How the underrated Rafinha conquered two continents and lifted 18 trophies at Bayern Munich

How the underrated Rafinha conquered two continents and lifted 18 trophies at Bayern Munich

You’d think that being on a list of merely ten footballers, which includes Carlos Tévez, Cafú, Dida, Neymar, Ronaldinho, would distinguish a footballer. If nothing else, it should make it easy to find them on the internet. But this is where you’re wrong. If you Google the person I’m referring to, the search engine returns with a rhetorical question of which one. It’s an unfortunate circumstance of Brazilian naming customs – and it really shouldn’t be this way for a player who is among a select few to have won both the Champions League and the Copa Libertadores.

The man in question is Márcio Rafael Ferreira de Souza, or Rafinha for short. This, of course, is as opposed to Rafael Alcântara do Nascimento – also Rafinha. Now 26, he is still on the books of Barcelona, temporarily residing at Celta Vigo in an attempt to kickstart a career that is in danger of fading away. No such issue exists for the other Rafinha, who is enjoying an Indian Summer back in Brazil after an unsung decade-and-a-half in Europe.

It all began back in 2005 when a sprightly 19-year-old with shaggy hair joined Schalke from Coritiba for €5m. A right-back blessed with pace, passing ability and defensive nous, he had impressed during the Under-20 World Cup in the Netherlands, scoring two goals as Brazil took home bronze. Offers from Europe were rife, with Rafinha opting for Schalke based on the club’s size and the reassuring presence of compatriots Lincoln and Marcelo Bordon, alongside Portuguese speaker Kevin Kurányi. 

Right-back had proved a troublesome position for manager Ralf Rangnick, who had been forced to utilise Christian Poulsen and Hamit Altintop out of position during the previous season. Resultingly, Rafinha would appear at the first possible opportunity, coming off the bench for Altintop for the final nine minutes of a 1-1 draw with Gladbach. After sitting out the following week’s game at Bayer Leverkusen, Rafinha would – a red-card suspension in April 2006 aside – start every remaining Bundesliga game that season.

What impressed most about Rafinha was his attitude. Like many Brazilians in Germany he initially struggled with the climate and language, although on the pitch he put his head down and worked. Not that this came as a shock. Upon arrival, when questioned over both the culture shock and price tag, like an Eminem impersonator he simply remarked, “I’m not afraid.”

This stems from his upbringing, which was far from easy. His family lived in extreme poverty, struggling to feed the young Rafinha and his siblings. Then, at the age of 15, he had to move some 400km from his birthplace of Londrina to Coritiba. Things hardly improved as, aged 16, his father died. It’s is a matter that’s still close to his heart, with the player breaking down in tears when contemplating the pride his father missed out on, after his son lifted trophy after trophy in Europe.

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The path to glory began during Rafinha’s first season in Germany, with Schalke finishing fourth and reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. The following campaign would see an even greater improvement, with Rafinha scoring his first goal in late November 2006 against Bochum to keep Die Knappen top of the Bundesliga. That title race went to the final day, although Rafinha and his teammates would again come off second best, losing a crucial Revierderby at Dortmund in the penultimate game of the season to finish two points behind Stuttgart.

Nevertheless, by now Rafinha was rightly seen as one of the best full-backs in the Bundesliga. Despite transfer interest he chose to remain at Schalke, signing a two-year contract extension in March 2007. Meanwhile, he went on to make his senior Seleção debut in March 2008, coming on for Dani Alves for the final 20 minutes of a friendly with Sweden. That substitution possesses a certain ironic value, given how it was Alves’ form that meant it would take Rafinha another six years to earn his next cap. Not that this affected his form in the league.

Schalke would bounce back from the pain of losing the league to qualify for the Champions League in 2007/08. An issue, however, arose that summer, with Rafinha defying club orders to play for his nation at that the Olympics in Beijing. Having missed 35 days of pre-season, the Brazilian was fined a record €700,000 for breaching his contract.

A lesser player may have downed tools at such treatment, but Rafinha continued in his workmanlike style. Two more productive seasons followed before, having made it clear he would see out the final year of his contract, he made a surprising switch to Genoa in the summer of 2010. The Serie A outfit paid a reported €9m for the Brazilian, who was told by president Enrico Preziosi upon joining that he was too good for the club and Genoa would not stand in his way of a transfer.

Less than a year later, Rafinha was on his way back to Germany, linking up with former teammate Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich. The intention was for Philipp Lahm to return to his old position of left-back, with Rafinha filling the void. During the Brazilian’s first season in Bavaria this was the case, with the diminutive star playing 35 times in all competitions as Bayern ended as runners-up to Dortmund in the Bundesliga.

