A cult hero departs: Rafael, and what his exit says about Manchester United's identity
Rob Smyth laments the departure of Rafael, the big-game right-back who could have achieved greatness at Manchester United, the club he loved, but whose exit erodes their identity further.
There are some people who detest The Big Lebowski, others who are indifferent to it. We sometimes forget this, such is the inescapable enthusiasm of those who adore it. It’s the same with anything that has cult appeal, and thus applies to Rafael da Silva. Although his departure from Manchester United to Lyon has prompted an unusual level of sadness, it would be wrong to say Rafael was universally loved by United fans.
In an age of digital entitlement and selfie sticks, gobby minorities and silent majorities, it is hard to define the fanbase of a club and therefore to establish a consensus view. What we surely can say in the case of Rafael is that there are two dominant prevailing attitudes. One is that he was one of the last remaining players at Old Trafford who gave a fig about the club; the other was that his admirable affection for United could not redeem – and often contributed to – his status as an overemotional defensive liability.
There is plenty of truth in both, even if his defensive shortcomings have been overplayed. Either way, his departure feels like a significant moment in the change in United’s identity that gathered pace when the Glazers took over in 2005, and accelerated further when Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
Only the most tedious person would argue that football has not become a mercenary industry; collectively, the sincerity of players’ commitment to the cause is in inverse proportion to the number of times a badge is kissed. As well as reeking of dishonesty, badge kissing is among life’s naffer gestures; but when Rafael did it at the Etihad after a stirring 3-2 victory over Manchester City in December 2012, you can be certain he meant it. As the old joke goes: cut him and he literally bleeds red.
Rafael went for former United striker Carlos TevezReuters
It is not easy to say exactly why Rafael loved United so much; as with romantic love, it’s generally instinctive and indefinable. Some players just get it. United have been blessed in modern times with the number of apparent outsiders who did so: the list includes Ruud van Nistelrooy, Patrice Evra, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Jaap Stam and now Rafael.
It is apt, therefore, that many of Rafael’s best moments as a United player had very little to do with football. They involved defending, it’s true - defending the honour of the club and, yes, the badge. The most famous was when he went feral on a visibly startled Carlos Tevez at the Etihad in 2010, an image that still provides wallpaper for thousands of browsers. As United became ever more susceptible to bullying in the final years of Ferguson, it often felt that Rafael was the only one who would stand up to opponents.
At Anfield in March 2011, Jamie Carragher cut Nani to the bone with a vile challenge. A proud page in the history of Manchester United tells the story of how Norman Whiteside booted Liverpool’s greatest side all over Anfield in April 1988 and inspired 10-man United to recover from 3-1 to draw 3-3; he gets asked about it much more than his glorious winning goal in the FA Cup final of 1985. This time, none of United’s senior players – Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Evra, Michael Carrick – did a thing. It was left to Rafael to attempt some vigilante justice in his own endearingly flawed way: he responded with a dreadful challenge on Lucas, for which he should have received more than a yellow card. He then tried to take on Martin Skrtel, and anyone else who wanted a piece, in the ensuing shoving match.
Three seasons later, in March 2014, United were humiliated at home by Liverpool. They lost 3-0; it should have been 6-0. It was a disgraceful surrender from a team who should have fought desperately to try to derail Liverpool’s title challenge. Instead they were too busy trying to get David Moyes sacked. At the end they all walked off looking at best numb and at worst indifferent. Rafael had his shirt over his face and looked devastated. He had more reason that most not to care; his wife had given birth the night before. Even that could not assuage the misery of defeat by Liverpool.
Rafael exacted revenge on Lucas after Carragher's challenge on NaniAFP
The problem was that, though he was the only one who seemed to care, Rafael had contributed to the defeat with a wild performance. He conceded the penalty for the first goal, and should have been sent off before half time. To many, that game summed up his United career: plenty of passion, not enough competent defending.
