LYON, France — For 90 minutes, talking over a meal in Lyon’s beautiful Gare des Brotteaux last month, Rafael da Silva was open and enthusiastic about his life as a footballer.
The Brazilian full-back worked hard, got his rewards and had some great moments along the way. Now 27, he beams when recalling his Manchester United debut in 2008 vs. Peterborough — “It didn’t matter that it was a friendly. I knew then that I could play for the first team” — and about great performances and memorable goals at Liverpool and Queens Park Rangers.
Rafael spent nearly eight years at Old Trafford and became a fan favourite under Sir Alex Ferguson. While he’s happy playing for Olympique Lyonnais, whom he joined in 2015, his eyes tighten and his head begins to shake when he talks of life under Louis van Gaal.
“When it was announced that Van Gaal was taking over, four or five people, including players, called me to say that he doesn’t like Brazilian players,” Rafael told ESPN. “They pointed out what had happened with Rivaldo at Barcelona, but I didn’t believe it.”
After Van Gaal took charge in 2014, Rafael started six straight Premier League games between September and October, but following an injury that kept him out for two months, he would make Van Gaal’s starting lineup just once more, for an FA Cup tie at Yeovil the following January. Another injury meant he was substituted at half-time.
“In his first season, Van Gaal called me to his office and said: ‘You can leave,'” Rafael said. “The meeting lasted one minute. That was it: ‘You can leave.’ It took time for me to go, but I was desperate to leave when I did, and that saddens me because I loved everything about Manchester United.
“Van Gaal is not a bad coach, but I didn’t like his character,” Rafael said. “One day, I was in the canteen waiting to eat. Van Gaal used to speak to us after we’d eaten each day. I had a head injury after a game at Yeovil — one of the few games I played in that season — and I was touching my injury. After three or four seconds, he touched my head and said: ‘Why don’t you respect me?’
“I stood up and said: ‘I always respect you. I’ve never said anything which was disrespectful to you.’ I am a patient guy, but I got angry then. I had done nothing wrong. Antonio [Valencia] later said to me: ‘You’re not going to play again.’ Players didn’t speak back to Van Gaal. Antonio was almost right; I barely played again. I love Manchester United, but I was so desperate to leave United. Only one man did that because I liked everything about the place. I couldn’t handle him anymore.”
Rafael and his twin brother, Fabio, grew up in Petropolis, a city of 300,000 in the Brazilian mountains near Rio de Janeiro.
“My father was like an Englishman: very strict, punctual and hardworking,” he said. “He didn’t go to school and couldn’t read — he only learned after we’d become footballers — but my parents worked every day for us, seven days a week, both of them.
“They didn’t earn much money, and we lived in a small house in the grounds of a rich family home. They would come at the weekend to swim and relax. Dad was the maintenance man. I could see the huge inequality of Brazilian life every week between the family who owned the house and our family. I never ever thought that I would be in a position to buy a house, let alone a big one like they had. The greatest achievement in my life was to buy a house.
“I was good at school, but Fabio was better,” he said. “I would sometimes copy him in tests, though he’d think that I was just looking over his shoulder to see how he was doing. We played football a lot, using flip-flops to mark the goals. Sometimes we didn’t even have a correct ball. Now, we make sure the boys in Petropolis have proper footballs. When they see us, they also see that they can make it as a footballer in Europe. We’ve showed them that it can be done.”
Rafael and Fabio’s older brother was also a footballer.
“Luis Enrique, he went from Botafogo to Italy and was at Brescia for six months, then he stopped. He missed home, and he got messed around badly by agents, with illegal contracts taking 40 percent of his earnings. He was given promises, and my family put their trust in the wrong people. His misfortune actually helped us, made us use lawyers and do things properly when we had offers.”
The twins did not start out as defenders.
“Fabio was a striker. I was a midfielder,” Rafael said. “When I was 12, our coach at Fluminense put me at right-back and my brother at left-back. It was a hot day, and I wasn’t used to it because Petropolis was cooler. The grass was long at right-back and harder to run in. He said it would be for 10 minutes. Fifteen years later, I’m still there!”
Though it might be seen as an unfashionable position, there was no shortage of great Brazilian full-backs to idolise.
