How Raí stepped out of brother Sócrates’ shadow to become a Brazilian great

How Raí stepped out of brother Sócrates’ shadow to become a Brazilian great

Finally, Guiomar had had enough. She had indulged her husband’s passion for the Greek philosophers until now, but after giving birth to Sócrates, Sófocles and Sostenes in quick succession, the name Xenophon was a bridge too far. This baby, she decided, would be named after its father, Raimundo. This baby, as fans of São Paulo and Paris Saint-Germain know all too well, would be called Raí.

Raí Souza Vieira de Oliveira was born into a middle-class family in Ribeirão Preto on 15 May 1965.  As his older brother built a legacy with Corinthians and Brazil, the lanky teenager played street football and basketball with his friends. When he was 15 he decided to take football seriously, signing for local team Botafogo as a scholar after being prompted by a friend to try out. Two years later, he was forced to take life seriously as he became a father to Emanuella before he had signed a professional contract.

A youthful playmaker with a mess of dark hair, Raí made his official debut for Botafogo in 1984. Two years later, his precocious performances earned a contract with Série A side Ponte Preta, but injuries and a loss of form saw him return to Botafogo shortly after. Under the tutelage of the Uruguayan Pedro Rocha, Raí would recover to take the first tentative first steps towards a glistening career, with his showings for the Tricolore earning an international call-up and a slew of interested suitors.   

In what was then the biggest transfer ever agreed between Brazilian clubs, Raí signed for São Paulo in 1987. Initially he failed to settle, with commentators criticising his laconic style and apparent disinterest in hard work. Raí was a dreamer in too many games, a luxury who lacked the skill and the consistency required to be a truly top player like his sibling. Despite winning the State Championship in 1989, he and his São Paulo teammates were struggling, bereft of a meaningful footballing identity. Change was needed, and quickly.

Telê Santana was a sporting romantic, the auteur of a dazzling period in the Seleção’s football history. An admirer of Rinus Michels’ Total Football style, he unleashed a midfield of Sócrates, Éder, Zico and Falcão at the 1982 World Cup, where Brazil scored 14 goals in the group stage and destroyed Argentina before a tragic exit against Paolo Rossi’s Italy.

Four years later in Mexico, only a missed Júlio César penalty had seen them lose out on a place in the semi-final. In both tournaments, the skill of the Brazilian sides had been the talk of the tournament, with only the cunning and dark arts of the European sides curtailing what could have been a magical success. 

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Santana had joined Flamengo shortly after the World Cup but his reputation was faltering after a difficult few years which saw him fail to establish himself at Fluminense and Palmeiras. He signed a short-term contract to manage the club, with both parties looking to restore their flagging credibility.

It would provide to be a wonderful marriage. Despite his reputation for carefree football, Santana inherited a hubristic team desperate for an injection of order and discipline. Raí was the figurehead for an arrogant side that had struggled to add stamina to its swagger. “When he arrived, I was a little big-headed,” Raí admitted in Musa Okwonga’s book Will You Manage? “I was the captain. I was the player of the match, every match.”

With Santana’s arrival, Raí’s ego would soon be punctured. The coach saw a player who was supremely talented but who lacked the focus and dedication to make the most of his gifts. “He was always demanding, he demanded dedication during practices,” Rai noted for the website “My feet ended up firmly on the ground and my head firmly on my shoulders.”

For the captain and the team, the results of Santana’s new regime were stark and immediate; from midfield, Raí became the top scorer in the São Paulo championship, leading Toninho Cerezo, Müller and a young Cafu to the Brazilian Championship in 1991. Continental dominance would soon follow, Raí scoring the goal that forced the 1992 Copa Libertadores final into penalties, from which São Paulo wrought their first continental title.   

The reward for their triumph was a place in the final of the Intercontinental Cup against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in Tokyo in December 1992. Under the auspices of the Dutch icon, Barcelona had just beaten Sampdoria at Wembley to secure their first-ever European trophy. They were the best team in the world with the best players in the world; Ronald Koeman, Pep Guardiola and Hristo Stoichkov would surely roll over the pretenders from Brazil.

What followed was a dazzling exhibition of skill from the São Paulo captain. The tone was set immediately, with Raí performing a devastating chaleira against the young Guardiola, perhaps the only time in his career where the young Catalan lost sight of the ball. Stoichkov attempted a riposte, opening the scoring on 12 minutes, but after a twisting run down the left from Müller, Raí was on hand to chest in the equaliser.

Twelve minutes from the final whistle, Palhinha was fouled just outside the box. With his chest puffed out and his black hair tumbling in the Tokyo breeze, Raí nudged the ball to Cafu before curling an effort past a stationary Andoni Zubizarreta into the far corner. The stadium erupted, Raí running straight to the bench to celebrate with the coach who had done do much to instil the team and his captain with a winning mentality. 

Order  |  Brazil

Raí’s goal-scoring exploits had already gained him the nickname of Terror do Morumbi. The performance against Barcelona, however, was the apex of a phenomenal year of football. After leading his team to domestic and continental domination, he was awarded South American Player of the year in 1992. He was widely considered as one of the hottest talents in the world, even before he scored to help his team retain the Libertadores in a devastating 5-3 victory on aggregate against Universidad Católica a year later. By now, the major European clubs were vying for his signature.   

Twenty-three years before Raí’s stunning winner in Tokyo, a local French team called Stade-Gérmain agreed to a novel merger proposition from a group of investors identifying as Paris FC. The result was the creation of what is now known as Paris Saint-Germain. The adolescent club rose quickly in the French leagues, aided by the captures of talents like Carlos Bianchi and Safet Sušić in becoming one of the premier forces in French football. PSG won its first Ligue 1 title when it was just 16 years old.

