Middlesbrough's Fabio da Silva on Chapecoense plane crash: 'I had two friends on that flight'

The former Manchester United defender is still coming to terms with last month's plane crash in Medellin, which claimed the life of one his friends but could not kill another

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The Independent Football

It was the early hours of the morning, and Fabio Da Silva had briefly caught something on the news about a crash involving a plane from Brazil. The initial reports were unclear. It was only the next morning, when he turned on his phone to be met by a stream of missed calls and a plethora of messages that he would start to come to terms with the terrible fate of the footballers of Chapecoense, and how to deal with his own personal grief at the unfolding tragedy. 

The Middlesbrough full-back had two friends on LaMia Airlines flight 2933, which ploughed into the side of a Colombian mountain last month, killing 71 people. Astonishingly, one of those friends survived. The other, along with 18 team-mates who perished on a British Aerospace jet which simply appears to have run out of fuel, didn't.

Da Silva has shared the same dreams as those players. He has taken similar flights. When the camera lingered on the 26-year-old during the minute's silence prior to Monday's victory over Hull City, the emotional toll the disaster had taken on him was almost palpable.

"A lot of those guys who died were just like me," he said. "Starting their football at a young age, leaving home and their family to follow a dream. You see yourself in them and know something like that could have happened to any one of us. Brazil is such a big country, you have to fly everywhere." At times, his voice falters, understandably so. "I'm sorry," he says. "It's still very hard for me to talk about it. I had two friends on that flight."

Da Silva was in the same Fluminese youth team as Marcelo Augusto Mathias da Silva, and Alan Ruschel, both defenders. Marcelo was 25 when he died in the mangled wreckage near the village of Cerro Gordo on November 28. Distance had diluted the time the trio had been afforded to spend together given their divergent career paths since their teenage years, but the camaraderie, the shared history, remained.

He added: "We played for the same team around the age of 13 and 14, as young guys together at Fluminese. They were good times." Again, emotion takes hold and detail is spared. Three players survived the crash, and Ruschel was one of those. Da Silva added: "He has been on television this week talking about his experience. I think you can appreciate that to see him there, still with us, was so emotional for me.  

"I'd seen initial reports about a plane crash but they were confused reports. It was only later when I picked up my phone and there were so many messages that I soon realised the full extent of the terrible news. I just started to cry."

ACF, as they are colloquially known, were en route to Medellin, due to face Atletico Nacional in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final, South America's equivalent of the Europa League. "They are not a big club, but an emerging one," Da Silva added. "All the boys there, they never really had big contracts before, but because of their recent success they were finally starting to be rewarded. It was life-changing for them and their families to finally get that kind of security, and that's what makes this tragedy even worse."

Given the subject matter, Da Silva's tone is unsurprisingly sombre, but when the conversation eventually takes a lighter turn, it is soon punctuated by his infectious laugh, cheeky grin and approachable air that has helped him quickly settle in since his arrival from Cardiff City in August. He has appeared in the last three games in what have been his first Premier League appearances for more than two-and-a-half years, replacing the injured George Friend. He added: "George is a fantastic guy, the first to welcome me when I arrived here so it's hard in a way to be competing against him for a place, but that's just the nature of football."

Sir Alex Ferguson struggled to tell the Da Silva twins apart (Getty)

There is his unlikely love of golf: "I tried it when I was at Manchester United, and thought it would be so boring, but for some reason, I absolutely love it." The 22-handicapper added: "I know it's a sport where you have to wear bad clothes, but that doesn't put me off." And how about following in the footsteps of Juninho, his country's most popular export in this part of the world? "If I can end my spell here, whenever that is, as the second most popular Brazilian on Teesside, I'll be happy."

On and off the pitch, Christmas promises to be a hectic affair. Twin brother Rafael, who is now at Lyon, is one of more than a dozen family members set to descend on the North-East for the festive period. During their spell together at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson could only tell them apart by Fabio's wedding ring, but now both wear one, and almost implausibly, they even bear similar facial scars as souvenirs of almost a decade plying their trade in Europe.

Again, there is mischief in his eye, and that lovely giggle. He added: “Rafael's got 10 days off over Christmas, so I'm planning to bring him to training to play a trick on the coaches, see if they can recognise us apart. And then maybe if I fancy a rest when we play on Boxing Day, I will get him to fill in for me."