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For Fabio the death of his friend Sala made him appreciate what was important in life.

Byline: DOMINIC SHAW dominic.shaw@reachplc.com @DOMSHAWGAZETTE

FABIO Da Silva walked through the front door of his home and hugged his two young daughters and his wife as though he intended to never let go.

He told his wife Barbara, five-yearold Laura and Liz, three, how much he loved them, how grateful he was to have them in his life.

Earlier that morning, on Monday, January 21, a simple question was followed by a devastating answer.

Twenty four hours earlier, Fabio and his Nantes team-mates had lunched with their star striker Emiliano Sala.

In the seven days prior, Sala and Fabio had been in constant contact, the Argentinian striker keen to pick the brains of the Brazilian defender and find out all about Cardiff as a football club and as a city. Fabio had, of course, previously played for the Bluebirds before he joined Middlesbrough.

Fabio told Sala he'd love it in Wales. He told him he'd love the city, the people, the football, the Premier League.

"Then everything happened so fast, it was so tough," Fabio told The Gazette.

"I cannot explain." Bravely, though, Fabio does explain. He recalls those painful final memories of his time with a player - a person - who was "fantastic, so brilliant to be around". After lunch on the Sunday, Sala texted Nantes defender Nicolas Pallois and told him he was setting off to Wales. Pallois wished him luck and told him to send a text when he arrived. That text never came.

"The next morning Nico said Sala hadn't texted and asked the club to call Cardiff to check he's alright," says Fabio.

"But Nico was OK at this stage, he was not worried because he thought Sala must have just forgotten. The guy who worked here called Cardiff and then we found out the plane hadn't arrived. As soon as he said that, everyone started to cry. When you say the plane is missing, we knew it was a big, big problem."

Almost two weeks later, Sala's body was recovered from the wreckage of the plane in the English Channel. The pilot David Ibbotson remains missing.

Fabio says: "That should have been the best moment of his life: that's what he'd been working for - a PS15m move, playing Premier League football, his salary. That was the best time of his life. And that's what is the worst part for me to think about.

"He was such a fantastic guy, so brilliant to be around, a hard worker, first to arrive and last to leave. He was so happy. Everyone will say the same about him.

"I am a happy and positive guy anyway but this sort of thing, it makes you love the simple things. I came home that morning because we had no training, I came home and I hugged my two daughters and my wife like it was the last day of the world. Because you just never know.

"Hug your daughters, smile at them every day, smile at everyone you love every day, because you just never know, you never know."

For the Sala family, there was yet more heartbreak last month when Emiliano's father, Horacio, died after suffering a heart attack.

"I just can't imagine what the family is feeling right now," says Fabio. "It's hard. It's so, so hard."

For Fabio and his Nantes teammates, recent months have put things into perspective, understandably. The all-action full-back admits, unsurprisingly, that it's been "the hardest season of my life".

Given the heartbreak, it's quite remarkable that on the pitch Nantes managed a seven-match unbeaten run ahead of Friday night's final fixture, a home defeat to Strasbourg. Victories result in smiles but they obviously don't replace the pain.

time "We remember him every day," says Fabio.

"When things happen like this, it makes the team even closer. All the lads here are good lads. I am happy we are finishing the season with these results, all the lads here deserve that because it has been a very, very hard season."

For Fabio, his move to France marked the end of more than a decade in the UK, in which time he fell in love with the country and the English game.

His Nantes switch followed a series of conversations with Tony Pulis. The 2017/18 season was a campaign of two halves for Fabio.

Up to Christmas, Fabio had established himself as a nailed on starter for Garry Monk, dislodging longtime first choice full-back George Friend from the side. But the minute Pulis was appointed, he knew that would change.

"I'm not going to say one bad thing about Tony, he was very honest with me," he says.

"I knew straight away I am not his sort of player. I have played against his teams in the Premier League. Of course I knew I wasn't his style. He has a style of play, every manager has a style of play. I knew straight away I wouldn't be in his plans.

"He was honest with me. I'm not stupid and he knew that. I worked hard every day and tried to help him the way I can with my energy and sometimes I can play as a winger."

is enjoying his with Nantes " Fabio was looking for a transfe last January but ended up staying at the club, only to make four appearances from January onwards. He insists he continued to give everything day in, day out at Rockliffe but for Fabio, Pulis's selection for the second leg of the play-off tie against Aston Villa hammered home the need to move.

"I came off the bench in the first leg of the semi-final and played very well," he recalls.

"Tony told me I'd played well. The next game Ayala was injured and he could play me but he decided to put Dael (Fry) in instead. I knew I wasn't his style.

"In the summer he said to me, 'I want you here because you offer something different.' .' I work very hard and when I come on I can change the style of play. He said to me, 'I'd prefer you to stay here but you won't start for me, so I'm not going to keep you here for the sake of it'.

"He was really honest with me and that's why I liked him. They had good offers for me so we started the conversations."