Matters would change the following season due to the emergence of David Alaba. The youngster had spent 2010/11 on a loan at Hoffenheim, and upon returning was used mainly in midfield by Jupp Heynckes. However, a bout of influenza kept Rafinha out of action for a match in March 2012, with Lahm moved to right-back and Alaba put at left-back to cover. Upon his return to fitness, Rafinha saw himself benched … and things would never truly be the same.

Read  |  Philipp Lahm: a decade in the sun

The 2012/13 season got off to a poor start after he ruptured his ankle ligament during pre-season. This led to Rafinha not getting onto the pitch until the start of October – but by then it could be argued his fate had been sealed. Lahm was first-choice right-back, with Alaba the starter on the other side. Rafinha was now reduced to a position many would come to associate his indistinguishable name with: backup.

It is in this position that Rafinha is most renowned, namely a reliable choice to step in if either Alaba or Lahm were injured or rested. Not that there is any shame in fulfilling such a role, such is the talent of both players and necessity at elite clubs of having strength in depth, but one can’t help thinking what could have been if Rafinha had moved elsewhere.

Speculation aside, it is worth noting that despite sitting as second choice, he would still clock up at least 26 games in six of his seven remaining seasons at Bayern. There was also the crowning glory of trophies, something which until the beginning of the 2012/13 campaign had evaded the Brazilian.

In a manner more typically associated with London buses, three would arrive at once during this season. Rafinha would play 13 games in the league to claim his first Bundesliga title, alongside the DFB-Pokal and Champions League. Unfortunately, he was on the bench for both finals, with a lack of playing time seeing suggestions in the media of a return to Schalke. Rafinha, however, dismissed this, claiming he was excited by the impending appointment of Pep Guardiola.

The Spaniard’s arrival in the summer of 2013 breathed new life into Rafinha’s career at the Allianz Arena. With Lahm repositioned as a defensive midfielder, it meant Rafinha was called upon to become Guardiola’s right-back. The 2013/14 season would see Bayern retain both the Bundesliga and Pokal, with Rafinha playing 28 games in the former and full 120 minutes of the final in the latter. There were also seven assists in the league, proving he was indeed worthy of being remembered for more than sitting on the bench.

As long as Guardiola remained in Bavaria, times would be especially good for Rafinha. The Brazilian spent the majority of 2014/15 as starting right-back and Bayern again retained their league title. Even with Guardiola’s departure in the summer of 2016, things still continued positively under Carlo Ancelotti who, despite reverting Lahm to full-back, saw the need to use Rafinha on 28 occasions.

Read  |  Filipe Luís: the astrophysics-loving movie buff bucking the Brazilian stereotype

The sacking of Ancelotti in late September 2017 would see Heynckes return as manager, and the man who signed Rafinha from Genoa some six years previous still saw a part for the player. Despite being a few months off 33, Rafinha would turn out in 39 games during the 2017/18 season, with Bayern being crowned champions once more.

He would spend his final campaign in Europe reduced to merely deputising for whenever Alaba was injured or Niko Kovač decided to move Joshua Kimmich into midfield. He would still appear 26 times before departing in the summer of 2019, seventh Bundesliga title in tow. Despite leaving at the same time as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, the popular full-back would be given a hero’s send-off by his teammates and supporters, lifting the title with the other two players.

Returning home to Brazil after 14 seasons away was always going to be emotional, more so given he decided to join his boyhood club Flamengo. Despite arriving midway through the season, typically Rafinha would just get on with the job at hand. He slotted in immediately at right-back, debuting in a 6-1 thrashing of Goiás that foreshadowed what was to come.

Augmenting a squad also containing the likes of Diego Alves, Diego Ribas and Filipe Luís, Rafinha would use his experience to steer Flamengo towards silverware. Given his track record, there was little alternative. Despite losing 2-0 in Ecuador to Emelec in the first round of their Libertadores last-16 tie, Flamengo would come through on penalties. What followed was the elimination of both of Porto Alegre’s teams – Internacional and then Grêmio – to see Flamengo through to their first Libertadores final in 38 years.

Facing holders River Plate in the competition’s first one-leg final was always going to be a challenge, and so it proved as the Argentines took the lead. This was until Gabriel Barbosa popped up in the 89th minute to equalise, scoring again a minute later to seal Flamengo’s second Libertadores in the most dramatic fashion.

Little over 24 hours later, the club also won the Série A title after Grêmio scored a late winner against Palmeiras. Aged 34, Rafinha shows little signs of relenting in his pursuit of trophies.

He has now become just the tenth player to win the prime continental title of both Europe and South America, an honour not to be sniffed at. Whilst the etymology of his name means he is often confused, it should take nothing away from the distinguished career Rafinha enjoyed. If you wish to Google him in future, I would suggest searching along the lines of “Rafinha, the one who made 266 appearances and won 18 trophies at Bayern Munich”. That should narrow it down.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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