Raphinha’s wild reaction proved he’s the genius who got ‘side before self’
You needn’t be the biggest cynic in the world to imagine vultures across various European boardrooms keeping tabs on how Leeds United were getting on in their final-day clash at Brentford.
Leeds were teetering over the edge. Had they dropped, unscrupulous sporting directors would have encircled the carcass. In particular, their beady eyes will have been focused on one tasty morsel: the club’s star asset Raphinha.
But you don’t need to be the biggest cynic in the world to wonder whether Deco – the former Barcelona and Chelsea midfielder that now serves as Raphinha’s agent – might have had conflicted feelings about how his client was getting on at the Brentford Community Stadium.
After all, had Leeds suffered defeat, it would’ve been far easier to get a deal done.
The Brazilian forward has a much-publicised relegation clause, making the prospect of a move to financially hamstrung Barcelona – where Deco has a close relationship with club president Joan Laporta, the man who took him to the Camp Nou back in 2004 – much more viable.
Whatever the conclusion to Leeds’ season, Brentford was always going to be Raphinha’s farewell. But the manner of the ending will come to define the superstar’s legacy at Elland Road and how he’ll be remembered by the fans.
In recent football history, there are no shortage of mercenaries who have looked after their own interests at the expense of their clubs. This is the charge Newcastle supporters, and Alan Shearer, levelled at Michael Owen following their relegation in 2009.
Indeed, Leeds fans are all too familiar with bitter break-ups; Rio Ferdinand, Harry Kewell, Alan Smith. Even Mark Viduka suffered a sad goodbye, needlessly sent off against Bolton as Leeds’ relegation was sealed in 2004.
That Champions League team. The promotion-winning side of 2010. Older Leeds fans can be forgiven for being jaded husks that know deep down nothing good ever lasts. Can you ever totally enjoy having a world-beater like Raphinha when you just know he’s going to break your heart?
Maybe this time things can be different. Maybe this break-up doesn’t have to sound like Kendrick Lamar’s We Cry Together. Maybe it can have a nauseatingly twee description like ‘conscious uncoupling’.
Marcelo Bielsa, the architect of Leeds’ resurgence in recent years, didn’t get the send-off he deserved. But things look different for the players.
Of Bielsa’s promotion-winning team, cult heroes Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi enjoyed a pitch-perfect bon voyage as fans returned to Elland Road post-pandemic.
Gjanni Alioski could have stayed, but few begrudge the Macedonian mad dog getting a bumper payday at Saudi Arabian club Al-Ahli. Why? Because he gave his all for the Leeds shirt until the very end.
“Gjanni does not have a big contract, but the level of intensity that Gjanni played the last 10 games without a contract?” Victor Orta told The Athletic. “It makes me so proud. He played the last 10 games with that physicality and intensity.”
When the time comes this summer – as long as he doesn’t go to Manchester United – Raphinha too will get a hero’s farewell.
The pure joy of seeing the forward with the ball at his feet, and the humiliation he subjected Gary Cahill to, will live long in the memory after he’s gone.
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A whole new generation of Leeds fans, brought up on the gruel of Michael Brown and Scott Wootton, have never known a player of such class. A darling of the Brazilian media that’s set to star for the Selecao at the World Cup felt an unthinkable prospect during the many years of midtable mediocrity in the Championship.
The Yorkshire club’s recruitment record since promotion has otherwise been mixed at best, but the addition of a world-beater like Raphinha to an otherwise Championship squad proved essential to re-establishing them as a top-tier club.
But Leeds, like any other club barring two or three alphas at the very top, have their place in football’s cut-throat food chain.
It’s how they were able to assemble a Championship-winning team with players signed from clubs like Chesterfield, Brentford, FC Twente and Bristol City. It’s why Raphinha joined in the first place, swapping Champions League football with Rennes for the allure of Premier League football with a newly-promoted club like Leeds.
And the arrangement has worked for all parties. Leeds got a quality player for a couple of years and will make a tidy profit. Raphinha got a shop window for national team contention and an inevitable and richly-deserved move to a European powerhouse.
Chairman Andrea Radrizanni has cited ‘the Leicester model’ – buy low, sell high, reinvest – as the course for Leeds to follow, and Raphinha is a perfect example of how that might work.
Indeed, the Brazilian’s tireless commitment to the cause is why Leeds narrowly avoided following the ‘Sheffield United model’ of complacent second season syndrome and relegation.
Raphinha lost his head in the aftermath of Ayling’s careless dismissal against Arsenal. He could have talked himself into a red too. Some interpreted that as a performative act. There were suggestions he wanted to be sent off to miss the indignity of being involved as Leeds’ season fell apart.
But such arguments were proven to be nonsense when you looked at how the Brazilian selflessly applied himself as Leeds battled against the drop. Despite being played out of position at right wing-back and bafflingly being tasked with hoying in long throws, he just got on with it.
Long before the relegation run-in, Raphinha’s performances secured his future at an elite-level club. He could have downed tools. If anything, relegation would’ve made a summer exit less complicated.
We’ve seen Billy Bremner’s famous ‘side-before-self’ ethos fall by the wayside when times got tough for beloved Leeds sides of the past, but that is not yet happening to the Whites of Bielsa and Marsch. The two coaches appear to share little by way of tactical identity, but spirit and belief in hard graft remain.
😅 That penalty! pic.twitter.com/7bYEOLbIin
— Leeds United (@LUFC) May 22, 2022
So when it came to the final day, one last dance at Leeds, it should have been no surprise he produced yet another man-of-the-match display.
The eagerness with which he leapt upon David Raya’s mistake, the skill with which he rounded the ‘keeper to draw the penalty, and the dead-eyed precision with which he dispatched it.
The total elation in his face when he climbed the stands to celebrate with the travelling Leeds support after the final whistle confirmed a 2-1 victory at Brentford, and with it Leeds’ Premier League status.
The way he crawled the entire length of the Brentford pitch on his knees, a devout Catholic tradition as a means of showing gratitude to God after having a prayer answered.
— Dave Kevin Williams 🏴 (@DaveKWilliams) May 22, 2022
If that was the winger’s final act at Leeds, it ensures his legacy will remain intact. That’s a privilege a number of Leeds greats before him are unable to boast.
Raphinha’s only been at Leeds for two seasons and in the end, his stint at the club may just be a stepping stone to greater success elsewhere. But it can’t be said he didn’t get it.
Side before self, every time.