“Roberto Carlos, Cafu and [Juliano] Belletti,” Rafael said. “Brazil has a history of great attacking full-backs. Dani Alves, Maicon, Alex Sandro, Marcelo. We could speak for 10 minutes only about Brazilian full-backs. They’re suited to modern top-level football because they can attack as well as defend.”
Rafael supported Botafogo, a legendary Rio club like Fluminense, as a boy.
“I still support them,” he said. “When I was younger, I went to the games with my friends. Sometimes we’d take the bus and get into the stadium early. I didn’t like to watch them against Flamengo because the supporters were crazy in those games. My father, who also supported Botafogo, never went to the stadium. He loved to watch football, but he thought the stadium was dangerous. And it was. Now it’s even worse; the area around it is dangerous.
“So I’d go with my friends. We’d sing the songs. I’d cry when Botafogo lost. I still sing their songs [he starts singing about wanting to see them win a trophy again]. I want to play there one day, and the club know that.”
When the twins were 15, United spotted them playing for Fluminense during a youth tournament in Hong Kong.
“A guy came up to me and asked if I’d like to go and visit Old Trafford,” Rafael said. “I thought it was a joke. There was nothing formal, but I went to Manchester with John Calvert, who worked for United, and it was all amazing. I trained with the first team. Fluminense had good facilities, but in Manchester everything was perfect. When I went back to Brazil, they started to talk to me about signing. After that trip to Manchester, I was sure that I wanted to play in the first team of United.”
Fluminense weren’t so keen, however, and stopped the twins playing.
“It was a long, bad story,” Rafael said. “They stopped us because we’d agreed to come to United. Fluminense said that we should stay with them and spend six months or one year in their first team. United accepted that, then Fluminense changed their minds, but we still ended up coming to Manchester. When we did, we had not played football and were out of shape. I don’t think we impressed so much at the start.
Rafael and Fabio spent seven years at Fluminense — “we still have good friends there, and we were happy that they received money for me and my brother” — but it was time for a new challenge. Their transition was made easier by the presence of other Portuguese speakers at Old Trafford.
“[Cristiano] Ronaldo called us and asked us to join United. He knew that Arsenal wanted us too, but we had given our word to United, and my parents said that was important. Nani was also there and the Brazilian Anderson, of course. Those three helped me, my brother and another Brazilian Rodrigo Possebon a lot because we couldn’t speak any English.”
Not that Anderson, who lived with Ronaldo at the time, was much help when it came to learning a new language.
“That didn’t stop him offering to be my English teacher!” Rafael said. “I’m serious. He would listen to someone then translate what he thought they had said. It was hilarious. He would get angry in games and try to speak, but he couldn’t speak English. He’d get so frustrated.
“I arrived in January , and the team won the Champions League in May. I was training with them all. I was absolutely sure that I was playing for the best team in the world. I could see that they were going to win the Champions League. They were all so angry that they’d been beaten by Milan the previous season. They were so focused on winning.”
His debut came later that summer, and the game at Peterborough also featured his brother, less than a month after their 18th birthdays.
“Fergie said a lot of good things about me,” Rafael said. “I’ll never forget that day. I felt that that I could play for Man United after that game. Darren Fletcher came up to me — I love Fletcher, he was so helpful to me — and he said: ‘Not bad for a first game, eh?’ He always tried to help me. For example, I was still learning English and, in one game, I didn’t play well. Fergie was telling me off, and I was replying to him by smiling with my thumbs up because Brazilians do that. I thought I was showing respect. Fletcher said to me: ‘You don’t do that.'”
Rafael made 16 league appearances in his first season, 2008-09, which ended with United winning the English title for the 18th time. He was short-listed for the PFA Young Player of the Year, which was won by Aston Villa’s Ashley Young.
“I was patient. You have to be when you are young because you’re not going to play every week,” Rafael said. “You have to work to play. That’s it. And I had Gary Neville in my position. When I arrived he joked, ‘You want to retire me, eh?’ I could push Gary, and Fergie knew that. I was aggressive, fast and wanted to win. I felt like a Man United player, but I needed chances. I did get chances because Gary had injuries, and at one point, so did Wes Brown and John O’Shea, who could also play right-back.”
While Fabio got fewer opportunities due to the consistency at left-back of Patrice Evra, Rafael took the chance he was given and tried to keep things simple.
