CFR Cluj’s two-goal hero on their UEFA Champions League visit to Braga a fortnight ago, Rafael Bastos, was pleasantly surprised to find his photo splashed on the front page of one of Romania’s biggest newspapers when he returned home after his exploits in Portugal.
“They called me a hero, the hero of Braga,” said the Brazilian midfielder, recalling the night he inspired the Romanian outsiders to a shock away win.
And that was only the start, as he went on to explain to FIFA.com, having not long completed an interview for UEFA’s television programme: “Everything changed overnight. The reaction has been incredible. A lot of people in Brazil saw it and called to congratulate me, the fans here have been really nice to me in the street and there have been loads of articles in the press.”
The praise the 27-year-old has been receiving for his match-winning performance in one of the world’s biggest club competitions is richly deserved.
Up until recently, Bastos’ career had been an unspectacular, if not frustrating one, the player failing to make much of a name for himself in his native Brazil or in subsequent spells in Japan and Portugal, where he had a brief spell with, of all teams, Braga, before trying his luck in Romania in 2010.
It was there with Cluj, a team accustomed until recently to shuttling between Romania’s top and third flights, that he finally held down the regular first-team place he had been looking for.
And while Rafael was dreaming of even better days in 2012, even he has been taken aback by the speed at which he has been thrust into the limelight. Confident in his abilities, he played a part in Cluj’s Champions League qualifying wins over Slovan Liberec and FC Basel, two victories that proved the Brazilian really had turned his career around and that his side could mix it with the big boys.
“I think that’s when we started to believe we could surprise people, and I still feel we can,” he said, while stopping short of setting a specific target for their European campaign.
“We’re dreaming about doing something big, like repeating what Apoel achieved last year (when the Cypriot side went all the way from the qualifying rounds to the quarter-finals). We need to keep our feet on the ground, though, and remember what size of club we are.”
Onwards and upwards
Cluj have been here before. Four seasons ago they beat Roma in their own backyard but still finished bottom of their group. As that precedent shows, the Romanians would be well advised not to get too carried away with their win in Portugal, especially with the mighty Manchester United paying them a visit this evening.
Such is the scale of the task Cluj face that Bastos took a realistic view of the extent of their ambitions against the three-time European champions.
“Manchester are a massive team. That goes without saying. So I’m just going to be honest and say that a draw would be a great result, even if we are playing at home,” he admitted.
“We’re going to go out there to enjoy ourselves but be responsible too. It’s a dream come true to play in games like these, but at the same time we know they’ve got more pressure on their shoulders. Everyone expects them to win 5-0 but if they lose or draw it’s not going to look good for them.”
Discussing how Cluj might make life difficult for their distinguished guests, Bastos said: “The most important thing is that we play well defensively. If we perform like we did at Braga or we always do in big games, then I think we can take a point from them. We’ll also have a lot of support from the fans. The game’s a sell-out and that’s motivated us even more.”
While it might be too early to predict whether Cluj can follow in Apoel’s footsteps, Bastos is content for the moment to just to keep doing his job to the best of his ability and keep making his way in the career he chose for himself. To do that, he knows he has to keep on running as hard as he can.
“It’s my dream to play in a bigger league like Spain, Italy or Germany, and the Champions League could be a good springboard for that,” he said. “They’re a big team with lots of stars, and if a guy like [Wayne] Rooney runs ten kilometres today, we need to run 100. He’s got his life all sorted out, which is something we can’t say.”