KAZAN, Russia — Four years after Brazil's humiliation at its home World Cup, Thiago Silva is back to his best in Russia, a country where his then-burgeoning career was almost tragically cut short years ago.
The 33-year-old Brazil center back — who is nicknamed "O Monstro" for his exceptional physical abilities — is probably playing in his final World Cup, and he has been enjoying a perfect tournament so far.
While forward Neymar attracted negative comments for his antics on the field, Silva has been irreproachable. The captain arguably has been the best center back of the tournament, alongside Uruguay captain Diego Godin.
Like Uruguay, Brazil has conceded only one goal in Russia so far, from a set piece in its opening 1-1 draw with Switzerland . And the Selecao's rivals have managed only five shots on target in their four matches against the five-time champions.
Silva has been playing a key role in helping Brazil achieve those impressive statistics, anchoring the defense with authority and class. During the 2-0 win against Mexico that guaranteed Brazil advanced to the quarterfinals for the seventh consecutive time, Silva was decisive both in the air and on the ground, blocked several shots and made two clearances.
"It's a huge joy to be doing an excellent cup and to be growing with every game," Silva said. "I'm happy about my performance, and the performance of the team."
Happiness and joy have been hard to come by during some stretches of Silva's career.
The native of Rio de Janeiro went through hard times after Brazil's 7-1 loss to Germany at the last World Cup. Silva did not play in that game because he was suspended, but he was harshly criticized and branded a cry baby for his emotional outbursts as he was pictured in tears before a penalty shootout against Chile in the round of 16.
After the tournament, he was stripped of the team's captaincy by new coach Dunga, then left off the regular roster after the 2015 Copa America. He returned from exile in September 2016 for World Cup qualifiers after being called up by Dunga's successor, Tite.
Those professional ups and downs are nothing compared to the ordeal Silva went through back in 2005, when he spent about six months in a Moscow hospital after he contracted tuberculosis. Regarded at the time as one of the world's most promising defenders, Silva had been sent on loan from Porto to Dynamo Moscow alongside several teammates.
"It was probably the worst episode of my life," Silva said.
It was during a training camp in Portugal that doctor Yuri Vassilkov, who had traveled along with the team, noticed that Silva had a persistent cough.
"He had temperature and we thought it was a simple cold," Vassilkov said in an interview with L'Equipe newspaper this week. "I gave him some medication but he did not improve. I was a bit worried and I sent him for exams at the British hospital in Lisbon. The diagnosis was terrible: tuberculosis. It was a shock."
Vassilkov believes that the diagnosis was so late that Silva was weeks away from dying.
Silva was brought back to Moscow, where he was hospitalized in a center specializing in tuberculosis treatment. At the time, Silva did not speak English or Russian and went through a bout of depression.
"The cold, the lack of natural light, the fact that I could not speak to anybody ... All this was very difficult to handle," Silva remembered in an interview with Belgian Sport/Foot magazine.
After Russian doctors at one point considered removing part of his lungs, Silva survived and fully recovered. He never played a game for Dynamo, and these painful events are just bad memories now.
"That would have ended my career. I needed guardian angels to take me away," Silva said. "I was a bit overwhelmed in a friendly we played against Russia this year. It is different for me to play there. I hope I can erase that by lifting the World Cup trophy."