Brazilian ballads of footballing folklore have been heard from the heights of Cristo Redentor to the rest of the world for generations upon generations. After all, this is a country that has produced some of the finest specimens to play the game. Kids in Recife dream of being Rivaldo, whilst those in São Paulo aspire to be Pelé. But in the southern city of Porto Alegre, there is only one player that the Samba street kids idolize: Ronaldinho.
Or at least that was the case for a young Raphinha growing up in the city, juggling a ball in the same streets as ‘El Brujo de Porto Alegre’ did when he was just making his name as a youngster for Grêmio. Raphinha studied his hero; the way he carried the ball with ease past opponents, the manner in which he’d produce his Houdini act of now you see me now you don’t. And when he came of age and plied his trade for Avaí, he’d showcase a similar skillset to the city’s most famous inhabitant.
The comparisons were in some ways so striking, they caught the eye of Ronaldinho’s former Barcelona teammate Deco who signed Raphinha to his agency ‘D20Sports’ following an eye-catching display at a youth tournament. Deco’s Portuguese links would take the then 19-year-old to the medieval city of Guimarães, where he would play for Vitoria S.C. after biding his time in their youth teams.
It was clear the Brazilian was going to be something special, in his breakout season of 2017-18, he netted 18 times in 43 games from the wing position, whilst winning their Breakthrough Player of the Year award at just 20 years of age. His performances didn’t go unnoticed and it was to no surprise when one of the Primeira Liga’s big names chased him, Lisbon was the destination, Sporting CP was the team.
The upward trajectory of Raphinha only got steeper as impressive showings in the Europa League and beyond saw him finish the 2018-19 with silverware in two competitions; the Taça da Liga and the Taça de Portugal where he scored the winning penalty in a shootout against Porto.
To his dismay, he was then sold to Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais F.C for a fee of €21 million, making him the club’s record signing. As is the nature of Portuguese football, Raphinha was a prized fish in a shallow pond and the need for funds elsewhere meant Sporting saw him as expendable.
Replacing Ismaïla Sarr at Rennes, who left for Watford, would be no easy feet but just as his idol R10 had done so at PSG, he took like a duck to water in the French League as he chipped in with eight goals and seven assists whilst helping his team qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. However the season finished, and with it came another change of scenery for the now well-travelled Gaúcho.
This time it would be a short flight over the channel to England, where the Premier League and Leeds United awaited him. This is where he now finds himself as he approaches his 24th birthday in just over a week, five games into his career in English football. But just how important has he been so far for the Whites, and what can he offer to the side hoping to impress on their first season back in the top division after a 16-year absence?
The main thing that has stood out about Raphinha throughout his career and certainly in his brief moments at Leeds so far is that he is comfortable in a host of positions. For Vitória, his youth team coaches raved about how he could occupy either wing, often interchanging in games to startle the fullbacks of opposing teams who couldn’t contain him.
This adaptability is imperative to any player who hopes to impress Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa, a coach famed for his reliance on players being jacks-of-all-trades. Raphinha has predominantly played on the right of the midfield for Leeds, making his full debut there against Arsenal last week.
In seasons gone by, Pablo Hernández typically occupied the right wing position, but with the demands of the Premier League combined with him approaching 36 years of age, the veteran Spaniard has been used as a bit-part player this season. This has meant that The Whites have lost the one player who could offer what no-one else could; the ability to drift inside from the wing and make things happen.
Whilst in a Bielsa side, one winger often hugs the touchline, the other is encouraged to come inside and link up play or better yet, create scoring opportunities. Hélder Costa started the season off in good form in this role, but has of late seen a dip in performances, which opened the door for Raphinha to stake his claim in the side.
Photo: Getty Images
Against Arsenal, ‘Raphy’ showed glimpses of what Hernández so consistently produced for Leeds in the Championship. He glided in from the right wing on numerous occasions, taking up positions where you’d usually find a number 10 or the ‘Enganche’.
The Brazilian tested Bernd Leno with two strikes from distance and struck the post late into injury time in the second half. But his breakout performance came against Everton at Goodison on Saturday, where he bagged his first goal for the West Yorkshire outfit, whilst effortlessly being one of the standout players on the pitch.
He was the missing piece to the jigsaw that Leeds sorely needed. If United fans were wondering what their Spanish Prince would have been like in his prime years at Valencia, then this was it. Raphinha had both Tom Davies and Alex Iwobi chasing shadows with his tricky feet and electric pace, and he carved open their defense with a splendid pass to Jack Harrison in the first half which should have resulted in a goal.
His directness and confidence on both feet is something that causes opposition players to go into meltdown as he can go either way. Add to this that he inherits the natural flare that marks him as a Brazilian, then you realize just how much potential Raphinha has.
In the 79th minute of the match he opened his account, picking up the ball in the middle of the park before scanning the pitch whilst he decided on his next move, then striking a shot through Ben Godfrey’s legs and past Jordan Pickford from all of 20 yards away. The goal was the archetypal one that Hernández scored in the Championship whilst taking up that central position, his strikes against West Bromwich Albion in the 4-0 victory in 2019 or the Bristol City game on the opening game of last season are ones most reminiscent of Raphinha’s.
His eye for a pass, such as the defense splitting one he produced for Luke Ayling against Aston Villa, has been one of the key aspects Leeds have lost with Pablo’s absence. Too often there has been a reliance on Mateusz Klich or Harrison to unlock the door, but with the introduction of Raphinha that now means the burden is shared.
It is clear thus far that the 23-year-old Brazilian possesses all the traits to make that position his own, and if he continues to churn out goals and chances like the Everton one then Bielsa’s side have got a compelling player on their hands.
By: Alfie Douglas
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Clive Brunskill – AFP