How Brazilian twins became an ideal match for Ferguson

Rafael and Fabio de Silva had their first start as Manchester United's full-backs on Sunday. Ian Herbert reveals the story of how they forged the perfect partnership
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The Independent Online

Among the few consolations for Sir Alex Ferguson amid the ashes of Manchester United's quintuple hopes yesterday was the knowledge that two of his old adversaries would have had to endure watching the twin teenagers he signed from under their noses play together for the first time. Rafael and Fabio da Silva have revealed that Arsène Wenger wanted to take them to take them to Arsenal and that Real Madrid also tried to lure them to the Bernabeu, having watched them play for the Brazil Under-17 side, captained by Rafael.

The brothers, whose closeness stretches from their identical Ben Sherman luggage on European away trips to consecutive squad numbers (20 and 21) and matching toothbrushes in the house United have found for them, have also revealed something about why Ferguson beat Wenger to the punch on this occasion. The club's "hard work" paid dividends, they say, and Ferguson – or "Señor Alex" as they have taken to call him – has evidently made an impression too. "He always speaks well and is always very supportive of us," Fabio says. "He really likes to know what people are like both on and off the field. But he jokes around with us too."

There is a seemingly perfect symmetry about the two defensive bookends: Rafael at right-back and Fabio, considered by many to be the more naturally gifted of the two but limited by shoulder and calf injuries this season, on the left. But Fabio reveals, in an interview with the Manchester University student magazine, that he is right-footed just like his brother and has cultivated the left foot, which prevents the two competing for the same spot. It was their manager at Fluminense, Edgar Pereira, who deployed Fabio at left back and Rafael on the right and it stuck. "I'm right-footed but I'm comfortable with my left too," Fabio reveals.

There are differences. Fabio is the more serious and introverted of the brothers, who married his 17-year-old girlfriend, Barbara, before they left Brazil for Manchester, so that she could be with him. "I'm serious like that, I like being at home," he says. The wedding is a source of amusement for Rafael but it has helped Ferguson, who admits that Fabio's wedding ring is the only point of differentiation between the two.

The twins' story is that of many young Brazilians. They grew up in an impoverished district of Petropolis, an hour's drive from Rio de Janeiro, were spotted playing in a five-a-side tournament near Fluminense, the team they had always dreamt of representing, and upped sticks, aged 11, in the hope of making their name. Playing for Fluminense's superb youth side in the Nike Premier Cup Under-15s tournament in Hong Kong, which United also contest, they were spotted three years ago by the club's then academy manager, Les Kershaw.

So began many months of frustration, in which the brothers remained at Fluminense for the year it took them to turn 18 and become eligible to apply for work permits in the United Kingdom under the Portuguese nationality they could claim through their grandfather. They feel Fluminense should have allowed them to play in that time. "It was so hard, and totally unfair. If you are a footballer, you just have to play," says Fabio.

The entire family clan eventually decamped to Manchester. The brothers' parents and Fabio's young wife arrived with the twins' older brother, Luis Henrique, who had played for Brescia in Italy, and his own wife. Henrique tried to ply his trade with non-league Radcliffe Borough before returning to Brazil. It was – and remains – a period of adjustment with no little yearning, from Fabio in particular, for the land of their birth. "I like it here but it doesn't compare to Brazil. We have a lot of friends from our time there, our best friends in the world are from there," Fabio says.

But a general air of bonhomie around Carrington – with Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra's practical jokes, carried out on the twins' Brazilian compatriot Anderson – seems to have gone a long way to helping the two settle in. "He is a really good friend of ours," Rafael says of Ferdinand. "Of course, he is serious when he has to be, but really he is the biggest joker on the team. We love to have him on our team in training; he is always messing about with the ball with [Cristiano] Ronaldo and playing tricks on the other players with Patrice. Once, Anderson came to training in his slippers, and they set fire to his slippers and tipped cream out all over them. During training everyone is serious. But the most serious would be [Paul] Scholes."

Rafael is the one who has marked himself out, his performance in the 3-0 Champions League win in Aalborg and his goal against Arsenal at the Emirates in November proving the high points. "The ball just came to me and I thought ... shoot!" Rafael recalls. "At the time I really didn't feel a thing, it didn't click that I'd scored against Arsenal." But it has been hard to discern much competitiveness between them, despite Fabio's slower start in England. "I actually get more nervous when he is playing than when I am," Rafael says. "That's what we're like really, we get more nervous for each other," adds his brother.

There is a difference of opinion on whether they might forgo the chance to represent Brazil, with Ferguson's former assistant Carlos Queiroz keen to tie them into his Portuguese national set-up. "We want to play for Brazil, but if that doesn't happen, I could play for Portugal," says Rafael. "I don't think there's anything wrong with players who play for Portugal, as long as they don't forget where they were born and their culture." Fabio is less convinced. "It's my dream to play for Brazil," he said. But for now, establishing roles at United is a priority– with Evra, for all his tomfoolery, a formidable obstacle.

Double or quits Sporting twins

By Mark Lomas

*FRANK AND RONALD DE BOER

Frank was capped 112 times for the Netherlands between 1990 and 2004, while twin Ronald made 67 international appearances. Both also featured for Ajax, Barcelona and Rangers.

*PHIL AND TRACEY NEVILLE

Current Everton captain Phil, 32, enjoyed success at Manchester United and has 59 England caps along with Premier League and Champions League medals. Twin sister Tracey is one of England's most capped netballers, playing 74 times before she was forced out injured for two years. Elder brother Gary has also had a useful career...

*BOB AND MIKE BRYAN

The 30-year-old twins have won every Grand Slam men's doubles, including the Australian Open three times. Both have also lifted the mixed doubles at the French and US Opens, while Bob has won the mixed at Wimbledon. Ranked World No 1 pairing by the ATP.

*FELIPE AND MANUEL CONTEPOMI

Born in 1977, Leinster fly-half Felipe has won 62 caps for Argentina, scoring 477 points and has signed for Toulon next season. Former Bristol centre Manuel has made 32 appearances for the Pumas.

*STEVE AND MARK WAUGH

Steve captained his country between 1999 and 2004, playing in a record 168 Tests, averaging 51.06, and 325 ODIs. Mark (nicknamed "Junior" as he is a few minutes younger) played in 128 Tests (ave 41.81) and 244 ODIs (ave 39.35), and holds the record for most Test catches by a non-wicketkeeper.

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