Whether that is fair is open to debate. It’s true that when Rafael was bad, he was awful. He went AWOL during the shambolic 4-4 draw against Everton that ultimately cost United the 2011-12 title, and there were plenty of games in which you felt a second yellow card was in the post. Yet in the majority of his matches he defended excellently and gave zesty attacking support with crossing that was erratic – that word again – but frequently devastating. He also scored two wonderful goals, both with his left foot, at the Emirates in 2008 and Anfield in 2012. Indeed, Rafael’s influence – for richer and occasionally poorer – against the biggest opposition made him fill an unlikely niche: at United, he might have been football’s first big-game full-back.
In terms of public perception, Rafael’s problem was not dissimilar to that of Andy Cole at United in the late 1990s. Cole missed nowhere near as many chances as people remember, but his misses were sometimes either vital and/or absolute shockers. The same is true of Rafael’s bad games, which coloured perceptions of his general levels of competence.
It also felt as though, once Rafael’s status as talented but unreliable was entrenched in the received wisdom, his bad points were highlighted more than most. Late-period Scholes was more of a liability when it came to yellow and red cards; Evra was sometimes all over the place defensively in his later years; there was a spell when Jonny Evans was the opposition’s most dangerous attacker. They offered plenty in return, but then so did Rafael.
Rafael walks off the pitch following his red card against Bayern MunichAFP
Rafael was easy to scapegoat; he was dropped after that 4-4 against Everton, even though most of the other defenders were equally bad, and was blamed when he was sent off and United went out of Europe to Bayern Munich in 2009-10. Rafael’s red card was a key moment, but barely more so than Carrick’s feeble challenge on Ivica Olic that allowed Bayern back into the tie, or Ferguson’s unnecessary caution in most of the first leg and a crucial period in the second, when he played without a striker.
With hindsight it is clear that Rafael’s United career was over when Ferguson left. It was the same for so many others, from Rio Ferdinand to Robin van Persie and Nani, even though none of them realised it at the time. There were different reasons for each; in Rafael’s case, he did not have enough Tony Hibbert in him to please David Moyes. The subsequent appointment of Van Gaal – who prefers robots to humans - made his departure inevitable.
Rafael was extremely erratic when he did appear in his last two seasons at the club, which has perhaps coloured the memory of what went before. To some it indicated a regression and was proof that he would never grow up; to others he was clearly close to cracking it in 2012-13, and his performances thereafter were a partial reaction to the uncertainty of his situation and the inescapable fact that his managers didn’t rate him. Not everybody can react to adversity with a stiff upper lip.
It’s not correct to say that he did not fulfil his potential - only that, for a variety of reasons, the process was slower we thought it would be when he was on the PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist at the age of 18. The likelihood is that it will not happen now. The wrong doors slid at the wrong time, and Ferguson’s retirement has probably catalysed a series of events that have ended the small chance he had of achieving greatness.
Rafael found his best form under Ferguson's fatherly guidanceAFP
In theory it could still happen. He is only 25 – the age at which Evra and Denis Irwin were just starting out at United. And his immaturity had many positive connotations. Rafael was a playground footballer: fearless, irrepressible and unfettered. And he was full of infectious, naïve charisma. He gave older fans a vicarious shot of youth in a way that most young players do not. So much of modern football is sanitised and controlled that it was refreshing to see somebody who played with such loveable lunacy. He was fun and, with United becoming ever more tedious in the years since Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2009, that was something precious.
In the last two and a bit years, Ferguson, Scholes, Giggs, Evra and now Rafael have left Old Trafford. They all understood and cared deeply about the club; how many of the current squad could you say that about? United used to pride themselves on being different to the nouveau riche clubs in particular, of being built on much stronger foundations, but that can no longer be said. This is not a criticism, because the situation is inescapable. The majority of players no longer represent their club; they represent themselves while wearing the club shirt.
Football and footballers have changed so fundamentally that the days of a mutual love-in between players and supporters has almost gone. Identifying with the majority of your team used to be a fundamental part of football supporting. Now the relationship is not based on love so much as the same quid pro quo evident in friends with benefits. They don’t have to love each other. They don’t even particularly need to like each other. All they have to do is help each other create and enjoy the orgiastic sensation of winning. It’s really not a healthy development.
Rafael was different. He loves Manchester United, and many Manchester United fans love him. That he has left the club is unlikely to change that. Cult status, after all, is for life.
- Rob Smyth