There’s an iconic photo of Raphinha boisterously celebrating in among a group of overjoyed Leeds fans. His decisive penalty against Brentford on the final day of the 2021/22 EPL season had just prevented Leeds United from sinking into relegation. And by way of celebration, the Brazilian trotted with happy delight to the away end to jubilate.
This was Raphinha’s second season in the Premier League and probably his best yet. The league season concluded with him netting 11 times in 32 games. He was arguably Leeds’s most important player. Here, with Leeds, he felt like the main man. Here, with Leeds, he felt at home. With Leeds, he felt a deep sense of belonging. Having departed Rennes in 2020 for Leeds United, Raphinha arrived in the Premier League as an unknown quantity, untried and untested and unproven.
Yet, it didn’t take long for people to notice how good and skillful Raphinha was. And after only two seasons in the English topflight, he became the object of desire for a number of top European clubs. It was always going to be a struggle for a club the size of Leeds to ward off rich suitors. It was only a matter of time for one big club to seduce him away.
Following the Barcelona dream
For a player as ambitious as Raphinha, being at Leeds was never a destination in itself. But rather, that club was part of a journey, a means to a desired end. Raphinha could have signed for Arsenal or probably Chelsea. He could have stayed put in the English Premier League. However, the attraction of FC Barcelona was so overpowering. After all, this had been the club of his dreams all along. He knew as well that this is a club where dreams became reality.
At a younger age, he voraciously watched FC Barcelona games. He saw Neymar Jr pull off tricks to the delight of the Camp Nou crowd. Surreptitiously, Raphinha must have wished he could do that one day. His childhood was also filled with memories of Ronaldinho performing witchcraft in a Barça shirt.
“My dream was to wear the Barcelona shirt, which is a club that I have followed since I was very young. Since Ronaldinho arrived, I began to understand a little more about the history of the club. I wanted to be a part of this,” he admitted in an interview after signing on the dotted line for FC Barcelona.
He signed for Barça for about 50 million pounds plus add-ons just last summer. Together with Lewandowski, Kounde, Kessie and Christensen, Raphinha arrived at Barcelona to great fanfare. The aim for these buys was to make Barça great again. The aim was to return this club where it belongs; at the very top of world football.
Fighting for the starting spot
From the outset, it was evident that Xavi’s attacking trio would comprise Dembele, Lewandowski and Raphinha. When the season was still young and innocent and without trials and tribulations, this attacking trio worked a treat. But as days passed and games were won and lost, it became clear that Raphinha was performing below expectations. It is believed that in training he does lovely things, special things. And yet, during competitive games he’s unable to replicate them.
In a futile attempt to find a solution, Xavi Hernandes has tried moving Raphinha from his favoured right-wing position to the left. It hasn’t worked. These days, in the last games, Xavi prefers an extra midfielder to fielding Raphinha. This setup won Barca the Spanish Super Cup last Sunday. A paltry sum of 2 goals and 2 assists in 15 league games as a starter for FC Barcelona is a poor return. At 26, he should be operating at his peak, or approaching it.
Can Raphinha really succeed at FC Barcelona? Does he need more time to bed in? Is he capable of taking the league by storm soon? Will he succeed like his forebears before him. Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar were great success stories. Will Raphinha follow suit and become a raging success himself? Can he be a reference point for young Brazilian footballers back home watching? Only time will tell.