Since signing for Arsenal in January 2022, Brazilian centre-half Rafaelle has been nothing short of a revelation. The 31-year-old spent six years playing for Changchun Zhuoyue in China and Rafa, who is living on her fourth continent now after spells in the US, China and her native Brazil, says she feels fully settled in London.
“Knowing English has helped me so much,” she explains. “In China I needed someone to talk for me and everywhere I went I needed my cellphone to translate. At a restaurant I would need my cellphone to translate the menus and it was hard. Coming here, to such a big club with lovely people around me it’s so much easier and with the language I can be independent again and I am not like a baby that needs someone to take care of me.
“It’s such an amazing club with a great atmosphere. I am really well settled now. I am living the dream.” After an injury hit first half season at the club, the defender captained her country to Copa América glory in Colombia in July, lifting the trophy just hours after her clubmate Leah Williamson hoisted the European Championship trophy at Wembley Stadium.
Arsenal arranged a reception from all of the club staff, including Mikel Arteta, Edu and Vinai Venkatesham, for returning Lionesses Leah Williamson, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Beth Mead. Rafaelle was included in this reception for her success. The club had Lioness rings made for the three victorious England players and a canary ring (the canary is the official symbol of the Brazilian National Team) made for Rafa.
🇧🇷 Representing Brazil 🇧🇷
We’re so proud of you, @Rafaelleleone 👏 pic.twitter.com/hBN6WVJlrL
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) August 15, 2022
“I felt really special, we are not used to having this even in Brazil,” Rafa points out. “When we won the Copa América and I came back to my city there was a big party. Women’s football is growing around the world. But I was not expecting to be included in the big reception for the English girls. I won a title but it was a long way from here and when I came back they included me and I felt like this club is embracing me. I feel loved here.
“It is really good when a player has that feeling because you come here every day to work but also to be around people who like you and make you feel good. It’s really special.” In our first interview when she arrived at the club last January she talked about hoping that other Brazilian players would join her at the club. That ambition was realised during the summer with the signing of Brazilian winger Gio from Barcelona.
Atenção torcida brasileira do Arsenal Women, perguntei @Rafaelleleone se ela tem uma mensagem pra voçês 👇🏻✌🏻🇧🇷 pic.twitter.com/J4lZ1wxRgQ
— Tim Stillman (@Stillmanator) February 1, 2022
“I didn’t know if she was going to sign with Arsenal before it happened but I was so happy when she did. It’s always good to have someone to speak Portuguese with and have a bit of the Brazilian culture too. In our changing room there are a lot of girls from different countries who speak different languages and now I have someone to speak Portuguese with!”
Rafa says the two players had already formed a strong relationship in the Brazilian National Team with Rafaelle acting as a kind of ‘big sister’ for the teenager, who grew up in the US and Spain and had a loose command of Portuguese.
“We had this kind of relationship when she came to the Brazilian national team because I am one of the most experienced players in the squad and when she was first called up, she was 17 or 18. I looked out for her, at that time she didn’t speak Portuguese really well. I was trying to help her because I spoke English.
“Here I am trying to help her get used to the team. Here we have lots of famous players and big legends and I have introduced her and tried to get her as well settled as I am now, that’s a big part of my job. I am really happy to have her here, she is very talented and a very fast player with a lot of ability.”
Também temos a resenha do aniversário! 🤏 💚💛
Vem conferir como foi a festa da @Rafaelleleone e da @gio9queiroz!
📹 CBF TV pic.twitter.com/W1yI93NMHv
— Seleção Feminina de Futebol (@SelecaoFeminina) June 21, 2022
Rafaelle also explains that it is nice to be a part of the explosion in interest in women’s football since England’s success on home soil at Euro 2022, which has seen crowds grow and attendance records smashed during this season.
“Women’s football is growing around the world but here it feels really special after the Euros. There is so much support from the fans, it’s amazing to play in front of over 40,000 people and more than once. It’s going to be a mark in my career. I was expecting it to be like this in five or ten years.
“This is going to be one of the highlights of my career, when I stop playing and look back at this time and being part of the beginning of this huge explosion of women’s football in England.”
Arsenal obliterated the WSL attendance record in September when they beat Tottenham 4-0 in front of 47,000 fans in September. Rafaelle was on the score sheet that day, a goal and a feeling she says she will remember for the rest of her life.
This footage of @Rafaelleleone 😍 pic.twitter.com/iIuo04Q3wh
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 26, 2022
“That was amazing, that was one of the best feelings I have ever had in football. Scoring a goal in front of a crowd like that at the Emirates, in such a big game. I am going to remember that forever. It is one of the most exciting moments of my career.”
