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UEFA Cup first round, Lisbon, Portugal, October 2008—Benfica vs. Napoli
There were less than 10 minutes to go at Benfica’s famous Estadio da Luz. Substitute Carlos Martins collected the ball for the hosts on the right flank, looked up and whipped a cross into the Napoli box. Legendary striker Nuno Gomes anticipated the delivery, flashed ahead his man, and doubled the Portuguese side’s lead with a fine header.
2-0. UEFA Cup group-stage football secured. The home fans celebrated like it was a title winner against fierce rivals FC Porto.
As Gomes ran to the corner to embrace his team-mates, he didn’t even notice that a ball boy with a huge grin on his face had come closer and tapped him on the back a few times.
A decade later, that boy is still around. He carries the same smile but now flashes it at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. He is no longer just celebrating the goals, he is helping to score and create them.
He may remain small in stature but Bernardo Silva is all grown up.
Benfica Stuff @Benficastuff
Bernardo Silva, benfiquista desde pequenino, teve a sua estreia pelo Sport Lisboa e Benfica ontem, frente ao Cinfães. http://t.co/bwT9GTqUXp
“I have never spoken to him about this episode,” Gomes, now a pundit for Portuguese outlet TVI, tells Bleacher Report.
“His progress has been fantastic, only those who have not watched him play when he was younger can be surprised with his current level. He is a player with an amazing individual technique and a mind-blowing intelligence.”
It’s been a tough journey to the top for Silva, but 2018-19 is looking like it could be his season.
His performance in the Community Shield clash versus Chelsea was described by Pep Guardiola as “a masterpiece,” with the Manchester City boss adding “right now, it is Bernardo and 10 others” on his team.
Silva has followed that up with some outstanding performances in the Premier League. And with Kevin De Bruyne out injured, the little Portuguese magician looks poised to establish himself as an undisputed starter for the English champions.
A former graduate of Benfica’s famed academy in Seixal, a suburb of Lisbon, Bernardo Silva has always had to fight for his place in any team.
Long before assuming a more prominent role in Benfica’s youth teams, he had to compete with the likes of Rony Lopes (AS Monaco), Joao Teixeira (Chaves), Estrela (Varzim) and Guilherme Matos (Beira-Mar) for a place in the starting XI—and he regularly found himself on the outside looking in.
Being a ball boy was often the closest he got to the pitch. Others would have given up along the way. Bernardo didn’t. And his positive attitude is what has stuck with people who were with him for the journey.
“He’s a ‘cinco estrelas’ [a five-star guy],” says Matos.
“We used to play in the same position, but he would never get any playing time, sometimes he stayed on the bench, others, he was not even called up for the matches, probably because he was one of the smallest kids in the squad. He could not impose himself. That situation lasted until he was 17 years old.
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“When you consider that he started playing for Benfica when he was seven, it means that he spent nearly 10 years waiting for a chance. It requires a lot of persistence and belief in yourself to get this far. That’s Bernardo.”
In October, Manchester City will travel to face TSG Hoffenheim in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Being in Germany will bring back memories for Bernardo Silva.
Ennepetal is a small town in the west of the country and also regarded as the place where Silva’s career turned around forever.
Some of the brightest young talents in world football gather in Ennepetal every summer to play in the Spax Cup. The likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Jurgen Klinsmann and David Beckham have all starred in the prestigious U19 competition.
Among the invited sides in 2012 was a Benfica squad featuring such names as Andre Gomes (Everton, on loan from Barcelona), Joao Cancelo (Juventus), Jose Sa (Olympiakos), Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro (both Wolverhampton Wanderers). They were handed a tough draw in a group with Borussia Dortmund, Hamburg SV and Anderlecht.
A late developer, Bernardo was again spending most of the season watching his team-mates instead of playing with them, and he was worried about his future.
At almost 18, he was not starting more than five games a season. One morning, he decided to do something about it and spoke to coach Joao Tralhao.
“He called me aside and told me, ‘Mister, I need to talk about my situation. I have to play more, maybe be loaned out to a smaller side.’ He had lost confidence in himself, was a bit disheartened and willing to leave his childhood passion [Benfica] to do what he enjoys most [playing football],” Tralhao told B/R.
“That conversation happened a few weeks before the Spax Cup. I warned him there was an important competition coming and, if he changed his attitude, he could lead the way.