“I’d get the ball and look to play it quickly to Cristiano or [Paul] Scholes or [Ryan] Giggs,” he said. “So many players you can give the ball too. Fergie always wanted me to get forward. He never said: ‘Today we’re going to focus on defending.’ Never.
“When we played [Manchester] City away, he came to me in training the day before and said: ‘You’re going to play tomorrow. You’ll be against Robinho. You know what you have to do.’ I knew I had to attack him as much as he attacked me. I played very well, and we won. City and Liverpool, they were the two games I most wanted to win. I felt that people wanted to win against Liverpool more than any other game.”
Ferguson was the major influence on Rafael’s career.
“He did everything he could to help me, even when things didn’t go well. In 2010-11, I made some mistakes and got injured a lot, but he never gave up on me. He renewed my contract when I wasn’t playing well. He saw how hard I was working, and I would like to think I repaid him. At the start of 2012, he came to me and said: ‘You cannot be making mistakes any more. You are mature now.’
“Being sent off against Bayern Munich [in April 2010] was the worst. I fouled [Mark] van Bommel, and then I did a stupid challenge when I didn’t need to because we were attacking. Then I grabbed [Franck] Ribery. I went back to the dressing room and cried. Fergie was angry, but I don’t think he said everything that he wanted to say to me that day. He took it easy on me. I was so disappointed in myself that night, and he saw that. He said that I had dominated Ribery, and that made me even sadder because I played very well that night. But I made two mistakes.”
Another sending off followed at Tottenham in January 2010. Nine days later, Rafael left another game early, this time due to concussion he suffered at Blackpool.
“My mum and my wife were watching on television, and they were worried,” he said. “They tried to call me and couldn’t get through. They became desperate as my phone was in the dressing room, and I was in hospital. I was unconscious on the pitch for two minutes, and the game was held up for 10 minutes, but I was OK. I was concussed a few times at United. I went into one challenge against [Olivier] Giroud at Arsenal and cannot remember anything about what happened next. I came round towards the end of the game and thought we were winning. We weren’t.”
Although they made their names as defenders, one of the twins’ more memorable performances came when they played on the wing against Arsenal in a 2011 FA Cup sixth-round tie.
“We loved it, and we won! Fabio scored, too,” Rafael said. “Who needs Cristiano and Giggsy when you have us two?”
United’s cup run ended in the following round, when they were beaten 1-0 at Wembley by Manchester City. United’s crosstown rivals were on the rise, though Rafael didn’t see their success as inevitable.
“They started slowly, and there’s always a chance that it is not going to work out. Other clubs have had money thrown at them and not worked. But you have to say today that they are a very, very good team … but they buy everyone!”
And what of his old club?
“Of course United buy players, but they also promoted lots of players from the youth system,” Rafael said. “City don’t do this. It’s bad. You have to give opportunities to young players from your city, from your house. Imagine if you have children and you don’t make them go to college. You have to trust your children, to give them a chance, but City obviously think differently. Look at the United team now: Jesse [Lingard], Paul [Pogba], Marcus Rashford and others.”
In 2011, with United’s midfield beset by injuries, Rafael was selected ahead of 18-year-old Pogba for a game against Blackburn Rovers.
“After that game, Paul asked me why I’d played in midfield and not him,” Rafael said. “He wasn’t happy. I joked to him that it was because I had more quality!”
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While Rafael won three league titles during his time at United, the Champions eluded him, as Barcelona twice denied Ferguson’s side in finals.
“I was on the bench in Rome [in 2009],” he said. “Maybe people were thinking ‘Barça are brilliant,’ but I was not. I wanted to win the Champions League in my first season. For the second final at Wembley [in 2011], I did not expect to play because I had been coming back from injury. But my brother started, and I was so nervous for him. I was always like this with him then. He didn’t sleep the night before, and it was not a good night for the club.”
Nor was the visit to Sunderland a year later when, with United having won 1-0, news came through that City had scored twice in stoppage time to win the league.
“It was horrible. Sunderland fans laughed at us,” he said. “After the game, Fergie said: ‘You’re never going to forget this day.’ In every single game I played the following season, I remembered what Fergie had told us in Sunderland.”
The 2012-13 campaign saw Rafael played 40 times for United in all competitions, a career high during his time at Old Trafford.