It was in 1991, however, when the club went stratospheric. Canal+ invested heavily into the domestic game, instigating a pay-per-view TV deal that saw PSG’s income raise astronomically. George Weah and David Ginola led a catwalk of stars that signed for the fashionable Parisians, but it was the signature of Raí that heralded perhaps the greatest period in their history.

Five million dollars seems a paltry sum in today’s globalised game, but it was a considerable outlay for a talent that was still unproven in the European game. After scoring on his debut against Montpellier in September 1993, however, Raí struggled to meet expectations, stifled by competition from his compatriot Valdo and failing to convince PSG manager Artur Jorge of a spot in the starting XI. Nevertheless, his stellar performances in Brazil had convinced national coach Carlos Alberto Parreira to appoint him as captain of the national side. After an inconsistent year, Raí headed to the World Cup in 1994 looking to announce himself as the star of Brazilian football.

Sadly, it didn’t work out. Brazil were cumbersome in the early stages, stifled by Thomas Ravelli’s Sweden and scraping past hosts the USA in the second round. By that stage, Raí had already been dropped and replaced by Mazinho, with the armband given to the irascible Dunga. Brazil would go on to win the trophy, with the magic of Romário and Bebeto securing the Seleção’s first World Cup in 24 years. Raí watched the triumph from the sidelines, ignorant that his failure to turn up had effectively ended his career for the national side.

After a bittersweet stay in the United States, Raí returned to Paris and a new manager in the guise of club legend Luis Fernández. His form spiked immediately and he made a home for himself in the playmaker position. PSG went unbeaten for ten games and were the darlings of the Champions League, stopped only by Fabio Capello’s AC Milan in the semi-finals after memorable victories against Bayern Munich and Barcelona.

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With the Brazilian conducting affairs in the middle of the park, PSG won a domestic cup double, securing their first-ever Coupe de la Ligue as well as the Coupe de France. With Raí now the undisputed star of the team, the following year saw Celtic, Parma and Deportivo fall victim to the navy-red hurricane. A narrow victory against Rapid Vienna secured the club’s maiden European trophy in the Cup Winners’ Cup.

A second consecutive appearance in the Cup Winners’ Cup final against Barcelona ended less favourably, but PSG again qualified for the Champions League before their form began to dip. A difficult year in 1998 ended on a high note, however, after Raí captained his teammates to another two domestic cup double. By then, he had already forged an untouchable legacy in the heart of PSG fans. 

After a stuttering start, his arrival in the capital has instigated PSG’s first real ascent to the top of the European game. With their dazzling number 10 and captain, the Champions League was a natural home for the cosmopolitan conquerors, and the Parc des Princes relished the nights under the floodlights as the Champions League anthem whipped around the stadium.

With his supreme footballing intelligence, Rai was able to control not only games but also his emotions.  He was a player who rarely lost his nerve, missing just two penalties throughout his entire career, and his unfussy goal celebration spoke of a man who would rejoice up to a point, before getting back to the task at hand. Perhaps this explains why he was appointed captain of every side he played for.   

Aged 33, however, Rai’s impressive physique was beginning to wane. As PSG lined out against Monaco at the Parc des Princes on 25 April 1998, they already knew their beloved captain was returning home to Brazil. But they wouldn’t let him leave without knowing how much he meant to them. 

As he led the team from the tunnel, the stadium erupted into a sea of blue, yellow and green. Brazilian flags and scarves fluttered in the breeze and the Aquarela do Brasil rang out from the stands. Raí was moved to tears, bowing to the fans after the game and prompting a scrum as he threw his jersey into the crowd. It was no surprise, then, that he would be subsequently voted by the fans as the greatest player in PSG’s history.

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Raí returned to São Paulo in 1998, enjoying an explosive start to his Indian Summer as he lined up for the final of the state championship against Corinthians. Of course, only he could have scored the header that would win the title against their arch-rivals, reminding every fan immediately of his deadly capabilities. He even had enough time to secure another state championship in 2000, before retiring from the game as a bona fide São Paulo legend.

Why, then, is such a phenomenal career not celebrated more? To an extent, Raí will always be overshadowed by the gargantuan talent of his elder brother Sócrates, but the former’s career was glittering in its own right.

Raí’s legacy will always be marked, perhaps, by his association with the 1994 World Cup triumph. By that time, Brazil had largely abandoned its footballing roots, pursuing a brutish and physical style that emphasised brawn over ball control. The 1994 World Cup was a triumph of the pragmatism over the ideal, and Raí was an uncomfortable symbol of the passing of the baton. 

At six foot three inches, his broad shoulders were capable of comfortably slotting into Brazil’s militaristic new style, but he possessed a technique that matched up ably with the master technicians of the 1980s. Raí the footballer was a hybrid of skill and substance, a player who combined balletic grace with a boxer’s physique, but he is loved less than players such as Zico and Falcão who surrendered titles in favour of their footballing philosophy.

After his retirement, Raí’s natural charm and intelligence saw him enjoy a brief spell as a director at São Paulo. Like his elder brother, however, Raí’s strong social conscience saw him create the foundation Gol de Letra alongside fellow ex-professional and AC Milan legend Leonardo. The foundation, which has been recognised by UNESCO as a global model, helps thousands of underprivileged children gain access to education. Raí’s second foundation, Athletes for Citizenship, uses football as a vehicle for social change, and his contribution to the French game saw him awarded the Legion D’Honneur by Francois Hollande in December 2013.

Nowadays, he devotes his time to his foundations, his daughters and his grandchildren. But he will always be part of the PSG and São Paulo family as a natural leader who brought glittering trophies and sparkling memories. Sócrates may be a legend, but Raí will always be their hero.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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