“It worked out. We didn’t win it [Benfica finished in third place], but he impressed everyone and was one of the best players of the tournament. He was kind of suspicious when I congratulated him on our way back home [from Germany] and told him he would assume a protagonist role the following season.”
B/R Football @brfootball
And now an announcement from @BernardoCSilva #JusticeForBernardo https://t.co/qhwF0gnO94
Despite Bernardo’s initial refusal to believe those words, Tralhao was not joking.
One of Silva’s best friends, Filipe Nascimento, a former colleague who now plays for Bulgarian side Levski Sofia, watched his transformation into one of the most talked-about players inside the club.
“I would say this tournament [Spax Cup] is the reason why he continued at Benfica and after that, he had his breakthrough year. He had an absurd season [in 2012-13], was our captain and guided the team to the Portuguese title [in the U19 age group],” Nascimento recalls.
Silva netted 18 times in 36 games that season—including four goals in a single match and two hat-tricks—and people were finally starting to pay attention.
Silva was then promoted to Benfica’s B side in the Portuguese second tier for the following campaign, and the momentum continued.
“There are 30 million reasons to like this Messizinho [Little Messi],” read the headline in a one-page article on Bernardo Silva published in the professional footballers’ union (SJPF) magazine in late 2013. He had just been named player of the month.
He was the creative brain of a team that included Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid), Nelson Semedo (Barcelona) and Victor Lindelof (Manchester United), among other prospects, and he signed a new contract which raised his release clause to €30 million.
One of Portugal’s greatest names of all time, Fernando Chalana, added a bit more pressure by labelling him “Messizinho do Seixal” after working with him as a coach. Others referred to him as “Principezinho” (Little Prince). But inside the dressing room he was known as “Cabecas” (Heads).
“For better or worse, it’s an attribute he had,” Matos laughs.
“He used [his head] a lot while playing—sometimes the ball was knee height and he would dive to head it and score a goal, it was amazing. He relied so much on it, especially in footvolley games. He was always joking around.”
Jan Fredrik Hagen @PortuBall
Bernardo Silva: “It’s always been a goal to play at Benfica and one day I hope to return. Benfica mean a lot me. I spent 12 years there.” https://t.co/3zvGudaJZ8
Silva was proving himself to be a giant talent in a small package and was overcoming all the scepticism to carve out a place for himself.
“When you are a young player, you have to go through a few moments that can define your career. It doesn’t matter how you get there but how you will deal with these problems. Some find a way to bounce back and move on, others don’t,” Tralhao, currently at the helm of Benfica’s U23 side, explains.
“Bernardo’s road to the first team was a roller-coaster one. He had been a decisive player in an age group, then got lagged behind in another and started having doubts about his own potential.
“He needed a hand to help him out and found one [at Benfica]—we made him believe that it was possible [to return to his best form] and changed his mentality. I have a special affection for him. He’s an excellent group player, an amusing one, with a very positive energy.”
Bernardo Silva was named breakout star in Portugal’s second tier and expected to be pushing for a place in the first team in the summer of 2014. Benfica boss Jorge Jesus, however, had other attacking midfielders in mind and told him he would be used as a left-back instead.
However, switching positions was not in Silva’s plans after having had such a promising season. A passionate Benfica fan, it broke his heart to ask agent Jorge Mendes to look for a new home.
He ended up making just three first-team games for his boyhood heroes before Mendes arranged for him to move to Ligue 1 side AS Monaco.
Within a year, the diminutive ace went from playing against Trofense in the Portuguese second division to starting a decisive clash versus Juventus in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
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He took Ligue 1 and Europe by storm, although settling into life in France had a few bumps along the way, one courtesy of Dimitar Berbatov.
“We beat Guingamp on my first game starting for Monaco, and in the last minute I could have crossed the ball to Berbatov—and I didn’t… I think he was unmarked. I just didn’t see him…” he said in an interview with Portuguese outlet SIC.
“We got back to the dressing room and I was very happy. Berbatov then came in, kicked the rubbish bin and started shouting at me. Me there, a kid of 19, with a world football star… He turned to me and said, ‘Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re Maradona or Zidane?'”
Bernardo would never compare himself to legends like that. Despite now being a Premier League champion, the Portuguese maestro remains just a regular guy—probably one of the most laid-back around.
Small in size, huge in talent, heart and personality. He is living his ball-boy dream from Lisbon to Monaco and now to Manchester.