Captaining one of Europe's new super clubs and the World Cup hosts makes it a big year ahead for PSG's central defender
The suggestion by Thiago Silva of meeting in an Italian restaurant in the middle of Paris's eighth arrondissement sounds striking at first. The Brazil captain also wears the armband at Paris St-Germain, the team that signed him from the Italian side Milan last year. Proud of their cuisine, it is not clear how French supporters would take Silva's fidelity to Milanese steak over duck à l'orange.
The place, however, is one of the few retreats the defender still has in the capital, even though fellow diners obviously recognise him and take some sneaky shots on their mobile phones. Thiago does not even flinch.
"I am happy in Paris. It was not the case when I arrived last year, because it was very different from Milan. My family is much more settled too, which helps. I am also in a position where I'm important for the club not only on the pitch. If anything, the French also seem a bit calmer than the Italians in situations like these," he says, nodding towards a smartphone user trying to look cool while positioning herself to catch a snap.
Homesick and intimidated by the repercussions of his €42m (£35.4m) move from San Siro to the Parc des Princes in August 2012, Thiago also had to handle the cold shoulder of team-mates when the then manager Carlo Ancelotti offered him the captaincy, taking the armband from the local hero Christophe Jallet.
It was not the best of starts and the Brazilian had to mend fences. "They thought I had demanded the armband, which never happened. But I couldn't back down from a request from Ancelotti, whom I worked with at Milan. He trusted me with the mission of leading the team. That took precedence over making friends," adds the 28-year-old.
Those were hard times and Thiago can be forgiven if he has some regrets over the decision to turn down Barcelona to partake in PSG's attempt to join the elite of European football. He freely admits the massive pay cheque that turned him into one of the world's best-paid players, beyond the wildest dreams of the boy raised in the poor Rio de Janeiro suburb of Santa Cruz, had some bearing. At the end of last season the Catalans tried again, desperate to sort out the defensive problems so emphatically exposed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Their approach was counteracted by the PSG owners, the Qatar Investment Authority, with a new and improved contract worth €12m a year.
"It was a difficult decision to say no twice to Barcelona. It was never a secret that I have admired them since I was a kid and that I always wished I could play for Barcelona," admits Thiago. "But life is made of hard decisions that sometimes go against what you dream of. I heard people saying I was just thinking of the money, but they forget we have families to feed. Why would I accept to earn less money to play for Barcelona? Why are players the ones supposed to sacrifice themselves? Besides, PSG offered me also an opportunity for a new challenge and the club are trailing the right path."
Thiago's courage can hardly be questioned. Not a gifted speaker like his Brazil team-mate David Luiz, he nonetheless does not shy away from spikier subjects. The defender was the first Seleção player to reveal that the team's failure to win the past two World Cups, alongside an absence of triumphs against top sides, had led to mockery from international colleagues. "They kept saying Brazil had lost their mojo, that we did not inspire fear like before. That really annoyed me, especially when I read all the babble about the Fifa rankings," says Thiago, referring to Brazil's decline to an inglorious 22nd position earlier this year.
But Brazil's dismantling of Spain in the Fifa Confederations Cup final in June is a clear sign of a change in fortunes, especially when they face the daunting prospect of a home World Cup in 2014. The morale boost that victory at the Maracanã brought to Thiago and his team-mates cannot be overstated.
"Listen, there is a year to go [to the World Cup] and so many things can happen. But in that match we showed to ourselves and to the world Brazil still need to be respected. I looked around in the dressing room before the game against Spain and I saw blood in the eyes of our players. Then came Júlio's speech," he says.
The speech was the dressing-room pep talk given by the goalkeeper Júlio César, whose international career was resurrected by the manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, despite the ignominy of relegation from the Premier League with QPR. "Júlio spoke about how much it meant to him to be able to bounce back after his mistake in the 2010 World Cup [when he was heavily criticised for his performance in the quarter-final defeat to Holland] and how many people thought he was done when he moved from Inter Milan to a club fighting relegation. It was awesome and we just thought: 'Let's win this game for him too.' Júlio could be an actor when he retires, he's so convincing," says Thiago, in a rare joke.
The smile disappears when he assesses the aftermath of the events in Brazil. Cathartic as it was for players and supporters, the beating of Xavi, Iniesta and co will be in vain if Brazil do not follow up with their sixth world title next year. Of the countries that have won World Cups, only Brazil and Spain have never triumphed on home soil. "It was a relief that we won that tournament playing well, but to believe we are in a bed of roses now would be dangerous," says Thiago. "At least part of the pressure has been lifted now that people in Brazil are excited with the Seleção again."
