Thiago Silva might have been remembered as one of the greatest centre-backs of all time had it not been for one thing: his mental fragility.
The Paris Saint-Germain captain might not have been at the very epicentre of the earthquake that shook the French champions at Camp Nou as they disintegrated pitifully during a record-breaking 6-1 loss to Barcelona, but he was certainly one of those most culpable for the unforgivable loss of a 4-0 first-leg lead.
Everyone from the referee to the coach seems to have been blamed for what must surely rank as one of the greatest capitulations of all time in the sporting world, but it is the players who must shoulder the bulk of the criticism. And as the on-field leader of those players, not to mention the supposed lynchpin of the defence, Thiago Silva must take much of the flak.
Marquinhos alongside him was the player found to be most vulnerable on the night to the whims of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and especially Neymar, but in his partner’s moment of weakness, the experienced Brazil international should have been a rock to lean on, especially as he possessed the armband.
But instead of being a foundation from which his side could build, the 32-year-old was simply found to be a point of weakness.
It is not the first time that the former AC Milan centre-back has floundered when all eyes have been upon him.
Thiago Silva’s emotional fragility was placed on a global stage when Brazil took to the field in World Cup 2014. There was immense pressure on the home nation to win their sixth title, and on Silva, their captain, to lead them to it.
He should have been the strongman in the heart of their defence, but instead he personified the inability of the host nation to rise to the occasion.
Before the opening match against Croatia, he was in tears, but perhaps the defining moment of his competition was the last-16 penalty shootout against Chile, in which he could not even watch as players of lesser experience stepped up one by one into the spotlight. Former Selecao captain Branco branded him “a cry baby” and his reputation was shot.
He was not present when Brazil were humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the semi-final, the recipient of a silly booking in the previous round against Colombia that rendered him suspended, but his inability to lead was by that stage painfully obvious.
Thiago Silva may have successfully overcome a bout of tuberculosis to become the world’s outstanding centre-back, for a period, at least, but the wounds that emerged that summer have never really healed. He was axed from the national team by Dunga, and while he recovered some of understated efficiency that once made him so effective, it showed on Wednesday that it was simply a front.
Following 2014 elimination, his form dipped, and the player admitted to mental struggles.
Speaking to Canal+, the player confessed: “The president [of PSG] gave me a lot of advice because he said: ‘You're the best defender in the world but you need to work more.’ I said: ‘President, I'm always working. But in my head, there's a problem - I don't know what's happening.’"
Frank Leboeuf, a World Cup winning defender with France, was brutal about the centre-back: “Thiago Silva has an attitude problem. You sense he's not invested, [he's] sometimes in a panic.”
That’s certainly how things looked at Camp Nou.
Such are the questions over the player’s big-game mentality, and a block facing Barcelona in particular, that rumours had been spread in the past suggesting that he has feigned injury to avoid such clashes. It should be stressed that there is no evidence to back these up, but it does, however, reflect upon the wider perception of the player when the pressure is on.
Indeed, he missed the first leg between the sides due to a minor calf problem, and in his stead youngster Presnel Kimpembe turned in a performance of the highest order against an admittedly out-of-sorts Barcelona.
In hindsight, the youngster might have been a better option at Camp Nou as he does not appear scared of anything.
Silva, though, has been stared down by fear in the past and melted in its presence once more in Catalunya’s great cauldron. When his side most needed him, he disintegrated, and those around him followed.
Great captains bring the best out of others in moments of adversity, Silva cannot even get the best from himself.