ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- When Brazil manager Tite announced he would be using more than one captain during Russia 2018, as a way (in his words) to share leadership responsibilities around the squad, it was an incredible exercise of the imagination to assume Thiago Silva would get a go.
That is not to say that Tite's choice to wear the armband in Friday's game against Costa Rica did not cause a certain frisson. Four years after becoming a symbol of Brazil's mental implosion at their own World Cup, a tournament in which he captained the Selecao throughout, the Paris Saint-Germain defender will lead the team for a Group E match few people thought would be so crucial before Russia 2018 kicked off.
After Sunday's 1-1 draw with Switzerland, Brazil cannot afford to wobble against Costa Rica. Another draw would simply mean that the Selecao might need a calculator as well as their kit to play the last round against Serbia. Meanwhile, a defeat would leave them on the brink of a catastrophic first-round exit, a fate Brazilians have tasted only three times in the history of the World Cup.
Brazil's current run of World Cup games is already one of the worst in recent memory. Their most recent victory in this competition was in the 2014 quarterfinal against Colombia, swiftly followed by that infamous drubbing at the hands of Germany and a 3-0 defeat to Holland in the third-place playoff. You have to go back to the 1974-78 to find a worse performance, where Brazil suffered a four-game "dry spell."
So what does it have to do with Thiago? Well, the PSG man was not spared in the wave of recriminations following Brazil's demise four years ago. His emotional displays on the pitch, including a refusal to take a penalty in a hysterical shootout against Chile in the round of 16, did not exactly endear him to fans. While it's true that Thiago was not on the pitch when the Selecao were steamrolled by Miroslav Klose, Toni Kroos & Co. in Belo Horizonte, his absence was his own fault, having collected a silly second yellow card against the Colombians for fouling the opposition keeper.
Despite being known as "The Monster" heading into that World Cup, he soon became "Chorão" (loosely translated to "crybaby" from Portuguese). After the tournament he was still called up for the Selecao during the nation's splitting hangover but made the headlines for the wrong reasons. First, he sulked publicly when Dunga gave the captaincy to Neymar. Then came a poor display at the 2015 Copa America as Brazil exited on penalties to unfancied Paraguay.
Thiago looked all but banished from the national team, but Tite's arrival as manager opened the door once more. When the former Corinthians coach took over a discredited and defeated side sitting outside the qualification zone for Russia 2018 two years ago, he envisaged a role for the PSG captain in his lineup.
A string of injuries and a loss of form changed Tite's plans, and Thiago's PSG teammate Marquinhos stole ahead of him in the pecking order at centre-back. Still, Tite squeezed the former captain in although he only amassed 683 minutes in 19 games while Marquinhos and Miranda registered over 1,100. In the meantime, Thiago underwent a special fitness plan that paid dividends when Marquinhos ironically suffered an injury in February. That absence opened space for Thiago to come in and help Brazil to a clean sheet in the 1-0 victory over Germany in Berlin.
It is tempting to say Thiago has not looked back since, but the PSG man did receive some flack for Switzerland's equaliser in Rostov, more specifically for how he and Miranda allowed Steven Zuber to waltz into the six-yard box to head home. (Though replays also suggested Miranda was fouled in the buildup to the goal.) Still, Brazilian media rated him as one of the few who deserved positive mentions after the draw against Switzerland.
"I am cool with being captain again," Thiago said during the team's prematch news conference ahead of Friday's game. "We have several players with leadership characteristics and we are able to share the burden on the pitch. I have prepared myself to be back here and to help the team in a match we have to approach with a lot of responsibility."
The defender seems much more serene than he was earlier this year, too, when he complained about being bullied by the critics and accused them of "trying to get me to quit football." In Rostov, he preached tranquility as the best way to prepare for the unexpected decider in St. Petersburg against Los Ticos.
In a way, Thiago's return to the first XI has the arc of an epic journey. It was in Russia that he faced not only a career crossroads, but a life one: In 2005, while playing on loan for Dynamo Moscow, he contracted tuberculosis and endured not only a period of isolation and convalescence but the threat of illness ending his career, as Russian doctors wanted to remove a piece of one of his lungs.
"It was in Russia that I went through one of the worst moments of my life, but now there is chance I might experience one of the best," he told Brazil's Globo TV in early June.
As for endorsements from the technical staff, Tite made sure that the decision to restore the 2014 captain was followed by a public cuddle.
"Thiago is one of the athletes I have who has maturity to captain the team. He earned his place back at the team," the manager said. "If we decided to single out everybody who was criticised after the last World Cup, we'd have a scorched-earth situation. Life and football are not like that."
And so Thiago has the second chance he dreamed of for four long and difficult years. Brazilian fans just hope he takes full advantage.