Picture the scene. Downtown Hong Kong, late July 2005. The mist rolls off Victoria Peak to shroud glass and concrete in a blanket of white-grey as it so often does in these parts. At one end of Hong Kong Football Club’s nondescript stadium, the glistening stands of the Jockey Club; the other, the sounds of Kowloon Bay. It’s muggy as the 2005 Nike Premier Cup final draws to a close. The small group of spectators adds little to the downbeat atmosphere.
In truth those watching the football are, as on so many occasions like this, predominantly scouts from the top European clubs. There is a small, but weighty contingent from Manchester United: Ruud van Nistelrooj, Bobby Charlton and chief scout Les Kershaw. Kershaw is busy in what will be one of his last tournaments as part of United’s youth setup. In addition to coaching duties with the young Reds, Kershaw is tasked with offering an opinion on the sponsor’s Player of the Tournament. His choice, the romantic’s option: Fluminense’s Rafael da Silva.
Rafael, alongside his brother Fabio, stood out as attacking full-backs – “tearing up and down the wing” during the five-day tournament in Fluminense’s classic Brazilian shape. Kershaw wasted little time bringing his ‘discovery’ to Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention.
On the pitch Fluminense’s tight-knit 18-man squad collected the trophy – an 18-inch brushed steel goblet with an odly shiny crown – as reward for a 1-0 victory over Paris Saint Germain in the final. The win was no small feat in a campaign that started with regional qualification and ended with more than 20 teams competing in the finals tournament. Victory was secured despite losing to the French outfit earlier in the group stages.
Almost a decade on Rafael departs Old Trafford in a £2 million deal with Olympique Lyonnais that takes the Brazilian to France for the next four years. It is a transfer that proffers mixed emotions for the player, who has limited prospects under Louis van Gaal, and United’s legion support. After eight years at Old Trafford, Rafael has found simpatico with many supporters. He fulfilled only part of his potential.
“Fluminense were one of the best sides in the tournament. But the Da Silva twins stood out. They were quite outstanding,” said Kershaw of the summer 2005 tournament.
“You didn’t have to be a special scout to notice that they were really, really good. I suggested Rafael as the Player of the Tournament. In the end the sponsors went for an Argentinian lad but I was very interested in getting the Da Silva boys to Old Trafford. I told Sir Alex Ferguson to have a look at them.
“They remind me of two little whippets. 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. 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.'”
United’s Brazilian-based scout, John Calvert-Toulmin, was assigned the task of following-up the club’s interest and a deal was arranged with Fluminense, although neither of the da Silva twins could play in England until they turned 18. Rafael made his first team début as a substitute against Newcastle United in August 2008. It was a touch over three years since the twins collected their medals in Hong Kong. The complicated transfer meant that neither had played competitive football in over a year.
In pre-season 2008/9 Fabio sat out much of the training programme with a shoulder injury. It would become a recurring theme. Rafael impressed though, featuring in United’s 1-1 draw with Celtic in front of a raucous home crowd. “He was absolutely brilliant. I was delighted an 18-year-old could do that,” crowed Ferguson in the aftermath. Just weeks into his United career, with Gary Neville having featured just once the season before, Rafael looked set to become the club’s first-choice full-back. Possibly for years to come.
History recounts a different story of course. For much of the past seven seasons the Brazilian has struggled to command a first team place. Injury and inconsistency were ongoing factors in Rafael’s time at United; the perception that he remained a player who could not be trusted lingered. All three limited Rafael to just 170 appearances for the club over eight years. Just once, in Sir Alex’ last campaign at Old Trafford, did Rafael play more than 20 Premier League games in a season. It remains peak Rafael – a season-long glimpse at the player he could have become.
In the intervening years Rafael ‘got’ United, becoming immersed in the club’s rich fan culture and deep history. He remained a player in sync with supporters, found more than once in the cafés of central Manchester and not just the Cheshire commuter belt that is haven to most United players. The simpatico was real, although the saturated nature of social media amplifies the louder, more impatient, members of United’s varied global supporter base. Fans retained sympathy with the player to the end; albeit one who was too often a frustration. It is a sentiment shared.
“I want to thank Manchester United fans for all the love during those 8 years,” he wrote in leaving for France this week. “Since I signed with the club I lived incredible moments, after all it was 8 years wearing the shirt of one of the biggest clubs of the world. Thank you.”
On the pitch Rafael leaves memories of wholly committed performances, two fine goals at Anfield and the Emirates, and a tenacity that did not always serve the player well. The full-back’s now infamous argument with Carlos Tevez in 2010 was a visceral interpretation of his commitment to United’s cause. At the other end of that scale: a red card against Bayern Munich in that season’s Champions League quarter-final that, in part at least, contributed to the club’s exit.
There was the good too. Plenty of it. Pace, bravery, and a cross that, if not always on target, could be whipped in with genuine menace. He is a better defender than many offer him credit for as well; a victim both of following Neville into United’s number two shirt and of the lingering notion that Rafael is a player with a mistake, or more likely a card, waiting to happen.
That sense of immaturity kept the player out of the 2009 Champions League final in Rome, with John O’Shea appearing at right-back, and the 2011 match at Wembley. His brother, Fabio, started, with Rafael sat in the stands. Rafael leaves with a sense of destiny unfulfilled.
There should have been more. In 2008/9, his first full season in England, Rafael made 28 appearances, for a while supplanting both Neville and Wes Brown in the United side. “Gary Neville and Wes Brown are England’s best right full-backs,” said Ferguson in December 2008. “Gary and Wes have a little problem because this young boy Rafael has really taken off. It is rare for someone to come through like he has done.”
By the season’s end it was O’Shea, who made 54 appearances during the campaign, who commanded the Brazilian’s place. Neville’s retirement the following season did not solidify Rafael’s position in Ferguson’s team. He was a player still not fully trusted – or fully fit. It is a summary of eight years at Old Trafford; one that Van Gaal could no longer tolerate.