Fabio reveals that he actually came close to leaving Boro 12 months earlier, after the appointment of Monk.

"I'll be honest with you, when Garry Monk came in I wasn't sure whether I'd stay or whether the club wanted to make money on me," he says.

"At the beginning of Monk I thought George (Friend) would play every game because he started the season playing. And they bought Cyrus (Christie) so I thought I wouldn't have many games. I thought it might be better to leave and go somewhere else.

"That summer I lost my grandfather and grandmother and I went back to Brazil. It was a very difficult time for my family. I'll be honest, I wasn't sure whether I'd come back. I was spending time with my family, my dad had just lost his parents, and I was thinking, do I go back or not? In the end, I decided to stay, my dad told me to stay."

He's glad he did. "I really enjoyed playing for Garry," he says.

"Maybe the fans never really liked him and the results didn't help but the way he played was fantastic for full-backs. I enjoyed that six months with him, it was great for me and I was very, very disappointed when he was sacked.

"We started to build something just right at that moment. But that's not for the players to decide, it's not for me to say what is the right and wrong decision, but for me it was a bit frustrating."

That short third of a season spell was the only period during his time at the club that Fabio wasn't playing second fiddle to Friend.

When Fabio dislodged the now club captain from the side, though, nothing changed - Friend was still the same supportive and helpful team-mate.

"He supported me every minute of the time I was there," says Fabio.

"George is a great guy. Middlesbrough are so lucky to have had him for so many years. He is an amazing guy."

Fabio knew when he signed for Boro from Cardiff in August 2016 that he'd have his work cut out to force his way into the side ahead of Friend.

That didn't put him off, though. After an enjoyable stint at Cardiff, which included that strike at the Riverside - "the most beautiful goal I've ever scored" - he was ready for a change and jumped at the chance to join Boro.

"Aitor needed someone to cover George and they needed a right back as well," he says.

"They needed someone who could do both. Straight away I was interested, I think it was what I needed at that moment. I knew George was the best left-back in the Championship and he is an unbelievable player, but I wanted to fight for a place. And I believed in myself as well. I knew what I could do."

It was a summer of promise that preceded a season of disappointment. Boro's sole campaign in the top flight was overshadowed by the departure of Aitor Karanka and the dressing room problems.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but Fabio claims he was concerned about a potential split in the dressing room from the start of the season.

He says: "The first time I saw nine Spanish and however many English, I thought this is going to work while we're winning but when you start to lose, it's football....

"I've had a long time in football and I knew one would start pointing at the other. That's often the case in football. It is always going to happen when there's a split like nine Spanish and then lots of English. We started to lose and it all started to fall apart, then Karanka left.

"I was in the middle to be honest. I talked to the Spanish lads a lot because of the language but I've been in England so long, if you ask everyone, I was right in the middle. I tried to help a lot."

Fabio was only 15 when Manchester United's South American scout John Calvert spotted him and his twin brother Rafael - his best friend - playing for Fluminense's Academy.

Calvert was struck by the twins' playing style. They were, he thought, perfect for the English game. Fabio and Rafael flew into Manchester for a trial.

"Sir Alex liked us straight away," he recalls.

"I remember meeting him in his office for the first time. For me, it was incredible. Actually, everything was incredible. We are two boys from Rio, I don't say we had a very, very tough life but it was hard growing up. Everything in Manchester was just amazing, the big players - Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs, Scholes. We couldn't believe we had met them, never mind that we were playing with them."

Ronaldo, says Fabio, was "brilliant", playing a pivotal role in helping the twins settle.

He feels privileged to have played with Ronaldo and against Messi. Conversation skips forward to the 2011 Champions League final when Fabio was in the Manchester United side that lost 3-1 to Barcelona at Wembley.

Fabio's delight at starting the game was tempered by his disappointment that Rafael missed out. Once the game started, though, his focus was purely on somehow trying to stop what he believes could possibly have been the best ever Barcelona side.

"To play against Messi and alongside Ronaldo is something I will take from my life and tell my children and grandchildren," he says.

"It's hard to compare them but for me they are the best in history."

Fabio fondly remembers his years in England and in particular his time on Teesside. He misses the area, though is happy to have been spared the difficulty of the golf course at Rockliffe.

"That was very, very, very, hard and very long," he laughs.

"I started to play golf five years ago, my handicap is maybe 28. Or it was at Rockliffe!

"I got on very well with everyone. I played golf, I went to David Lloyds, I played tennis. Normally I played with the staff, the physios and the medical staff.

"I had so much fun and have so many good stories and memories.

"I'm a country guy and I really liked Teesside and the area. Middlesbrough is so quiet, calm and the people are so friendly. That was so good for me."

CAPTION(S):

sometimes I can Fabio was Fabio is enjoying his time with Nantes

Fabio thoroughly enjoyed his time at Middlesbrough on and off the field

Fabio and his Nantes team-mates were devastated by the death of Emiliano Sala
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 27, 2019
Words:2160
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