While Ulsan Hyundai have taken their leave of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012 after back-to-back defeats, their Brazilian striker Rafinha can at least take comfort from two important events in his life in November.
The first of them was his side’s AFC Champions League win, the maiden title of his career, and the second and altogether more important event was the birth of his son Enzo on 26 November, in his hometown of Sao Paulo.
As he told FIFA.com, Rafinha was thousands of miles away, preparing for Ulsan’s appearance at Japan 2012, while his wife was giving birth: “He was born just a few days ago. I was at home and it was very early in the morning here and still night-time in Brazil. I had a training session in the afternoon and I just couldn’t sleep.”
He added: “I spent the whole morning pacing about while she was in the hospital. I was crying too. I even filmed myself to show how I was feeling. I was blessed with a title and my son, which is a great trophy to have, no doubt about it.”
Despite Ulsan’s subsequent exit from Japan 2012, the Brazilian is still very much entitled to be looking on the bright side, especially when you consider how far he has come: “What can I say? I never imagined I’d be here playing in a World Cup. Maybe we didn’t perform that well but it’s down on my CV. There are a lot of people who’d like to be here.”
Rafinha is the first to admit that his career path has hardly been an orthodox one. Starting out at Nacional, a Sao Paulo club that might lack glamour but has nevertheless nurtured a number of big-name players – among them the midfielder Deco and front man Dodo – he briefly appeared at youth level with Brazil but failed to break into the country’s elite.
He then followed the example of many of his compatriots by making the move abroad, pitching up as a mere 19-year-old in Japan in 2007. The young striker’s destination was Avispa Fukuoka, though his German coach Pierre Littbarski would use him only sparingly.
A hard road
“It was all new to me and I went a year without playing, which is why I decided to go back to Brazil,” said Rafinha. “Then when I went back I said to myself that it was up to me to adapt and get out on the pitch. That’s the way it had to be. We come here to try and achieve our objectives. The culture’s a bit different and it’s not to everyone’s liking. Quite a few big names have come over and decided not to stay.”
After a spell with Japanese second division side Thespa Kusatsu, the exile began this year with Gamba Osaka. A few months later he made the switch to Korea Republic and his current club, his then-pregnant wife going with him before returning to Brazil to have their baby.
The move has so far proved a productive one for the forward, who scored seven goals in the 2012 K-League, teaming up to good effect with strike partners Lee Keunho and Kim Shinwook.
Though no goals came his way during Ulsan’s disappointing foray in Japan 2012, Rafinha is currently in discussions with the club about extending his stay with them. “I could have maybe given a little bit more on the pitch but I’m happy with the year I’ve had overall,” he said. “I hope to win more titles and feel more settled. I’m not thinking of returning to Brazil just yet, and I’d like to stay abroad for another five years. It’s early yet.”
While Rafinha is content to stay in the Far East in the long term, at this moment in time he wants nothing more than to get the first plane back home: “I’m packing my bags today. I’m off to Osaka and then Brazil, where my son is waiting for me. I can’t wait to see him in the flesh. I’ve had to make do with videos and photos up to now.”
A Corinthians fan, Rafinha had the opportunity to fulfil any supporter’s dream by watching their side fighting it out for a world title. But while thousands of Timão diehards have flocked to Japan to see their side go for glory, the Ulsan man is heading in the other direction.
“I really wanted to go, but if I have to choose between Corinthians and my son, then my son wins hands down (laughs). I want to be close to him and give him a hug.”