The defender had to come off for the final few minutes of the game due to a minor knock but it gave the player the opportunity to get her own ovation from the crowd.
“It was just a twisted ankle, it was not too serious. But when I was coming off the pitch people were standing and signing my name, that was a special moment even though I was in pain. I was so happy.”
A few days later, the pain would prove to be a little more serious. During the Champions League qualifying round second leg against Ajax in Amsterdam, Rafa took a painful bang to the foot and had to go off. She had broken her second metatarsal and was out for around ten weeks.
“It was very frustrating, when I came to this club I wanted to play as much as possible and show my football. I feel here they really appreciate good football and the skills of a Brazilian player. When I came here I got that injury where I was out for two months and that was really hard.
“But I am an experienced player and I know how to deal with these moments. It is tough and frustrating and you just need to focus on how you wake up the next day, be motivated to improve and get better. My foot was injured but I could still work on my upper body and getting stronger. Now I think I am in my best moment at the club and I think doing that work helped.”
A couple of days later, her centre-back partner Leah Williamson suffered an ankle injury and underwent a recovery period of identical length to Rafaelle. However, the Brazilian says the period on the sidelines brought the centre-half pairing closer together as friends. Young centre-half Teyah Goldie was in the final stages of an ACL rehabilitation during the same period too.
“We are always saying to each other not to get injured because we always seem to get injured at the same time! We are like best friends now on and off the pitch. That moment, when you are struggling with injury, having good friends around you makes it easier, we got closer after this. In those bad moments you can build good relationships.”
Rafaelle had to miss some high moments, like the 5-1 victory in Lyon. However, I put it to her that had she been on the pitch for the 3-2 home defeat to Manchester United in November, it is unlikely Alessia Russo would have been allowed two free headers in the final five minutes of the game.
“I always watched the team when I was injured. I was at the Emirates for the Manchester United game and watching them score two late goals and not being able to help the team was a really bad feeling. I was frustrated. It’s so frustrating watching and not being able to help on the pitch. I tried to talk to them before games and at half-time and to help motivate my teammates but it’s hard to watch from the sidelines.”
Happier times lay ahead following her recovery just before Christmas, culminating in the 3-1 Conti Cup Final victory over Chelsea in early March, breaking the club’s four-year spell without a trophy.
“When I came here I got that feeling that we needed that trophy,” she admits. “We were always chasing trophies and we were so close to winning the league last year. We needed this title and it gave us a lot of confidence to go through this busy schedule we have now with big games.”
We speak the day before Arsenal’s spellbinding 2-0 win over Bayern Munich at Emirates Stadium to qualify for their first UWCL semi-final in a decade. In hindsight, Rafa’s words prove ominous as the Gunners successfully overturned a 1-0 deficit against the Bundesliga leaders.
“Having that momentum will really help us now, I feel like we are in the best moment of the season. We are facing big teams but we have that belief, we now we are capable now. That title helped us a lot and I was really proud to be a part of it.”
‘THAT’S ARSENAL GUYS!’ 😍 pic.twitter.com/dGqzRlnBKe
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) March 29, 2023
The player also has the small matter of the World Cup on the horizon and on Thursday evening, Brazil, the champions of South America, will play England, the champions of Europe, at Wembley Stadium in the Finalissima. With Marta injured, Rafa is likely to captain Brazil with her Arsenal centre-half partner Leah Williamson on the other side of the Wemblei coin toss.
“Me and Leah are always talking about not injuring each other in training! When we are playing each other of course it is different but in training we make a lot of jokes about it.” Brazil have undergone a transition period under decorated Swedish coach Pia Sundhage, who has a strong relationship with compatriot and Gunners boss Jonas Eidevall.
“Pia is coming to training before the Manchester City game to watch our training to see how I am doing. This game against England is really important but our main focus is the World Cup. We are really looking forward to it. We have two big games against Germany and England in this break.
“We have a younger team now mixed with some experienced players, we are getting close to the team that we are going to be at the World Cup. We need to use our best players now to try to beat the best team in Europe.”
While England were crowned European champions, as Brazil were crowned South American champions last summer, Rafaelle and her Arsenal teammates will be aiming to be crowned as club European champions this season- and maybe Rafa, Leah Williamson, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Beth Mead can hoist a continental trophy side by side in Eindhoven in June.
🥵 Samba skills from @Rafaelleleone 🇧🇷 pic.twitter.com/kYbYZQSkra
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 22, 2022