“Football saved me. It didn’t just allow me to change my life, it allowed me to become an example for children and adults who might also have hard lives, coming from similar places. If you take the wrong path, the easy route, it can often cost you in the long-term for the rest of your life.”
Leeds United’s star man Raphinha could quite easily have never had the chance to lift Elland Road supporters to its feet, dancing his way down the right flank.
There was more chance of the now 25-year-old being driven into the drugs trade as a teenager on the streets of his hometown Porto Alegre, than going on to become one of the hottest properties in the Premier League, as well as for his country.
Football offered an escape route, a way out of the favela which many never get to achieve.
“I’m not sure it’s something I could really explain properly,” he tells Sky Sports as he awaits aiding Leeds’ survival hopes when they host Manchester City live on Saturday Night Football.
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“It’s something you’ve just got to experience, that’s what favela life is like. There’s no doubt the reality is very different to the UK and Europe, in the favela you feel very disconnected from the rest of the country.
“Often in life, the easiest way to make money is the wrong way. It’s just part of the life there, there’s very much a glass ceiling and an inability to escape it, an inability to get the focus to aspire to an honest life, a hard-working life, a better life. It’s hard to achieve that without resorting to something illegal like the drug trade.”
The odds for Raphinha’s football career were not in his favour as a child. Occasionally he would be so hungry he would ask strangers for food if there was nothing to eat at home, while he often faced threats from un-named mobs when playing in locally organised games.
That could have been his undoing. But if there is one thing to take from such a harsh upbringing it is how football shaped him, and in turn, now allows him to shape the lives of children and adults back home through a charitable foundation he set up shortly before he arrived at Elland Road.
“I want to help these kids who need it,” he said at the time. “Some of my childhood friends are dead; others got involved in the drug trade. That has all stayed with me. I want to change [these kids’] focus, give them a better future. As I couldn’t help my friends, I want to help the next generation of children.”
Raphinha would have never left his hometown without his own laser-like focus, which now serves him so well on the pitch. Many flair players can be reluctant to track runners, to press or to tackle, to put in the hard graft. Not this one.
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No forward or winger has tracked back to win the ball back more in the middle third of the pitch this season than the Brazilian, who team-mate Adam Forshaw recently described as an “angry street footballer”.
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Crystal Palace’s draw against Leeds.
That description feels particularly accurate, although it seems so ingrained in the Brazilian he doesn’t even see it. “I see myself just like any other professional who wants to win. If I’m not, I do get frustrated, because I’m not living up to the potential I know I have,” he says. It is no surprise that it was the intensity of the division which gave a young Raphinha the dream to play in England.
His rapid adaption to the Premier League, with 10 goals in his debut season, also owed a lot to former manager Marcelo Bielsa – “he saw how he could get the best out of me” – and his fine form has largely held up since the arrival of Jesse Marsch in February.
The Whites’ five-game unbeaten run, coming on the back of one point from their previous eight matches, has given them breathing space above the drop for now, although it would be a shock if they get anything from league leaders City on Saturday.
Even so, Leeds’ hopes of survival look far rosier than they did at the start of that run. New boss Marsch has still come in for criticism, often tinged with an undertone of anti-American sentiment, from both outside the club and inside the fanbase.
It has been a harsh welcome to English football, and Raphinha’s own appraisal of his new manager paints a picture more in line with the recent upturn in results.
He said: “He came into the club at a difficult time, we’re still in a tough position but he’s brought our belief back.
“Even before he arrived he knew the players, what we had to offer as individuals and what we could achieve as a team. We’ve had some bad luck this season, but I think we will stay up.”
If they do, what about the future? Raphinha is strongly linked with a move to Barcelona, where agent Deco spent four trophy-laden years and he could get a first taste of Champions League football.
You imagine he would relish it. For now, he has another ambition – to get those kids on the streets of Porto Alegre smiling. “My dream is to play in a World Cup with Brazil,” he smiles. “And win it.”
Watch Leeds United vs Manchester City live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm
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