David—playing outside of Spain—if he wanted to have, say, the same reputation as Iniesta."
A comparison with Iniesta's profile is instructive. The Camp Nou legend is rightly heralded for being humble and a model professional. He is revered across Spain—even among Real Madrid's constituency despite spending 16 years as a Barcelona player. Silva has a similarly introverted disposition, but has taken shunning the limelight to greater lengths. He's no self-publicist.
"There are definitely parallels between [their public profiles], but there are a few important differences," says Lowe. "Number one: Iniesta played for Barcelona. Number two: Iniesta scored the winning goal in the World Cup final. Number three: in terms of the way people respond to the way he plays, maybe Iniesta is the kind of player who inspires more affection because he's so smooth. Silva is a brilliant player, but he doesn't have that sense of being almost like a swan the way Iniesta glides across the surface.
"Also if you calculated how many interviews Silva has done and how many Iniesta has done, I'd be willing to bet Iniesta would have done, like, five or six times as many. For example, over the last 15 years, I must have interviewed—for argument's sake—50 Spanish players and Silva's not one of them. Most of the players from Spain's [golden generation], I've had a chance to speak to them at one stage or another, but not Silva. He's not interested, for the most part."
There hasn't been a necklace of wonder goals to adorn Silva's career, or an earth-moving one such as Iniesta's against Chelsea in the semi-final of the 2009 UEFA Champions League. Silva has just been relentlessly good.
"I don't really know how many matches he played under us as selectors in the Spanish jersey. It was maybe about 60 matches, but I definitely think of the whole journey instead of a specific memory of him," says Spain's World Cup-winning manager Vicente del Bosque.
"Since he was young, he always played a very consistent game, without highs and lows. He always kept a very high standard on the pitch. He has never been a player of 'moments.' It's the most prominent aspect about his game. When he was a young player in La Liga, with the national team and now in English football, he has always been dependable.
"He has an awareness of the team. From the middle of the pitch and in attack, he has done everything a midfielder has to do, what a guy playing between the lines has to do and also what a forward has to do. He does everything well. When he had to defend for us, he did it. When he had to build, he did it, and he has been a good finisher."
Silva's rate of goal scoring often goes unremarked. He is fourth on Spain's all-time list , behind his old Valencia team-mate, David Villa; Raul; and Fernando Torres . He scored, for example, 11 goals from 16 games for Spain en route to the World Cup finals in Russia, but the tournament was a disappointment for him, personally, as well as the Spain squad, collectively, as it bombed out unexpectedly to Russia in a penalty shootout.
The World Cup has left Silva with mixed emotions. He lost his place in Spain's team in the 2010 World Cup after La Roja lost its opening pool match 1-0 to Switzerland, ultimately losing out to Pedro in the starting XI, and only featured again in the tournament as a late substitute against Germany in the semi-final.
"We had to play against two more teams, Honduras and Chile, [in the group stages] and we had to win both matches so we tried to choose a more attacking player. It was because of that," explains Del Bosque about the decision to drop Silva.
He adds: "We began the World Cup with David as a starter, but we decided for another option. We had lost the match against Switzerland. It wasn't a personal problem, but a problem of everybody. I want that to be clear—at that moment, we took a decision but always being careful to remember the esteem and appreciation we had for David. I don't think it's right to dwell on bad things. There were a lot of great times we had with him."
Two years later, Silva was part of an invincible Spain side under Del Bosque that swept aside Italy 4-0 in the 2012 UEFA Euro final in Kiev, a symphonic performance that put the seal on a remarkable, three-in-a-row in major international football tournaments.
There is only one trophy that eludes Silva. After enduring a difficult time last year off the field—in which he had to take leave midseason to be with his son, Mateo , who was born prematurely and spent five months battling in hospital to stay alive—he is primed to lead Manchester City for a tilt at this season's Champions League.
It could crown an extraordinary career in football, one where he's done all his talking on the pitch.
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