Farewell David Silva, a little wizard full of ethereal, understated magic

<span>Photograph: Brian Stewart/EPA</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/oUalVidds1vSpkYMXql9MA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/6cf677d703a3c4ca66feb777d38f0746″ src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/oUalVidds1vSpkYMXql9MA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/6cf677d703a3c4ca66feb777d38f0746″></img></p>
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<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Brian Stewart/EPA</span></figcaption></p>
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<p>One of the first things you notice in David Silva’s farewell is the pitches. Dusty pitches. Muddy pitches. Then perfect pitches. Almost as perfect, by the end, as the timing, the passing, the ease of it all, something about him that was almost ethereal. “Today is a sad day for me; today it is time to say goodbye to what I have dedicated my whole life to,” he says quietly. The video is short and understated, and there he is: a tiny boy and an adult not very much bigger, three decades of footage. Places change, the context too; the player doesn’t.</p>
<p>When Silva arrived in Eibar in 2004, he was 18. He was 5ft 7in, had never played a senior game and came from Arguineguín – population 5,004 – in the Canary Islands, land of dry, hard pitches and tidy, slow, technical players. Not the kind of footballer, or fighter, supposed to play up there. On loan from Valencia’s B team, Eibar’s fitness coach assured those who hadn’t seen him, which was all of them, that he could play, but he didn’t look quite right. What’s <em>he</em>, this small, timid kid, doing <em>here</em>? In the second division, in wet, cold Eibar, the embodiment of, well, something else entirely.</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>David Silva retires from football at the age of 37 after serious knee injury</p>
<p>Silva didn’t care, never has: there was something countercultural about him, maybe even to the entire game. He was a revelation. Not just for the talent – although he was on another level – but the temperament. “He was a competitive bastard,” his coach, José Luis Mendilibar, told El País. “You see this little Canarian guy, but far from it … that winter it snowed, we trained on a muddy rugby pitch, the tackles were hard and, bloody hell, he never backed down. If he had to go in, he went in. If he had to kick, he kicked. Everyone would highlight how good he is technically, how well he positions himself and all that, but he had pride. A lot of it. He didn’t like to lose the ball, he didn’t like to lose a game.”</p>
<p>He won a lot of them. At Eibar, Celta Vigo, Valencia, Manchester City and, finally, Real Sociedad. With Spain too, of course. There are 12 goals in the video, although that was not what defined him, including the header that put Spain ahead in the Euro 2012 final. There’s a shot of him holding the World Cup. And the Premier League title. He won 20 trophies. He played 436 games for Manchester City over 10 years and 125 times for Spain over 13 of them. <em>That</em> Spain too – which, along with having been away for a decade, may not always have helped him get the recognition he deserved.</p>
<p>Not here, at least. “Imagine what he could have done in that Barcelona side,” Pep Guardiola told Lu Martín and Pol Ballús, which was also part of the point: he never played for them or Real Madrid, no one ever had his back. He had no political power, no lobby, no loudspeakers blaring his name. And he wasn’t going to do it himself.</p>
<p>Not enough people talked about David Silva, including David Silva. Especially David Silva. He would have happily been invisible, which to opponents he sometimes seemed to be. He was just not interested in the rubbish, never raised a voice or seemed to lose control, Luis Aragonés suggesting he must have cold <em>horchata</em> for blood. His was the triumph of simplicity, normality. He was just very, very good at football. The way he played always seemed so simple too, which isn’t so easy and certainly isn’t effortless. There are nice moments in the video – that pass at Old Trafford is still quite something, however often you watch it – but it’s not a highlights reel.</p>
<p>In Manchester, they saw of course. Again, the prejudices were taken to pieces. A physical, fast aggressive league; a cold, wet country? And? Micah Richards said he could only stop him by kicking him, and even then not often. They agreed to keep away from each other in training. But he didn’t hide. As Eibar found – and fomented – he could be a tough little so and so. He wouldn’t back down.</p>
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David Silva, who moved to Real Sociedad in 2020, looks for holes in the Granada defence. Photograph: Javier Etxezarreta/EPA

Above all, he played. Undemonstratively, but beautifully: with balance and grace and smoothness, an intelligence worn lightly, with a total lack of presumptuousness or apparent ego. There’s a line from Joe Hart doing the rounds today. “I used to laugh every day,” it runs. “He’s not fast. He’s so one-footed it’s a joke. He’s weak. But no one could touch him.” He turned away, protecting the ball from opponents like no one else could, saw angles others didn’t. Guardiola said he never saw anyone in small spaces like him. Shaun Wright-Phillips called him Merlin, the greatest wizard of them all, which was about right.

In his first season City won the FA Cup, their first trophy in 35 years. By the time he departed he had four league titles, five League Cups and a statue outside the ground.

David Silva in action for Spain in a friendly against England in 2016.

David Silva, who lifted the World Cup and two European Championships, in action for Spain in a friendly against England in 2016. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

One of the sad things about him retiring now because of a cruciate ligament injury is that Spain was finally getting the chance to enjoy him too, to embrace him. To watch him weekly, make him theirs. Express their admiration, even affection, and welcome him back home, if belatedly: this guy from here who was captain of Manchester City, who has a statue over there, for goodness sake. Maybe there was a sliver of guilt there, sorry that he had been gone so long, not always on their minds. There was certainly gratitude for this unexpected gift, a willingness to make up for lost time. Universally liked, never a word or a pass out of place, he was applauded everywhere, like a farewell tour they hoped would keep on going.

Related: Real Sociedad are living their best days – with David Silva at the heart | Sid Lowe

The wonderful thing was that it would, or so it seemed. Silva joined Real Sociedad at 34. Called in last minute to replace Martin Ødegaard and likely to be a short-term solution, he destroyed that assumption. His performances last season were astonishing and so very his, Silva distilled: just joyous. Against Real Madrid he was the best player on the pitch but it wasn’t that night, his coach, Imanol Alguacil, insisted; it was “every night”, citing their trip to fourth-tier Coria in the Copa del Rey. What he was doing, Alguacil insisted, was “madness” and “an example to us all”.

His teammate Take Kubo said: “One thing is for sure: at 37 I won’t be able to produce a performance like his.” At 37 or any age. A post-match interview last season began with a request: “Please don’t retire.” He said he would have to one day, but that he was having fun. That brought smiles: so was everyone else. He led Real Sociedad back to the Champions League a decade later and signed for another year he won’t now play, that gift taken away again. He won’t be paid for it either, which says something.

Instead, today is a sad day, a day to say goodbye, maybe to be self-indulgent for once. And yet somehow even then he marked it quietly, in a Silva sort of way: with a short video that ultimately focused more on his teams than on celebrating himself, on his journey from the dust to the mud to the very top. Thank you, he said.

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