Meet Mile Svilar, the youngest keeper in Champions League history
Manchester United's winning goal at Benfica two weeks ago was utterly bizarre. Marcus Rashford put a routine ball into the penalty area from a free kick, and Mile Svilar should have easily dealt with it. Instead of punching it away, though, the goalkeeper tried to catch it. While doing so, he crossed the line with the ball in his hands. Rarely do fans see such a glaring mistake.
The mishap becomes much more understandable when you take into consideration that it was the first goal Svilar conceded in his senior career. The Belgian prodigy was making only his second start for Benfica, having celebrated his debut against modest Olhanense in the Portuguese League Cup.
By stepping on the pitch in the Champions League, he became the youngest keeper ever in the competition, at 18 years and 52 days. The previous record belonged to Iker Casillas and stood at 18 years and 177 days. The Spanish legend played his first Champions League game versus Olympiakos on Sept. 15, 1999 -- less than three weeks after Svilar was born.
Svilar grew up adoring Casillas and was delighted in the extreme to meet his idol four years ago, when Iker presented him with a special pair of signed gloves. And here is the irony: They find themselves in the same league now, playing for the biggest rivals, and Svilar was given his chance at the very same time that Porto decided to bench Casillas.
As far as style is concerned, Svilar has another role model. As was evident from the first moments of the match against Manchester United, when he rushed out of the penalty area to clear the ball with a flying header, the youngster is trying to emulate Manuel Neuer as a "sweeper keeper."
This adventurous attitude was noticed by Jose Mourinho. "We knew that he risks a lot," the United boss said, instructing his players to put pressure on Svilar at set pieces.
Eventually, Mourinho's plan worked out. But Benfica coach Rui Vitoria didn't blame the youngster. On the contrary, he consoled and defended him, making clear that Svilar remained his first choice.
The Belgian played well in a pair of Primeira Liga wins against Aves and Feirense, and is now set to face United again. Such faith from his coach seems to justify his controversial decision to move from Brussels to Lisbon in the summer.
Svilar's intentions were very different beforehand. Ever since joining Anderlecht at the age of 10, he dreamed of playing for the club and felt settled and comfortable. The Purple Talents project implemented by the club allowed the kid to combine playing football with studying economics, and he was very highly respected at the academy.
Remarkably, Svilar started playing for Anderlecht's under-19 team in the UEFA Youth League in 2014 when he was just 15, achieving some great results, including a couple of wins over Arsenal of Alex Iwobi and Gedion Zelalem. It is hardly surprising that the Gunners were interested, as were Manchester United, Ajax and Schalke, while Chelsea invited him for a trial. However, the Svilar family had other plans.
Mile's father, Ratko Svilar, was a popular goalkeeper himself, part of the Yugoslavia squad for the 1982 World Cup and a legend at Royal Antwerp, whom he was able to join only at the age of 30, according to his homeland's rules. Ratko went on to play till the age of 45, but Mile could only watch his exploits on tape -- he was born when Ratko was 49.
Upon grasping his son's potential, Ratko was adamant to nurture his talents as well as possible, and believed that staying at Anderlecht would be the best option.
Mile agreed wholeheartedly. "I'd love to stay here as long as possible. The training process is great and I can learn a lot," he said three years ago.
It all changed in the summer, when Svilar wasn't promoted to the first-team squad against his expectations. The coach, Rene Weiler, didn't count on him, and the club's decision to sign Matz Sels on loan from Newcastle was the last straw. The youngster wasn't patient anymore, leaving the Anderlecht management frustrated, and Benfica were quick to react.
Choosing the Portuguese giants was a logical decision. Benfica sold Ederson to Manchester City and remained with the 38-year-old veteran Julio Cesar between the posts. Jean-Marie Pfaff, one the greatest Belgian keepers, remarked: "Mile has everything to gain by training with Julio Cesar, who should help him a lot. When he gets his chance, he will grab it with both hands." That was indeed the case.
When the Brazilian was injured in October, Rui Vitoria decided to gamble on Svilar, and the unfortunate incident on his Champions League debut could actually work in the youngster's favour. The coach is cautious not to hurt the rising star's self-confidence, and intends to give him an extended run in the starting lineup so that Rashford's goal would be forgotten.
As Svilar is beginning to make big headlines around Europe, a new question of loyalty is becoming very relevant. Mile represented Belgium at the European Under-17 Championship last year, conceding just two goals in four matches before going out in the quarterfinals. But even being dubbed "the new Thibaut Courtois" won't help him to displace the Chelsea goalkeeper from the national team. Competition could be easier in the Serbia national team. It is significant that Belgium U19 coach Gert Verheyen was disappointed and angered to have phone calls unanswered by Svilar, and now refuses to call him up again.
Svilar speaks Serbian with his parents at home, and it was Nemanja Matic who recommended to him that he sign for Benfica. "I had some information from him. He played there, and told me how big the club is," Svilar said.
Matic was on hand to console the youngster two weeks ago, but so was Romelu Lukaku. Which of them is going to have him as a national team partner? That remains to be seen, but Svilar has to prove himself on a regular basis first. Another date with Lukaku and Matic at Old Trafford is a great opportunity to impress.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin