In a country like Brazil which is obsessed with attacking football, few people play in defence through choice. In general a role at the back is chosen for the player, due to their height or simply a coach’s need to plug a gap.
It happened the latter way with Rafaelle, who has been converted from left-back – a position in which she was fighting for a starting berth with Brazil’s seniors – into a first choice centre-back. Now with a firm grip on A Seleção Brasileira’s No4 shirt and a burgeoning central-defensive partnership with Monica, Brazil have shipped just one goal in two games at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
“Like [Brazil head coach] Vadao says, she was a real find,” said Monica, 29, in conversation with FIFA.com. “In the build-up to the 2015 [Women’s] World Cup we lost our captain Bruna Benites and didn’t have a replacement. Rafa[elle] was playing as a full-back, but she had the physical strength and the height so we gave it a try. She embraced the challenge and here she is. She’s transformed herself into a centre-back. It’s become very natural. We both know what the other is going to do and where we’re going to position ourselves.”
“With me at full-back and Monica in central-defence, we were halfway there already, so it wasn’t difficult to adapt. In any case, I’m still part of our back four,” chipped in Rafaelle, whose greatest obstacle has been curbing her desire to charge upfield, like she did in her left-back days. “Ah, that bit about holding my position is tough. I used to love going forward. If they’d let me, I’d run with the ball right into the goal.”
Unusual route to the top
The positional switch that has taken her into central defence is just one of the intriguing features of the career of Rafaelle Leone Carvalho Souza. In contrast to the vast majority of Brazilian girls who are brave enough to pursue a future in the game, an opportunity arose for Rafaelle to go into higher education in the small city of Cipo, in the North East of Bahia. However, her intention was to put her studies ahead of her passion for football until, in 2010, the two paths converged.
In the same year that she was admitted onto an Engineering course at Bahia State University, Rafaelle was called up to the Brazil squad preparing to take part in the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany. There, her performances caught the eye of the coaching staff at the University of Mississippi in USA.
“Leah Lynn, whose dad is American and who was a team-mate of mine in that squad, passed my details onto them,” recalled Rafaelle. “The University offered me a scholarship and, thanks to that, over the past four years I’ve been able to do two things: continue playing football and do a degree in civil engineering.”
All these achievements have certainly put Rafaelle – the left-back who became an engineer who became a centre-back – on the receiving end of plenty of banter from her Seleção colleagues. “The girls say that I must be mad! They can’t understand why I’d be interested in maths, in physics. But they say that if they ever need to build a house they’ll be calling me to carry out the project,” she said, with a shy smile. “It’s funny how it seems that 'background' makes them take me more seriously. And I am pretty serious it’s true, even when it comes to tactics. I think that studying does, in a certain way, help make you more disciplined.”
That drive, solidity and discipline are indeed vital qualities in a Brazil team that play with a front four, plus midfielders and full-backs that are not exactly backward in coming forward. Yet however much attention goes to the eight goals netted by Vadao’s team in their opening two games, part of that impressive attacking power is only made possible by a strong rearguard.
“A team only works when it’s balanced. We [the defence] are here for that very reason: to give the attack a platform to work from,” was Monica’s verdict. “When you play in defence you don’t get the same amount of attention as Marta or Cristiane, but to be honest I don’t care about that. What I want most is for them all to shine, and shine brightly. That’s why us centre-backs are here,” summed up Rafaelle.
That unprompted use of “us centre-backs” sums up just how comfortable she is with her new role. Brazil’s No4, a former full-back and a qualified engineer, what next for Rafaelle?