One can’t help but wonder how a certain Rafael da Silva would relish the attacking license afforded to Antonio Valencia this season under José Mourinho at Manchester United. The Brazilian fullback encompasses everything that defines a Manchester United player: skillful, courageous and full of character. Da Silva ‘got’ what it meant to be a part of the Red Devils.
Rafael’s journey to United, along with his twin brother Fabio, began in the unlikely venue of the Hong Kong Football Club. The pair had been participating in the Nike Premier Cup for Fluminense in 2005 when they were spotted by then Academy Manager, Les Kershaw.
“They remind me of two little whippets,” Kershaw said “There are no wingers as such in Brazil and they all play a 4-2-2-2 formation. That means the full-backs have to tear up and down the wings. These two stood out straight away. What impressed me most was the way that, when they got knocked down, they just got straight back up again and got on with it. They were like bouncing balls . . . very, very quick. You didn’t have to be a special scout to notice them. I rang the manager and said, ‘There are twins here who are just unbelievable.'”
Despite reported interest from Arsenal via an “unidentified scout” the Da Silva twins opted to make their way to Old Trafford with the pair signing in January 2008. Rafael made his league debut in November of that year against Newcastle and the future did look bright.
However Rafael, and to a lesser extent his twin, divided opinion amongst the United faithful. For every supporter who romanticizes about the fullback’s swashbuckling tendencies there are detractors who’d fret about his so-called defensive fragility. For those who reminisced about his bravery in the face of adversity there’s always a few who point out the Brazilian’s propensity to lose his head.
In terms of numbers Rafael played for United 170 times scoring five goals, assisting in 15 others and being dismissed just three times, crucially though one of those reds was against Bayern Munich in 2010 in the Champions League quarterfinal with the German side coached by a certain Louis van Gaal.
It’s to Rafael’s credit that United are still using a makeshift right-back in Valencia as a starter and haven’t truly found a specialist to fill in the role. The Ecuadorian flitters between underwhelming to adequate whilst Matteo Darmian has thus far failed to make the grade after a promising start.
If anything the death knell for Rafael sounded when Sir Alex Ferguson called time on his illustrious management career. In the Scot’s final season in charge the Brazilian fullback enjoyed a campaign to remember and looked set to develop into one of the world’s best in his position. The right back benefited from the fact that he and Ferguson shared the same instincts, both were gamblers and weren’t afraid to take risks.
In an interview with Brazil’s Globo Esporte Da Silva said “In 2012-13 I played almost every game, it was my best season in Manchester, and we won the championship. And then the coach changed. That change was fatal to me”.
Suddenly, Da Silva found himself coached by David Moyes whose approach to the game was wrapped in negativity and then Louis van Gaal who valued Valencia’s conservatism over the Brazilian’s adventurous nature.
One thing Rafael couldn’t get away from were injuries. He suffered three major setbacks in his final season at Old Trafford which effectively ended any hopes of reestablishing himself in the starting line-up under Louis van Gaal. Whether it was his combative style of play that led him from the pitch to the treatment room is open to debate but whatever the reason it contributed to his departure to Olympique Lyonnais where he’s establishing himself as first choice player. As a nod to United, Rafael opted to don the number 20 jersey signifying how many times the Red Devils lifted the English title.
It was his infectious enthusiasm coupled with his talent that makes the Brazilian instantly likeable. He had a flair for spectacular goals with highlights being his spectacular equalizer at Anfield and an absolute thunder bastard against QPR leaving his country man Júlio César with no chance. There was also his refusal to back down against any and all opponents with the images of him getting right into Carlos Tevez’s face as well as squaring up to Martin Škrtel, Lucas Leiva, Maxi Rodríguez and Glen Johnson attaining an iconic status. And to round things up he and his brother were at the heart of United’s 2-0 win over Arsenal in the FA Cup quarterfinal in 2011.
Rafael is a throwback playing the swashbuckling style of football that ingratiates players to United fans and there’s a sense of regret that someone who knew what it meant to be a Red with every fibre of his being was let go.
However nothing can take away the cult status of Rafael da Silva, Old Trafford’s very own “little whippet”.