Rafael: emerging as Man Utd’s best right-back since Neville
At Manchester United, the No7 shirt is by the far most prestigious. In the past 50 years it has been worn by George Best, Steve Coppell, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. When it was given to Michael Owen in 2009, many felt it was an act of cultural vandalism. The No7 shirt is like a precious heirloom; when it is passed on, it’s big news.
That’s not the case with any other shirt at Old Trafford. In the summer it passed almost unnoticed that Rafael da Silva had taken the No2 shirt. It had been unused since Gary Neville’s retirement, having been in his ownership for over 15 years. United’s search for the new Gary Neville has gone on almost as long as the search for the new Peter Schmeichel. Since Neville suffered a long-term injury in March 2007, after which he was never the same, United have used 18 different right-backs. Apart from 2007-08, when Wes Brown locked down the position, there has been little continuity.
Until now. Rafael has started 20 games this season, more than anybody else at the club. If he recovers from a hamstring injury to face Swansea on Sunday it will be his 16th league start – more than in any of his four full seasons at the club. It’s quite an achievement to beat your record for appearances before Santa has been to work. It’s a statistic that should be treated cautiously, however: Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, Rafael’s main rivals, have been injured for almost all of the season.
Rafael has nonetheless stood out in what has been a difficult season for the United defence. “He’s been outstanding all season,” said team-mate Jonny Evans. “With his energy, he really sets the tone for the rest of the players. He’s a credit to himself. He’s going to be one of the best right-backs in the world, no doubt about that.”
Now that both Smalling and Jones are fit again, we will get a greater sense of how far Rafael has progressed and, crucially, how much Sir Alex Ferguson trusts him. Rafael is entering one of the most crucial periods of his career. Although Ferguson is openly in love with Rafael’s passion, and clearly appreciates his long-term potential, there have also been short-term losses of faith. Rafael was dropped from the final three games of last season, for his part in the traumatic 4-4 draw with Everton that contributed to United’s spectacular collapse, and he was substituted after half an hour at Reading earlier this month.
Ferguson, conscious that he is working with a potentially special talent, has managed Rafael’s development more carefully than most, mixing long runs in the side with extended spells out of the firing line. There has never been a sense that he might give up on Rafael, however, and a new four-year contract was agreed last summer.
Rafael made his debut in August 2008 and has played over 100 games for United; as such it’s easy to forget that he is barely 22 years old. He has to adapt not only to a different culture but to a different interpretation of his role: in Brazil, full-backs are one of a team’s key attacking weapons. Barely a World Cup goes by without a Brazilian right-back taking the breath away: Carlos Alberto, Nelinho, Josimar and Maicon have all scored outrageous goals on football’s grandest stage.
Rafael’s positional sense, concentration and composure have improved appreciably in his time in England. “He’s maturing and learning all the time,” says Ferguson. “He’s blessed with great enthusiasm, skill and speed. Maturity brings that together and he’s done that over the last two years. He was quite impulsive in the past – committing himself – but he’s been fantastic.”
Paradoxically, it is that impulsiveness that has so endeared him to fans. He is a playground footballer – fearless and joyously unfettered, forever wanting the ball. He also has a magnificent temper on him. In the post-Keane era United have been a little weak and can be bullied. A series of meek defeats at Anfield in recent times attest to that, but Rafael is one man who never backs down.
When Jamie Carragher sliced open Nani’s leg at Anfield in 2011, Rafael immediately sought retribution with a two-footed tackle on Lucas. When Carlos Tévez tried to bully Rafael at Eastlands earlier that season, he got the shock of his life when Rafael got in his face almost dementedly. In an age of footballers who seem to care primarily about their pay packet and their access to mirrors, Rafael is loved because he cares so deeply – about winning and about Manchester United.
And because he savours big games. His two best goals for United came at the Emirates and Anfield, while he regularly excels at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium. In his first Manchester derby, aged 18, he wiped the floor with Robinho. He took on Tevez in 2010-11 and earlier this month he responded to that Reading humiliation by making two goals in United’s 3-2 win over their neighbours.
Now he has his greatest challenge to look forward to: a date with Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League. “Some people may think I am still young and still a boy,” says Rafael, “but now I feel like I am a man.”
Over the next few months he has the chance to prove it.
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