David Silva might play his last match for Manchester City today. He’s spent 10 years at the club, a decade during which he appeared in more than 430 games, scored more than 70 goals, and contributed more than 100 assists; during which he won four Premier League titles, two FA Cups, five League Cups, and three Community Shields; and during which he quietly, almost without anyone noticing, acquired a reputation as one of the greatest midfielders in the history of the Premier League and perhaps one of the greatest of all time.
Silva, a Spanish midfielder, announced months ago that this would be his last season in Manchester. His final Premier League game, a 5-0 drubbing of Norwich City at the Etihad Stadium, was on July 26. As is customary for departing greats, Silva was subbed off in the 85th minute so that everyone present could acknowledge his accomplishments. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, almost no one was present. On his way out, Silva turned to acknowledge the thousands of empty seats that should have been filled with cheering fans. Afterward, City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, called it “the smallest standing ovation of all time.”
This afternoon, Manchester City faces Real Madrid in the second leg of their round of 16 matchup in the Champions League. City leads 2-1. If that lead holds, Silva’s time at the club will be extended, perhaps all the way until the final on August 23. If Madrid manages to mount a comeback, today will be the end.
All this in-betweenness—going but not quite gone, honored but overlooked, cheered but by invisible fans—somehow suits Silva, a player whose whole career has been defined by an uncanny ability to star and to escape notice simultaneously. He’s the sort of midfielder who’s almost always where he should be and almost never where you expect him to be, the sort who seems to inhabit a slightly different timescale from everyone else on the pitch. He’s perfectly capable of performing moves that make you gasp, but when he’s playing at his best, you find yourself gasping at things other players do: at Vincent Kompany bashing in a supersonic header, at Sergio Agüero slipping into space to score some out-of-nowhere goal. It’s only when you rewind the video and watch the play again that you realize it was Silva who created the space for Agüero; it was Silva who found the impossible arc that got the ball onto Kompany’s forehead.
Like Andrea Pirlo, another player with a knack for dominating more the less you noticed him, Silva appears in soccer matches the way a footnote appears in a sentence—easily missed, not quite part of the flow, but capable of transforming the meaning for anyone who reads it. Like Pirlo, Silva can simultaneously seem revered and underrated, essential and peripheral; he’s an all-time all-star of “If You Know, You Know.”
His former Spain teammate Andrés Iniesta, who knows a bit about great midfielders, called him “one of the best ever,” but he received next to no individual recognition in the Premier League—he was Player of the Month in September 2011 and made Team of the Year twice, in 2012 and 2018, and that’s it. Xavi called him “one of the most talented players Spain ever produced,” and he’s in the top five in Spanish history for both goals and assists, but he was always a bit overshadowed among the Golden Generation teammates with whom he won two European championships and a World Cup between 2008 and 2012. You would have to feel a very pure love for Fernando Torres to argue that Silva is not the greatest player from those Spain sides never to sign a contract with either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Players like Silva tend to be appreciated late, and are often remembered afterward as having been more famous than they actually were. Pirlo became a megastar outside Italy only when the internet made him a kind of living style meme toward the end of his career; even now he’s more often celebrated for his luxuriant beard, or the louche-casual way he sits at a sidewalk café with a flute of champagne and five buttons undone on his shirt, than for the ghostly beauty of his movement on the pitch. Xavi had been one of the best players on the planet for years before he was widely recognized as one; he’d been playing for a decade before he finished third in a Ballon d’Or vote. (That is, before he won the Ballon d’Not Being Messi or Ronaldo.) He was made a captain at Barcelona only in his final season at the Camp Nou. Silva became a captain at Manchester City only this season.
It’s especially painful when a player like this retires, because, having watched him for a decade or more, you have a bizarre sense that you haven’t had time to get to know him properly. When a great striker or winger leaves the game, he’s inevitably spent years as a colossus of fame and attention. Think of Messi and Ronaldo: They’ve meant more to the game than any other player in four decades, but we’ve been saying that, and reading that, for almost their entire adult lives. We’ve known from the beginning what we were watching, and in the history of humanity, few people have been more cherished. When someone like Silva leaves the game, it feels sudden and startling. That’s part of the paradox of elusive midfielders who seem to occupy time differently from the rest of us. They seem to have been around forever, but just as we’re starting to reckon with them, we look up and they’re gone.
Silva, of course, isn’t retiring, only leaving the Premier League. The latest rumors say Lazio is prepared to offer him £52,000 a week, a private jet, and a luxury apartment in Rome to move to Serie A. But he’s 34; leaving the club where he’s built his legacy obviously represents a conscious move toward the sunset. The move gives him another in-between space to maneuver inside: not a retirement, but not quite a continuation on the same terms. It comes with something like the same pang of surprise and regret, but on more ambiguous, Silva-like terms: By the time we figure out precisely how he’s been underrated and precisely what we’re going to miss about watching him play for Man City, he’ll have slipped off somewhere else, leaving us—as always—off balance and a step behind.
What I love about players like Silva is that they make something magical out of soccer’s moment-to-moment mundanity. There are stars of the game who become heroes because of the transcendent outcomes they produce: the Pelés, Maradonas, and Messis take a game that can seem half-formed and chaotic and redeem it with astonishing goals, incredible victories, moments that make you feel like you’ve stepped outside your own skin. Most of Silva’s best highlights, by contrast, happen inside the strange vacuum of consequence in which most soccer is played. He runs through the opposing team with his weird willowy strength, tilting wildly, somehow in balance at a degree of lean that would snap a normal person’s ankles. He uses his touch to quirk the ball through two converging defenders. He slips through after it. He spots a winger cutting toward the area, he threads the ball with exact precision to the place the winger is moving toward, and then—because even the greatest midfielders can’t control what happens after they make the pass—the winger takes the ball and loses it, or takes the ball and misses an easy shot, or stumbles in mid-run and never takes the ball at all.
Your transcendent-outcome heroes give the game its unforgettable moments. But most of soccer takes place in the in-between periods, the time when nothing much seems to be happening. If you love the game, you watch for its long transitions as much as for its grand crescendos. Give me Cristiano Ronaldo with the fate of the world on the line, but at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, I’ll take David Silva—a genius of not quite being there, who makes the flow of the game more strange and special every time he touches, or chooses not to touch, the ball.