When he made his return to his old stamping ground at the Beira-Rio on 6 November last year, Rafael Sobis could have been forgiven for feeling a little strange about it all. There he was, pitching up in the visiting dressing room and wearing a different jersey to the beloved red shirt of Internacional, one he sported with distinction earlier in his career, and there they were, the Colorado faithful, dutifully chanting his name before the game.
The match in question was Inter’s meeting with Fluminense, the striker’s current employers, on Matchday 33 of the 2011 Brazilian championship. Lining up for the very first time against the club where he served his apprenticeship and won two Copa Libertadores titles, in 2006 and 2010, Sobis put old allegiances to one side and did what he is paid to do – score goals, notching the winner in a 2-1 victory for Flu.
That result all but assured the Rio side, which he joined in July 2011, a place in this year’s Libertadores and left O Colorado down in seventh. Such is Sobis’ devotion to his old club, however, that he refused to celebrate his all-important strike, one that brought sadness to the fans who idolised him so much.
Speaking after the game, he admitted to deriving no joy from damaging Internacional’s Libertadores hopes, and had been able to choose, he would have let someone else score the decisive goal. In the end, both sides would qualify for Latin America’s premier club competition and as fate would have it, they both progressed from the group phase to be drawn together in the first knockout round.
Yet, when the two sides played out a goalless draw in the first leg at the Beira-Rio a fortnight ago, the fans were no longer singing Sobis’ name. By that time he had become just another opposition player, one who now has every intention of scoring against his old club, and of celebrating too, as he himself told FIFA.com on the eve of Thursday’s return leg at the Engenhao.
“It doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said. “It’s not a new situation now. This is a different competition and it’s knockout tie too, and if I do get a goal I’ll be celebrating it with my team-mates.
“Life goes on,” he continued. “And it doesn’t change the love I feel for Internacional. I also know that the Inter fans see me as an opponent, which is what I am now, and that my former team-mates are going to battle for every ball and commit fouls. That’s normal. We’re professionals.”
Doing it when it counts
Tricolor fans are expecting much from Sobis, and not without good reason. Aside from being a consummate professional, he also has a reputation for delivering on the big occasion. The 26-year-old goalgetter may have had his ups and downs, but when it comes to crunch games he can be relied upon to perform.
He did just that in the two Libertadores finals he appeared in with Inter – against Sao Paulo in 2006 and Guadalajara in 2010 – and most recently of all in last Sunday’s first leg of the Rio de Janeiro state championship final, when he scored twice in Flu’s 4-1 defeat of Botafogo.
“Obviously I always expect to play well in every game, but I honestly can’t tell you what happens when it comes to finals,” he said, attempting to explain his happy knack of scoring when silverware is at stake. “It just happens.”
Sobis will hoping that scoring touch does not desert him any time soon, especially with Thursday’s return meeting with Inter ahead of him and, should they negotiate that hurdle, a testing quarter-final against Boca Juniors.
“My feeling is that the Libertadores is more competitive than ever,” said Sobis, who knows what he is talking about, having won the title twice. “All the Brazilian sides are strong, you’ve got teams like Velez [Sarsfield] and Boca, who we faced in the group phase, and then there’s the sides who’ve traditionally been weaker but are tougher to beat these days. Absolutely every away game is really difficult now.”
As demanding as this year’s Libertadores may be, Fluminense still managed to reach the knockout stages with the best record of the 16 qualifiers, an achievement fuelling Sobis’ belief that they can go all the way to the title.
“This is a good side, a very good side,” he said. “It’s packed with players who know one very important thing about the Libertadores, and that’s that you can’t always play the type of game that you’re used to. In this tournament you have to adapt in virtually every match and do what needs to be done on each occasion. And that’s what we’re expecting to have to do again when we play Inter on Thursday.”
As Sobis acknowledges, things have changed. Internacional are just another adversary now, though the respect and the love is still there, deep down. That much was apparent when he was asked who he will be supporting in next Sunday’s Rio Grande do Sul final between his old club and Caxias: “Inter, of course,” he replied without a moment’s hesitation. “That hasn’t changed.”