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How Rafael Became A Royal: From Brazil To Berkshire

The full story behind Rafael Cabral’s career, which has seen him go from South America to Serie A, and now to England.

Brazil Training Session

La Seleção. The Samba Boys. Brazil. The South American nation are synonymous with football. Five times winners of the FIFA World Cup, they have produced some of the greatest players of all time, while many claim that they have ‘perfected’ the beautiful game.

One thing they do not specialise in, however, is English second-tier footballers. This is no great surprise considering that Brazilian flair is more accustomed to the bright lights of the Champions League than the Championship, but in total just 19 individuals to herald from Brazil have graced the league since its re-brand in 2004. That’s fewer than Norway, Finland and Argentina - among other countries.

Of those 19, just three - Fabio Dá Silva (Middlesbrough and Cardiff City), Heurelho Gomes (Watford) and Sandro (QPR) - have played a senior game for their country. It means that Reading’s new goalkeeper Rafael Cabral, proud owner of three caps, joins a very exclusive club. When you also consider that Fabio and Sandro came to play in the Championship through relegation from the Premier League, Rafael incredibly becomes only the second man capped by Brazil to sign for a Championship club. So with that unusual career path established, just how has Rafael ended up at Reading?

Early expectations

Born in São Paulo and part of Santos’ academy since the age of 13, Rafael was promoted to the first team in 2010 and adapted quickly to help his side win the domestic cup in his debut season. The following year he would become a hero alongside the likes of Neymar, Danilo and Elano as Santos won the Copa Libertadores for just the third time. At 21, Rafael became one of the youngest goalkeepers in history to start and win the final.

“Rafael was amazing during Santos’ 2011 Copa Libertadores campaign,” Santos fan and Yellow and Green Football co-founder Bruno Freitas recalls. “The toughest match in that championship took place against [Club] America in Mexico (round of 16, second leg). Santos needed to draw to qualify and Rafael was the man of the match with impressive saves.”

With so much potential, it was clear that Rafael would not be staying in his homeland for long. In 2012, Bleacher Report including him in a list of ten ‘Up-and-Coming Brazilian Players Ready for a Transfer to Europe’. Rumours soon emerged linking the youngster with a move to Barcelona, Manchester City, AC Milan or Tottenham Hotspur, among other teams. He was also touted as the heir to Julio César in-between the sticks for the national team as he earned plaudits for his agility and quick reaction time.

Last summer, Rafael spoke fondly of his time with Santos: “I never hid my affection for Santos, for everything I lived in here, for all the people I met. It is an honour to have played here and made history at this club. Santos trusted my work. I won my first chance here in 2010. I had the opportunity to play three years and win six titles. Santos took me to the national team and to Europe. I am very grateful for everything.”

FC Barcelona forward Lionel Messi (2nd R
Rafael is chipped by Lionel Messi while playing for Santos in 2011.

National number one

Rafael’s performances did indeed catch the eye of Brazil national team manager Mano Menezes, who included him in a number of squads before eventually handing him his debut in a friendly against the USA in May 2012. He made a series of good saves as his side won 4-1, and he stayed in between the sticks for two more friendlies against Mexico and Argentina.

That summer, Rafael was selected in Brazil’s squad for the Olympics and many pundits suggested that a good tournament would see the then-22-year-old cement himself as the country’s long-term number one. However, two days before the opening game, he suffered an injury to his right elbow, meaning he could only watch on from home as La Seleção picked up the silver medal.

“It’s hard to try to explain why things like this happen,” Rafael said at the time. “But I’d like to think that it all happens for a reason and I will overcome all of this in the end.” Yet sadly that was to signal the end of his national team chances, and the closest he has come adding to his three caps to were a couple of squad call-ups under Dunga in the autumn of 2014.

Freitas suggests that missing out on London 2012 may have been the turning point for the shot-stopper: “In 2012 Rafael was at his peak and came from winning some titles with Santos; one of the main players alongside Neymar. After the injuries he could no longer reach that level.”

Italian indifference

In the end it was Napoli who brought Rafael to Europe in June 2013, paying Santos €5 million for his services. To date, the only goalkeeper to leave Brazil for more money is Alisson, who Roma paid Internacional €7.5 million for in 2016.

His first season in Serie A was spent as back-up to Liverpool loanee Pepe Reina, but he did impress in European competition when called upon. Rafael kept a clean sheet on his Champions League debut against Arsenal and put in an imposing performance against Swansea City in the Europa League, a game in which he also unfortunately tore his ACL.

Then 24, Rafael returned from injury that summer to begin what turned out to be his only consistent run of games between the sticks for Napoli. He started 23 Serie A matches in a row, keeping five clean sheets, and was also the hero in the Supercoppa Italiana against Juventus as he saved the decisive penalty from Simone Padoin in the shoot-out to hand Napoli the trophy. It didn’t last though, and Rafael was dropped after a 3-1 defeat to Palermo in February 2015.

As Italian journalist John Solano recalls: “This was a season in which Napoli really struggled and I believe they came to the conclusion they needed a goalkeeper just a level above Rafael. Former Catania goalkeeper Mario Andujar also spent time as the first choice during this season and it was clear Napoli needed stronger options.”

Rafael reacts after saving the decisive penalty in the Supercoppa Italiana against Juventus

You can certainly point to the following three years as a portion of Rafael’s career that he wasted. In each transfer window, the goalkeeper was told he was free to leave Napoli, but a move never materialised despite interest from Spain, England, Belgium and back home in Brazil. In 2016, his agent Paulo Affonso claimed: “None of the proposals were economically good for Napoli and the player. He has a high salary at the club. They pay well and wouldn’t give up their players easily.” As a result, Rafael featured just twice in Maurizio Sarri’s time as Napoli boss, while Reina was brought in on a permanent deal.

Solano suggests: “In my opinion, he should have looked to leave Napoli sooner because I believe he could have easily become a first-choice name for several mid-to-lower-table sides in the league. He performed well when called upon but I do think he should have shown a bit more ambition and try to seek more playing time sooner.”

A move to Sampdoria last summer at the end of his Napoli contract was not the fresh start that Rafael would have hoped for. His only Serie A appearances came in the final two fixtures of the campaign, although he did keep a clean sheet in both, including against champions Juventus. But Solano empathises with the Brazilian: “To be honest, I can understand why he joined Sampdoria in the first place. They had just lost Emiliano Viviano and it looked like there was an opportunity to become the first choice.

“However, Rafael was incredibly unlucky due to the very quick ascension of [Juventus loanee] Emil Audero. I don’t think anybody expected some of the performances that the Italian put on display last season. So I think his time at Sampdoria had more to do with being unlucky as opposed to anything he did wrong.”

Royal revival?

A large, historic town in the heart of the home counties is not usually where former Brazilian number ones come to resurrect their careers, so how will this unexpected transfer work out?

“I am surprised [he moved to Reading] because I could easily point to two to three clubs in the Serie A who could absolutely use his services at this very moment,” says Solano. “If he’s given continuity and trust of the manager, I think this could be a very good move for both him and Reading.

“His reactions are fairly good, not spectacular - but I do think he’ll have to vastly improve his play on the ball. Given that football in England is generally played at a much quicker pace than in Italy, I think he needs to quickly improve his passing and decision making when being pressed.”

Freitas adds: “Rafael left Brazilian football as a promising goalkeeper, but his career never got hot in Italian football. England could be a fresh new start for him; he’s still 29 years old. Maybe he can get some good years in England, just as Gomes did for Tottenham and Watford, even though he wasn’t young when arrived in UK. Maybe Rafael can make it to the Premier League with Reading.”

We can’t think of many better revivals than that.