The Nets Big Thing? Rafael Cabral Barbosa (Santos FC)
In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot out Brazilian goalkeepers. And sadly very little of it has anything to do with good goalkeeping. Last weekend, it was Heurelho Gomes allowing Chelsea to slip back into the title race that caught the eye of the footballing world and not long before that it was Rogerio Ceni of Sao Paulo in the news for scoring a century of goals and in the process giving himself a career haul not entirely dissimilar to Emile Heskey.
The rise of Rafael Cabral Barbosa however gives us a welcome opportunity to look at a Brazilian making headlines for the right reasons. After a few sporadic appearances for Santos, he finally made the number 1 spot his own around twelve months ago and since then has generally showed the type of form that marks him out as one for the future. Already he has kept 10 clean sheets this calendar year (including 4 in his last 4 games) and in such an attacked minded team as Santos in such an attack-minded environment as Brazilian football, it’s no mean feat. As impressive as that may sound, it should be qualified with the clarification that the typical Brazilian top flight team have a lot of games and not always against the highest standard of opposition courtesy of their State Championships and Copa do Brasil. It’s still good however and when talking about someone so young performing so admirably it’s especially eye-catching.
I’ve watched Rafael several times towards the end of last year and the start of this year, but the performance that prompted this piece came against Club America in the Copa Libertadores earlier this week. The Brazilian side took a narrow advantage into the second leg of their last 16 tie in Mexico City and with a place in the quarter-finals hanging in the balance. As they game came to a close, the Mexican side threw everything they had at Santos and time after time, Rafael kept them at bay. [Watch the highlights here]
It’s not the first time I’ve seen such amazing agility from Rafael. He regularly shows the type of explosive spring that propels him across the goal in an instant to save seemingly unstoppable shots. He’s got genuine raw talent, but there is more to him than the clichéd ‘good shot-stopper’. For the most part he has good hands and he’s remarkably quick in addition to his athleticism. He recovers rapidly from making the initial save and he’s very sharp off his line and combined with his natural bravery, he is good at getting down to an opponents feet in the blink of an eye. In one v one situations, he’s somewhat unorthodox, but generally very effective. Manuel Neuer is another young goalkeeper you could say the same thing about and it works out well for him. Not following the textbooks precisely is perfectly acceptable as long as you’re getting the job done and so far Rafael is performing with aplomb.
If there is one minor criticism – and I acknowledge this is verging on the hypercritical – it’s to do with the extravagance of some of his saves. Every South American player grows up knowing that the big money is in European football and the notion of impressing the scouts can’t ever be too far from a young man’s mind. I think – possibly understandably – he plays up to the cameras a little too often. Sometimes he throws himself at the ball to make a save seem more spectacular than it is when maybe staying a little more static and making a straightforward catch or parry would have been more beneficial to the team. In this respect, he reminds me a lot of Julio Cesar of Inter Milan and for reasons other than of shared nationality. Cesar is an exceptionally agile goalkeeper, but too often he makes medium difficulty saves look harder than they are by not catching the ball. Catching the ball isn’t absolutely essential every time a goalkeeper gets a hand to a ball, but when it’s possible, it’s nice to see it happen. For all his talent, I don’t think Cesar would go down well in England simply because he refuses to catch the ball often enough and I fear that many a Premier League scout would balk at the similar tendency from Rafael.
As a rule of thumb, European clubs are attempting to snap up you South American out-field talent at an ever younger age so they can include them in the ‘homegrown’ quota (his team-mate Neymar being an obvious example), but the trajectory and development of a goalkeeper’s career is such that haste isn’t a necessity. With his 21st birthday looming, the ‘home-grown’ ship has already sailed for Rafael, so maybe clubs are more inclined to watch from afar in the hope his current form is something more than beginner’s luck. One possible option could be a move to Portugal, when he could acclimatise for a season or two before – if all goes well – making the step up to one of the Big 3 European leagues.
Whatever path his career takes, don’t be surprised if this Samba Boy goes on to become the main man for the Selecao between the posts in the future.