It is not uncommon to hear of players being sanctioned for missing training. However, in the case of Corinthians’ defensive midfielder Ralf, the reprimand can be for precisely the opposite – as team-mate Fabio Santos revealed to FIFA.com recently. “People joke that he’s a machine, that he never gets tired. On post-match days, some of the starting XI can barely do the recovery work, but he’s there doing full training with the rest of the squad. The fitness trainer sometimes has to tell him to ease off.”
It is precisely this impressive stamina that has made the holding midfielder such a crucial part of Corinthians’ extremely successful system, one that has culminated in their winning the Brazilian national championship in 2011 and the 2012 Copa Libertadores. It has also earned O Timão a place in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012 this Sunday, where they will go toe to toe with UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea FC.
Not that Ralf would assume any credit or boast about this. A reserved figure and softly spoken, he chatted to FIFA.com as he left the Toyota Stadium’s dressing rooms after the semi-final victory over Al-Ahly SC on Wednesday.
The player admitted that he can sometimes, shall we say, train excessively, though he is quick to make clear it is never our of selfishness. “People even joke and, at times, call me crazy for having that kind of disposition. However, it’s a trait of mine – having that virtue, that will power to always want more, to go looking for more,” he said, before clarifying that he never does it “to cause problems for my team-mates."
There is an explanation for the player’s remarkable commitment that goes much further than his exceptional physical preparation. In order to sustain that high intensity on the pitch, where he covers acres of space with his long and powerful strides, Ralf need only remind himself of his difficult beginnings and turbulent journey to footballing success.
The 28-year-old was a relative latecomer to the professional game, beginning his journey with modest Paulista side Taboao da Serra. There would later follow a very brief stint with Sao Paulo, where he had little chance to show his worth, so after outgrowing the academy’s youth teams he was let go.
His next port of call was Maranhao, some 2,000 km from home, before returning once more to his native state. In 2007 he would join another lower-division Paulista side, XV de Jau, but top-flight football was still some way off. However, with his foot on the ladder, the midfielder began to work his way up, honing his craft at three different clubs until Corinthians came in for him in 2009.
That difficult journey goes some way to explaining the player’s fierce determination and commitment. “I do it because I need to, not having had academy training or opportunities to develop at the start of my career. Nowadays I have access to the best professionals, who help me better myself,” said Ralf, who frequently stays on after club training to work on key aspects of his game. Once again he insists that in doing so that “it’s in no way intended to make things difficult for anyone else.”
Leading by example
Ralf is one of the most respected players in a squad that famously works well together, even if he's not presently wearing the captain’s armband after Tite’s decision to rotate the responsibility and entrust Alessandro with it in recent months. Although not the most talkative, the player leads by example both on the pitch and in his tireless dedication to training. Those who know his story, like Fabio Santos, are even more appreciative of the player’s contribution.
“It’s almost a sin that he came so late to football,” said the Corinthians full-back. “If he’d had the right infrastructure around him to take advantage of, he would have been a certain starter for the Seleção a long time ago. As I see it, people should still look favourably [at what he can offer Brazil]. In this country we don’t have anyone who performs his role as well as him. Nor does he rest on his laurels. At 28, the chances are he’ll improve even more,” he added.
And that is precisely what Ralf himself is hoping for. “I never think I’ve done enough. The day I start thinking everything is great is the day I should stop doing what I love most, which is playing football,” he said as our chat drew to a close. However, that is unlikely to be a problem Corinthians need to deal with any time soon. As the club’s coaching staff like to point out, Ralf just never stops.