Alex Clapham writes about the rising Barcelona prodigy, Rafinha Alcantara, and why it may finally be his time to succeed in the Spanish giants’ first team.
Following on from Rafinha Alcantara’s goalscoring performance in the Uefa Super Cup final, the 22- year-old will be hoping for and expecting more opportunities in the Barcelona starting 11 this coming season.
The final was a feather in the cap of Rafinha as he started such a high profile, important game in a position that is usually taken up by the great Neymar. However, due to the extraordinary condition of mumps that the member of last season’s record breaking forward trio was diagnosed with, Rafinha was somewhat surprisingly called upon to take his place as a left sided attacker alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
Changing position at such late notice proved to be no issue to the versatile young man that started his football career as a goalkeeper. It was a fine compliment to be given the trust and responsibility from his adoring manager; Luis Enrique.
The Asturian coach showed his admiration for the Brazilian prodigy when he was the first piece of business that was completed in his new role at Football Club Barcelona. Rafinha shone in a truly remarkable season under the guidance of Enrique the previous year at Celta de Vigo. In 32 appearances, he was directly involved in 18% of the club’s goals, averaging 1.6 key passes per game. These performances were enough to see him appear in 8th position on the list of best midfielders in La Liga and take home the ‘La Liga Breakthrough Player’ for the 2013-2014 season.
Growing up in the rough and ready south-eastern city of Sao Paolo in Brazil, “Rafa” had extra special surroundings and opportunities around professional athletes as his mother, Valeria played volleyball and his father, Mazinho not only played at the highest level of club football for the likes of Valencia and Fiorentina, but was also a part of Brazil’s 1989 Copa America and 1994 World Cup winning teams.
Having represented the Spanish national team at U16, U17 and U19 levels, Rafinha opted to change his allegiance to Brazil and played for the under-20s at the 2013 South American Youth Championships in Argentina. This was a difficult decision for him as he lived in Spain from the age of two, when his father was signed by Valencia, however, he decided that due to current crop of Spanish midfielders, his chances to play international football would be much higher with the ‘Samba Boys’.
Rafinha states; “I’ve always felt Brazilian. In my family we have always felt like that. To come here so soon, though, and to learn to read and write in Spanish, as well as knowing all the Catalan culture…I also feel a little Catalan”.
Signed by FC Barcelona at the age of 13, a year after his older brother, Thiago had joined the club, he explains how much he looked upto his brother and followed him around the place whilst proudly boasting to friends “That’s my brother, he will be in the first team soon”.
Barca’s record breaking coach and club darling; Pep Guardiola was the man to give opportunities to both the Alcantara boys at Barca. On 17th May 2009, aged only 18, older brother Thiago made his debut for the first team, coming on as a substitute for Eidur Gudjohnsen at RCD Mallorca. Over two years later on 9th November 2011, Rafinha also made his debut, aged 18, when he replaced Cesc Fabregas in a 1-0 win in the Copa Del Rey at CE L’Hospitalet. Rafa describes Guardiola embracing him as he was preparing to enter the field of play for his professional debut; “He only told me to be myself without staying away from my duties. I will always remember my debut under him against L’Hospitalet”.
Upon Pep’s arrival to treble winners; Bayern Munich in the summer of 2013, his first meeting with the owners revolved around the signing of Thiago Alcantara. Likewise, the first rendezvous of “Lucho” Enrique and president; Josep Bartomeu was to land the return of the younger of the two brothers; Rafinha.
The fact that record breaking coaches like Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique hold these two young men in such high regards speaks volumes and is a notable sign of not only their qualities, but also their characters which will make Mr and Mrs Alcantara beam with pride.
Although the brothers remain extremely close and confess that they are ‘best friends’ and speak daily, they play for coaches who are like father figures to them in different countries, have different agents and also contrasting styles of play, which is striking due to their similar stature (both standing at 5ft 8in and weighing around 11 stone), upbringing and youth coaches.
