Rafael, Saitama’s saluting hero
Brazilian explains why goal in AFC Champions League final was so emotional Rafael reveals story behind his Saitama Salute Urawa face Al Jazira on 9 December, with winner playing Real Madrid
“Very few make it here,” says Rafael Silva, still sweating from a high-energy two-hour training session on a warm evening in Abu Dhabi. “It's a great honour and great source of joy. We managed to get here though a great collective work and effort. And we're proud to represent Japan here.”
Having scored nine goals en route to the 2017 AFC Champions League title – one goal shy of tournament top scorer Omar Khribin (10) – the 25-year-old Brazilian has been crucial to Urawa Reds' success this year.
In fact, if you were to distil Silva’s contribution to a single moment, then few would argue with his flash of perfection in the second leg of the AFC Champions League final. Silva scored in both legs of that decider, but the 88th minute second-leg rocket against Al Hilal will be the one long remembered by Saitama’s Reds.
The goal “There was this massive expectation,” says Rafael of the match, played at the Saitama Stadium. “It was a very hard game, very tense. Then came the goal.”
“Great relief and then joy” are how he describes his emotions following the 88th minute goal – a flashpoint of sudden opportunity, speed and power. “I saw that my defender wanted to anticipate my movement to steal the ball. I positioned myself to protect the ball first and then turned in the final moment to beat him.”
Rafael's trademark goal celebration – a slick and smooth salute - was cut short by team-mates swallowing him in celebration. When Rafael got back up, he was overcome with emotion as he hugged fellow Brazilian and club team-mate Mauricio Antonio.
"It was a moment in which several things suddenly passed through my head," says Rafael. "How I started. Where I’m from. Where I am today. How far I’ve come and how I turned out. And then there was also the feeling of pure joy fuelled by all the support on the pitch and in the stands.”
The Saitama Salute Statistics suggest that Rafael may soon be performing his goal celebration in UAE. The Saitama Salute is unique to Rafael’s time with Urawa and only debuted this year.
“It's (the salute) an acknowledgment to the fans,” he says. “It's about respect.
“It came to me in the first match of the Champions League. I was really focused on the match but then suddenly, while thinking about scoring, it just popped into my head - the salute, with my other hand tucked behind my back. It looks like it was a good idea, because all the Urawa fans love it."
The transition He may seem a natural fit in Urawa’s attacking line but it’s taken a lot of work to make things look so easy.
“(Mihailo) Petrovic worked a lot with me when I first got here,” Rafael explains, acknowledging the Serbian coach who left the club mid-season. “He was always looking for movements that search for the ball. This led me to make plays that are very quick in the front line."
Under current coach Takafumi Hori, the team has continued to build on the strong start and have enjoyed a remarkable year that includes two trophies along with a new record - as the first Japanese team to ever win two AFC titles.
“Japanese football is very fast,” says Rafael, “They cover a lot of distance and there's a positional awareness. I find it very comfortable. Off the pitch, after four years in Japan I feel at home, it’s a tranquil life,” says Rafael before signing off with a salute for the camera.
Urawa face local team Al Jazira on 9 December. The winner will face European Champions Real Madrid in the semi-finals.