“That was my best season,” he said. “Apart from when the referee did that against Real Madrid: Nani did not deserve to be sent off. The referee killed the game. We won the league, though. I scored some goals too. Remember the one at QPR? My brother was there because he was at QPR at that time. My family were there, some of my friends too. So many of the people I knew were there, and I scored.”
Veteran Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar was playing for QPR that day.
“He came up to me as we left the pitch at half-time,” Rafael said. “He said: ‘I didn’t catch it because a defender was in front of me. If he was not there, I would have stopped it.’ I replied: ‘Stop lying, please!’ It was a rocket. It was impossible even for Julio Cesar to catch.”
Earlier in the same season, Rafael scored at Liverpool.
“My goal was in front of the United end. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had after scoring. They were a man down, and yet they scored. We were not playing well, and my equaliser was needed. I roared in front of the away end. Then we won. Darren Fletcher ran up to me in the dressing room. ‘Raf! Raf! Raf!’ he said. I didn’t need to be told how important that was. It was nice to see his reaction.”
Rafael was in the side that clinched a 20th league title with victory over Aston Villa. Just over two weeks later, Ferguson announced his retirement.
“I was shocked,” Rafael said. “I’d just had my best season. I wanted to stay at that level for five years or more under the best manager in the world, a man who liked me. He’d always said that he wanted to keep going, then from nowhere he said that he was going to retire. It was a surprise, and it was hard. And probably harder for other players like [Robin] van Persie, who signed to play for him and he left a year later, but he had to go sometime, and he left as a champion.”
The day after Ferguson’s departure was announced, David Moyes was appointed to replace him.
“Everything had changed when Fergie left, and losing his mentality was the biggest loss,” Rafael said. “Moyes had a different mentality to Fergie, and it was a tough time for me, I have to be honest. Sometimes he wasn’t happy when we played the ball in our half. He wanted us to play the ball in the channel. He wanted the ball in the other half, even if it was a long ball there. He didn’t just want us to play the long ball all the time, but if you see your manager panic when you don’t play the ball he wants you to play, that doesn’t help the team. He needed to trust the players more.”
Rafael was not surprised when Moyes was sacked in April 2014.
“I don’t think it was only because of the results but because of the way we played,” he said. “United fans were used to watching very attacking football. With David, some players who had quality did not show it because of the way we played.”
Ryan Giggs took charge for the final four games of the season.
“He was fantastic,” Rafael said. “I was sure he was going to be manager when Van Gaal left. I think he’ll be a good coach for Wales. Managers need a good mentality, to know football but also to be a good human being with the other players. Giggs is good with players. He learned a lot in the Fergie era.”
Then Van Gaal arrived, which marked the beginning of the end for Rafael at United. Three days after he left for Lyon in August 2015, he received a message.
“Van Gaal texted me to say: ‘You know how football is.’ I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t speak to me and then texted me to wish me well.”
Did he reply?
“I did. I said: ‘Thank you.’ I was being polite. But I was angry.”
Rafael had interest from Galatasary and clubs in Russia, but Brazilian players such as Juninho Pernambucano, Sonny Anderson and Michel Bastos had had success at Lyon, who could also offer Champions League football.
“I’m at a very good club,” Rafael said. “We have a lot of young players and good ones. But sometimes to win titles, you need more experienced players, like Neville, Giggs, [Rio] Ferdinand, [Nemanja] Vidic.
“I like the coach here, a local man, Bruno [Genesio]. It’s a fantastic city to live in too. I’m not saying good — I’m saying fantastic. I’m here with my wife, Carla, who I’ve known since I was 11, and our two children, aged 6 and 4. My brother is at Middlesbrough, and we speak every day.”
Does Rafael still watch Man United?
“Yes, a lot,” he said. “I’m not convinced by the style of football now. Man United players should be free. I still keep in touch with a lot of the players, and I’d love to work for United in the future, as a scout maybe. I love Manchester and Manchester United. My wife doesn’t like the weather so much, but I love everything there.”
With that, he’s off to Rome to see close friend and fellow countryman Lucas Leiva. That’s the same Lucas Leiva he flew into during a game at Anfield in 2011, only to be surrounded by Liverpol players. Rafael was not intimidated.
“That’s the spirit we had,” he said with a smile and clenched fists. “United!”
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.