It’s an imposing place, the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, modern enough to satisfy the needs of a major final even if, on Saturday, the number of spectators is limited by public health protocols.
The Dragao has also been around long enough to house many proud, vivid memories. Portugal won the inaugural Nations League there. Porto, the usual tenants, have launched Champions League and Europa League triumphs from its base.
On his approach to the Dragao ahead of his first European Cup final, Chelsea’s Thiago Silva will carry a mix of personal recollections. This was once his home ground, although it would be inaccurate to report he ever made himself feel at home there.
Thiago signed for Porto when the stadium was still gleamingly new, the European Cup freshly installed in its vaults. The year was 2004, and he had just made the journey almost every ambitious Brazilian footballer aspires to, across the Atlantic with a contract at a storied European club.
Thiago was about to turn 20. Porto had positions available at centre-back, the role Thiago had converted to in his late teens, bringing to it a natural authority and the passing skills of a former midfielder.
Yet he never played a match for the Porto first-team, always kept back in the Porto B squad. His experience of a full, roaring Dragao was only as a spectator. The Porto episode was over fast. Within six months, he had been transferred to Dynamo Moscow.
That was when things started going badly, terrifyingly, wrong. He arrived in Russia with a cough and temperature. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, so grave and debilitating that doctors contemplated removing a portion of one lung. He spent six months in a Moscow hospital, unable to speak Russian with the attendant staff, weak and isolated. TB can kill. Thiago would later admit there were times he thought he would lose his life in that hospital.
His treatment was eventually successful, and, returning to his native Rio de Janeiro to build up his strength, he began to believe he might play football again. It would not be in Europe, he supposed, after the misadventure at Porto, the bad experience in Moscow.
The relaunch of Thiago, the Rolls-Royce centre-back, would instead be with Rio’s Fluminese, and in time, the Brazil national team, for whom he was first called up in 2007, and made part of the 2008 Olympic Games squad.
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From there, he soared. He has been to three World Cups, and skippered his country at two of them, such a dominant figure with Brazil that among the international team-mates he greets on Saturday in the Manchester City squad there are effectively two generations who have served under his captaincy: his contemporary Fernandinho, with whom he first lined up for his country almost ten years ago; and Gabriel Jesus, who has tested the pace of Thiago in practice sessions over the last five years.
Thiago is 36 now, so it is safe to report there is no issue with those lungs and hasn’t been for a decade and a half. AC Milan were more than satisfied with his health, enchanted by his potential, when they invited Thiago for his second adventure in European club football in 2009. After three seasons and a Serie A title at Milan, he joined Paris Saint-Germain as the then most expensive defender in football history.
Eight years in Paris yielded seven Ligue 1 titles under four different coaches, the last of who, Thomas Tuchel, developed an especially close relationship with his leader on the pitch. “Apart from being a very good coach he’s a sensational guy,” Thiago said shortly after moving to Chelsea last summer. “He remotivated me. I think I had my best two seasons there with him. I’m grateful.”
By a stroke of luck, Thiago and Tuchel would be reunited in January, Tuchel appointed at Chelsea soon after he had been sacked by PSG - and less than six months after he had been angered by PSG’s decision not to renew Thiago’s contract beyond the player’s 36th birthday.
Tuchel and Thiago cannot help but feel their reunion somehow fated. Thiago’s last PSG match was a Champions League final, the 1-0 defeat to Bayern in Lisbon last August and the farewell to Tuchel after that was emotional.
Neither foresaw they would be back in contention, together, for a European Cup showdown at the first opportunity. Nor that it would be at a Dragao stadium that never quite appreciated what a giant of the game Thiago would become.