It took Rafael Sobis less than two years from breaking into the Internacional first team in 2004 to hitting the heights with the club, a spell memorable not least for the 40 goals he scored. A product of O Colorado’s youth system, the striker never tired of showing his love for the jersey, with his celebrations following their victory over Sao Paulo in the final of the Copa Libertadores 2006 earning him a place in the hearts of the Estadio Beira-Rio faithful.
In the midst of the festivities which followed that 2-2 second-leg draw - one that sealed a 4-3 aggregate success - Sobis unveiled an enormous red and white flag and charged back on to the pitch, thus ending the celebrations enveloped in the team’s colours and cheered to the rafters by the Inter fans.
“I’ll never forget the celebrations after that final in 2006, when I took the flag on to the pitch and also when we lifted the trophy,” Sobis told FIFA.com. “It makes me happy to look back on that. It makes me want to repeat that feat.”
Sobis, who has recently rejoined his first club after sojourns in Spanish and Emirati football, will not have to wait long for that opportunity, with Internacional set to host Sao Paulo in the first leg of their Libertadores semi-final tonight.
“Everybody’s been fantastic since I came back, but it’s inevitable that people only want to talk about the Sao Paulo tie,” said the former Real Betis and Al Jazira man. “That adds to the responsibility on my shoulders, though that’s only because people believe in me thanks to the good things I’ve done here.”
Yet Sobis, scorer of a vital first-leg brace away from home in the continental final four years ago, faces a race against time to recover his form and fitness. Indeed, on the basis of his performance against Flamengo at the Beira-Rio on Sunday, he looks someway short of his lethal best, as he himself admitted. “It was a good run-out, but I felt a bit short of match sharpness,” he said of his first appearance in three months.
“Brazilian football is very quick and similar to the European game,” added Sobis, on the recovery trail since spending the second half of 2009 on the sidelines after a knee operation while at Al Jazira. “It’s very different to Emirati football, so that’s why I’m hoping to find my feet as quickly as possible and gel with the rest of the squad.”
What should make the task easier is Internacional's fine recent form, with the club going from strength to strength since a shaky first half of the year, which featured a narrow Libertadores quarter-final win over 2009 champions Estudiantes and the departure of Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati. Morale has soared after four successive victories since the Brasileirao resumed following the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, with Sobis daring to draw comparisons between Celso Roth and the current coach's well-respected predecessors, Muricy Ramalho and Abel Braga.
“Everything was running really smoothly four or five years ago, going back to Muricy’s time in charge," the former Brazil international said of the team that also won the FIFA Club World Cup after defeating Barcelona in 2006. "The lads took the field knowing exactly what we had to do, while we had excellent players ready to make an impact off the bench.
"We’re getting back to that level under Roth. Everyone coming into the team is ready and the atmosphere couldn’t be better. He’s pretty demanding and knows what he wants.”
Intriguingly, on Wednesday Sobis will be up against Sao Paulo forward and good friend Fernandao, one of the best men at his wedding and his Inter strike partner back in 2006. “Unfortunately we’re going to be up against each other," said the 25-year-old. "I’ve got so much respect for Fernandao, who helped me so much and who I’ve been through a lot with. But I want to win this tie so I can give him a bit of stick afterwards."
Nor does Sobis feel the need to give his defenders tips on how to handle the rangy attacker. “We’ve got Indio, [Fabiano] Eller and Bolivar to keep tabs on Fernandao, all of whom played with him at Inter. They know full well that if you give him space he can kill you off, so they’ll be on their guard.”
Sobis, who missed out on Internacional's FIFA Club World Cup conquest having left for an ill-fated two-year spell at Betis in August 2006, boosted his profile during Brazil’s run to bronze at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament 2008. A big-money move to an Al Jazira team coached by Abel Braga followed, but does the player regret leaving his homeland so swiftly?
“Experiences abroad help you grow," he reasoned. "I learned a lot, I tasted different cultures and I made some good friends. At some teams you win titles, at others you don’t. That’s why I think that I’ve come back to Brazil at the right time, particularly as I joined a club at the very top.”
That being the case, how does it feel to be on the verge of playing in the last four of the Libertadores so soon after returning to Internacional? “It’s an excellent opportunity because I missed out on the team’s shaky period," said Sobis, who may begin from the bench at the Beira-Rio. "Now I want to give it my all and make history here again. We have to pile the pressure on Sao Paulo from the outset, as this game could quite simply make or break our season."