To understand why the old line about the dream move scarcely covers it for Raphinha and his family, it is necessary to go back. To when he was a kid in the Restinga neighbourhood of Porto Alegre in Brazil and his father, Rafael, was a part of a band called Samba Tri, playing tantan and rebolo, which are types of drum.
The local hero was Ronaldinho, who had made his way through the youth ranks at Grêmio and whose love of football was mirrored by his passion for music. Ronaldinho was a friend of Rafael’s and a huge fan of Samba Tri, which took its name from a southern Brazilian expression; tri translates as super cool.
When Ronaldinho’s career took him to Paris Saint-Germain as a 21-year-old in 2001 and then on to that golden spell with Barcelona before a European swansong at Milan, he would fly the band over each year to help him celebrate his birthday, which is in March.
They would stay for a fortnight or so, playing music with Ronaldinho at his home, enjoying barbecues and going to watch his matches. Ronaldinho was a single guy, he wanted his friends with him around his birthday and they were glorious times, marked by laughter and adventure.
For Rafael, one memory stands out. It was when he first went to the Camp Nou in 2003-04 – Ronaldinho’s debut season at Barcelona – and, if you ask him now, he will probably still feel the goosebumps rising on his arms.
Those were the days when the fans would get there early so that they could watch Ronaldinho warm up. It was pre-social media, pre-mass digitalisation, and the only place to see him run through the jaw-dropping pre-match tricks was in person. When the support chorused his name, Rafael thought: “That’s my boy.” It was overwhelming. And Rafael knew what he wanted for his son. He wanted Raphinha to play for Barcelona.
Try to imagine what Raphinha is feeling now as he reflects on the completion of his transfer from Leeds to Barcelona for an initial £49m. As a boy, he would see his father depart for those jaunts to Europe and return with so many fantastic Ronaldinho stories.
When the maestro would head back to Porto Alegre during the European off-season, he would have barbecues at his house. Samba Tri was always there and Rafael would bring the young Raphinha along. Ronaldinho would make presents of Barcelona shirts and the whole neighbourhood followed the club. Why wouldn’t they? It was their man wowing as the No 10 at the Camp Nou. Raphinha would consider Ronaldinho not only his footballing role model but the coolest uncle imaginable.
If it has long been Raphinha’s destiny to play for Barcelona, the path has not been smooth, taking in remorseless rejection in Brazil and steps from Avaí to Vitória de Guimarães to Sporting in Portugal, Rennes in France and then Leeds. But there is another layer to the symmetry of his move to Barcelona and it goes beyond his being a Brazilian with an ‘R’ at the beginning of his name. Never mind Ronaldinho, the Catalans have also had Romário, Ronaldo and Rivaldo.
When Joan Laporta became the club’s president in 2003, he made Ronaldinho his marquee signing. They were at a low ebb but Ronaldinho brought the magic, returning the smiles and driving the team to league titles in 2005 and 2006 and the Champions League in 2006.
Now Laporta is back for his second presidency, he has turned at another difficult moment – with the club in financial turmoil and lagging behind Real Madrid – to the player who regards himself as Ronaldinho’s nephew. In many ways, Ronaldinho made Laporta’s first presidency. Can Raphinha ignite his second one?
It has been a testing summer for Raphinha, the glow of his performance for Leeds at Brentford on the final day of the Premier League season which helped to secure their survival being overtaken by worries over his future.
Would Barcelona be able to finance his transfer? For a while, it appeared the answer would be no and so English clubs circled. Last summer, Liverpool expressed interest and Manchester United failed with a £40m bid. This time it was Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle who made moves, with Chelsea having a bid worth £55m accepted by Leeds.
If pressed to join an English rival, Raphinha would have favoured Arsenal, although they were never believed to be ready to pay the required fee. Arsenal are a visible brand in Brazil and have a number of Brazilians on their technical and playing staff. But when Barcelona sent word to him that they would find the money, he was able to relax.
Raphinha was going to fulfil his dream and, as he gathered with his family in Barcelona, his mother, father and brother around him along with other members of his inner circle, there were thoughts for somebody who was not there.
It was Ronaldinho who opened Rafael’s mind to Barcelona but, more broadly, to different possibilities and how to make them happen in football. It was Ronaldinho who inspired Raphinha. For all of them, the next chapter is heavy on excitement.
July 15, 2022 at 12:39PM David Hytner