Rafinha walks into a conference room at Bayern Munich’s New York City office with the poised control of a footballer who is confident in his ability and comfortable with his playing situation. And he should be.
The 31-year-old Brazilian right-back returned to the Selecao after a three-year absence and is poised to make a run at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. At Bayern, where he’s won five Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokals and the 2013 Champions League during the past six years, he’ll battle Joshua Kimmich for a starting spot to replace club legend Philipp Lahm. These are good places to be.
Rafinha, wearing a sparkling pair of white-and-gold high-tops he bought on a recent trip to Dubai, spoke with Bleacher Report about his talent, his trials and tribulations, and his tattoos.
Bleacher Report: You signed a one-year extension that keeps you at the club through 2018. What are your thoughts about next season?
Rafinha: I’m not worried about the contract. I love the club. I want to play. I want to be at the club. Philipp [Lahm] retired, so I’ll have more opportunities to consolidate myself as the starter at right-back. I’m really looking forward to playing. Bayern really values the athletes who are there, who put the effort in to be there and who represent the club. I want to keep being one of those guys.
B/R: Lahm retired and so did Xabi Alonso. That’s a lot of leadership that walked out the door. Can you fill that void?
Rafinha: It will be really hard to step in and replace the leadership that Philipp and Xabi provided, but I have been at the club for six years now. I understand how Bayern works. Even though it’s a tough situation to replace the leadership of those guys because they are such legends and were so important to the club, I feel that I’m in a position to do so on the field and off it. I want to be the same way they were to help my team-mates on and off the field, and [I want to] help the Bayern community.
B/R: What did you learn about leadership from watching them?
Rafinha: I’m glad that we had a lot of great moments together. We won a lot of championships and trophies. We had a lot to celebrate. But the moments that I learned the most from them were the hard moments that we had to face together, seeing how they dealt with their team-mates, the coaches, the fans.
B/R: What was one of those hard moments?
Rafinha: We lost the 2012 Champions League final against Chelsea. We were at home in front of our fans, and we lost. Everyone was really upset with the defeat. Philipp was the guy who was lifting us up. He was telling us that we had to move forward, that we’d eventually lift the trophy, that next year was a new opportunity. He put himself out there. He talked to the fans, the coaching staff, the directors of the club. He was the voice of the players. I learned a lot seeing how he managed the situation. The next year, we beat Borussia Dortmund in the final match.
B/R: What do you like about playing right back?
Rafinha: It’s the position in which you suffer the most. [Laughs] You’re always there, participating in the game either offensively or defensively. You have to be smart enough to be a part of the line of defence with the four players and, at the same time, understand how you’re going to be an important piece offensively. I love that. I love to be a part of everything and run around the field constantly. I have a lot of fun.
B/R: So you like it because you suffer the most?
Rafinha: Yes, I do. I’ve always suffered because I’ve played right-back since I was a kid, but I’ve been winning a lot so it’s worked out.
B/R: When did you start playing right-back and why?
Rafinha: In 2001, I was playing for Coritiba at the youth levels. I was a winger, but one of the coaches told me I couldn’t be a winger because I was too short. It was better to use my skills to be a right-back. At first, I didn’t like the idea, but I soon learned that he was right, that I could use my skills better as a right-back.
It’s good to have those winger skills at a team like Bayern, where you play all over the field and exchange positions frequently.
It helps me a lot, especially with [Pep] Guardiola. When he was the manager, I played in every position except as a goalie. I played everywhere: as a defender, a midfielder, a winger, a forward. My base of skills was really helpful. Those were an incredible three years. I played 120 matches, and I felt like I could help the team.
B/R: You’re definitely too short for a goalie.
B/R: Your entire right arm is covered in tattoos, but there are barely any on your left. Why?
Rafinha: I will get there eventually. All my tattoos have to mean something really important to me. As I move forward, I hope to have new occasions and situations to commemorate. [He shows three tattoos of trophies on the inside of his right bicep.]
B/R: You have to win more trophies.
Rafinha: I’ve won a lot of trophies with Bayern, so I have to pick the really special ones. Otherwise, I would have my whole body tattooed. Now I get a star tattooed whenever I win a trophy. [Note: He has a lot of star tats, including five for the Bundesliga.]
B/R: What was the first tattoo you got?
Rafinha: It was for my father when he passed away in 2002. It says "I love you forever."
B/R: You’re back with the Brazilian national team. Do you think you can make the 2018 World Cup roster?
Rafinha: I’m really confident that I have a place in the national team. I’m really happy that the new coach, Tite, called me back after a long absence. I’ve been playing in Europe for 12 years, so I understand the game a lot better. I’m very mature. I think there’s a great possibility that I can make the World Cup squad. I was recently with the national team for two weeks. I enjoyed the practices and being with the coaching staff. I’m really looking forward to the World Cup.
B/R: What’s your favourite story about Neymar?
Rafinha: I first met him in 2014 playing for the national team. I saw how crazy his skills were on the pitch. It’s amazing. After that, I had a chance to play against him. I was totally astonished by what he could do with the ball and by how incredible he is.
B/R: How is your role different at Bayern and on the national team?
Rafinha: Obviously, there are different styles and different players, but I felt really comfortable because Tite brought a lot of the European mentality to the style that the Brazilian team is implementing. I think the adaption process will be really easy for all of the European-based players.
B/R: What do you mean by the European style?
Rafinha: Brazil has always had the idea that it could win just by being talented. Something that’s changing now is that the coach is bringing the mentality that we have to think about the tactics, and about the emotional part of the game, and help each other on the pitch before thinking about the talent that is going to be the problem-solver. Bringing that mentality first, and then using our talent to leverage that, will create a very strong team.
B/R: That sounds very German—organised and structured.
Rafinha: Exactly the same.
B/R: How do you blend the organisation with the flair without losing too much of either?
Rafinha: Something that has helped me throughout the years in Germany is that I have been able to mix the discipline that I learned there and how the Germans deal with the situations with the informality of the Brazilian game. I’ve been able to create a mix between the informal and formal game. I’m very happy about being able to do that.
B/R: Did a specific coach teach you that?
Rafinha: No. I was able to find it myself. Coaches helped me, but I found it on my own.
You’re almost a perfect mix of the German and Brazilian styles. I have a German passport now. I’m a citizen. I’m happy that I was able to become exactly 50 percent German and Brazilian. I have both skill sets. The organisation on one side and the joga bonita on the other.
B/R: Why did you get the German passport?
Rafinha: I love the country. I’ve been there for 13 years, and it feels like home. That was the natural decision. It feels natural to live here.
B/R: Would you stay in Germany after your playing career?
Rafinha: I'm not going to live here permanently. I will go back to Brazil. But I’ll have a house there and go back.
I have roots in Germany now. I can't just go back to Brazil and forget about those roots. I'll be in both places.
B/R: And Dubai for shopping?
Rafinha: [Laughs] Yes, of course.