Whilst older brother Thiago fits the bill perfectly for a ‘Guardiola-type’ midfielder, focusing on possession, ball retention and circulation, Rafa is more explosive and offers many qualities that are not typical of a midfielder that has come through the system at Barca’s La Masia.
Finding the killer pass to create a goalscoring opportunity is something that crops up into Rafinha’s game frequently, however, these passes often come after a lung-busting sprint to press an opposition midfielder to screen, block or win possession for the Blaugrana. There is also an extreme aura of Brazilian instinct in his game. At times, you will see the likes of Neymar or Dani Alves do something that maybe seen as a “lack of respect for authority” by some and “complete genius” by others, this is the way they see the game and how it should be played at that particular moment in time. The Brazilians often like to dance, celebrate and take advantage of any given opportunity to show off their talents.
Whether he is nonchalantly gliding past and shrugging defenders off or steering a perfectly weighted pass into the road of a teammate with his paintbrush of a left foot, when witnessing Rafinha play, we can see that he has the same sense of freedom, rhythm and creativity as his compatriots in his persona. In 2014-15, Rafa completed 67% of his take-ons, a stat that places him above the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suarez in the mouth-watering list of Barcelona players.
Another jaw-dropping stat is that in FC Barcelona’s thrilling treble win, Rafa completed almost 800 passes in only 30 appearances (in 16 of which, he played 25 minutes or less), giving him a spectacular 92% passing accuracy; a score that Xavi Hernandez would be blushing about with great pride.
When Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta run past people with the ball, it is always to advance and never for the sake of humiliating an opposing defender, even if there is a nutmeg or step-over in the motion. Brazilians have a little more to them. They enjoy embarrassing and, at times teasing defenders with their bamboozling footwork, all in the name of entertainment. Although he has spent 20 of his 22 years in Spain, Rafinha has Brazilian blood and was raised around Brazilian parents and culture. These are traits that he will never stray from.
That being said, from growing up in Europe and particularly the Catalan culture, he has learned extremely important lessons, ethics and values. Being humble, respectful and hard-working are all qualities that are prioritised highly by the Catalan folk. With Rafinha’s flamboyancy, natural flair and eagerness to impress coinciding with his hard-work, selfless running and defensive sacrifice for the team, he has a rare cocktail that gives him a fantastic opening to break-through and become a regular face in Barcelona’s world-shaking team in the next 10 months.
In 2015-2016, Rafinha will offer Barca a midfielder that is willing do defensive errands and cover ground in-between the full-backs and the attackers, therefore allowing the likes of Neymar and Messi to remain in advanced positions to break with and also save their energy for attacking prowess. Winning 48% of his attempted tackles last term, his miraculously robust engine enables him to work durability without the ball, which is something that Sergio Busquets will be all too grateful for as he supplies added defensive cover in vacated areas that ‘Busi’ has been attempting to break-up play and retain in all alone over the past seasons. He has also proved to be more than a threat in the final third, chipping in with creative assists and critical goals from his perfectly timed runs into the 18-yard-box that Barca’s coaching staff are forever pining for from midfielders, crafting the scenarios in training every day.
He is playing for a manager that has already proved his faith in the young star and is surrounded by world champions on the training pitch daily. Due to the transfer ban, Barcelona’s newest signing, the Turkish magician from Atletico de Madrid’s championship winning team; Arda Turan is unavailable for selection until January. Andres Iniesta is gradually finding it more and more physically testing to control the flow or compete at such a high level for as long; therefore not having his usual effect on games for much longer than 60 minutes. The absence of Xavi Hernandez’s assurance is an issue which will be sure to play a role from time to time; nobody in the history of football has dictated the tempo or killed and completely taken the sting out of games when required the way Barca’s former captain did.
With all these dilemmas and headaches for manager; Enrique, Rafa will never have a better window to prove that the managers faith, trust and loyalty in him was worthily placed upon the correct shoulders.
Now is the time of Rafinha Alcantara.
Written by Alex Clapham
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