Off the pitch, however, the violent mass protests over government corruption and social injustice during the Confederations Cup still cast a shadow over the country. Thiago and David Luiz broke ranks and commented openly on the protests. "The people have the right to demand change and to protest against what they think is wrong. But it is important that it doesn't turn into a pitch battle," reasons the defender, who leads Brazil out of the tunnel when they host Australia in Brasilia on Saturday for an Independence Day fixture that is likely to be played in another volatile atmosphere.
Thiago will then repeat the ritual of looking up to the sky and praying. Deeply religious, the towering defender nicknamed the Monster by Italian fans almost hung up his boots at the age of 21. Signed by Dynamo Moscow from Porto, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2005. He spent months isolated in a hospital room in the Russian capital and, after being discharged, found himself surplus to requirements at the club.
His career was saved by Fluminense, the Rio club where he started playing football and who signed him again in 2006. With a blistering performance in 2007, when the club conceded only 39 goals in 38 games, he announced his return to top-level football and a year later was signed by Milan.
Thiago played 93 games for Milan and won a Serie A title in 2011 before PSG came knocking a year later. Initially reluctant to leave Italy, he was tempted by the financial package and "sold" a project by Ancelotti and above all the then football director Leonardo, a World Cup winner with Brazil. "Leonardo had talked me into joining Milan and his influence helped me a lot to decide to join PSG," he explains.
Both Ancelotti and Leonardo have now departed the club, but the defender can stand his own ground, even though his grasp of the French language still needs improvement. "I am learning it as fast as I can but it's still easier to get away with it in Italian," says Thiago. "[Zlatan] Ibrahimovic speaks Italian, for example. But [the new manager] Laurent Blanc only speaks French to me, even though he's played for Inter. Also, as an ambassador for PSG, I do need to command the language better."
While Brazil's World Cup preparations will be restricted to a string of friendlies, the club routine could not be more challenging. Firstly, PSG will have to accommodate a number of new signings including Chelsea's former object of desire Edinson Cavani and the former Roma defender Marquinhos – ironically, another player Barcelona tried to take to Camp Nou.
Thiago speaks with excitement about the new arrivals, even though he reveals a hint of disappointment for one that never came. "Wayne Rooney would have been great to play with. He is one of the best strikers in the world and this is also a guy who has scored against me every time I've played him. That goal at the Maracanã still irks me," says the defender, referring to Rooney's wondrous strike in England's 2-2 draw with Brazil in June.
It is unlikely that this reunion will happen in the Premier League, however. As much as he admires English clubs, Thiago does not feel the urge to experience another change of country and culture. "Ligue 1 is much stronger than people give it credit for. It looks a lot like the Brazilian championship, where clubs can really trouble you if you drop your guard. I have played in Italy and don't really feel I need to prove myself somewhere else. Besides, the best teams in Europe meet quite often because of the Champions League. I could see myself staying in France for a long time."
Winning Ligue 1 is pretty much an obligation for PSG but the Qatari owners' plans include winning Europe's biggest prize. "The president [Nasser al-Khelaifi] dreams of winning the Champions League and I feel we have do to better than last season as part of the process. People are aware of the investments made by the club," says Thiago.
Last season PSG made the quarter-finals, giving Barcelona a run for their money and exiting the tournament on away goals after drawing twice with the Catalans. "That showed the players and the supporters we didn't have to fear anybody. But of course people will immediately see a problem if we don't go at least a step further this year," Thiago explains.
One should also remember the home front has never been a smooth ride for the Parisians. In the first season under Qatari control they were beaten to the title by unfancied Montpellier. Last season was full of refereeing controversies, even though PSG won the title by a 12-point margin over their arch-rivals Marseille.
This season their thunder could be stolen by another billionaire project in the form of Monaco, whose owner, the Russian Dmitry Rybolovlev, has splashed around €140m on players. If anything, Thiago is relieved by the immediate effects of the arrival of new challengers. "First of all, people will stop saying that PSG is the only team around spending money, which is something that always baffles me. Big teams have always invested a lot of money. Chelsea is an example. People just forgot it a bit because it took them eight years to win the Champions League."
It remains to be seen if PSG's owners will be that patient, but Thiago knows a thing or two about handling expectations.