In January, Arsenal Women added to their defensive ranks with the signing of 30-year-old Brazil international Rafaelle Souza from Changchun Zhuoyue in China. Rafaelle spent a good chunk of 2021 on loan at São Paulo side Palmeiras. Having played in the USA, Brazil and China, Fafá decided it was time to add a fourth continent to her footballing CV. Tim Stillman spoke exclusively to Rafaelle for Arseblog News about her nomadic career and her move to Arsenal.
Rafaelle joined the club in January but tells us that Arsenal approached her about a move a few months earlier. “I started talking with Arsenal before the Olympics,” she explains. “They wanted me to come here at the beginning of the season but I still had my contract until the end of the year with Changchun Zhuoyue so I couldn’t move at that point. But we started talking and I was really interested in coming in and we kept in touch. I spoke to Edu, the Technical Director of the men’s team, I knew I was going to come here but I had to wait till my contract in China finished.”
When Arseblog News spoke to Jonas Eidevall about the signing, the Gunners boss revealed the fact that Rafaelle plays under fellow Swede Pia Sundhage for Brazil was a factor in the signing. The Bahia born defender says that she spoke with Pia and Jonas about the similarities between the two coaches as a beneficial factor in moving to Arsenal.
“They both have the same style of defending and playing out from the back with the goalkeeper and through the centre-halves,” she points out. “They are very similar and I talked to Pia and I talked to Jonas and we had some calls. It was so nice for me to come here in the middle of the season and I am playing already because I am used to this style. It won’t be hard for me to get used to the Arsenal style and that was a really important thing for me and Arsenal.”
Playing for Arsenal will also be beneficial for international career. Rafaelle is a bona fide first choice for Pia’s Seleção Femenina side but she had to miss matches in September and October due to logistical difficulties. “After the Olympics it was hard for me to play with the national team because to leave China and come back again, I have to quarantine for 21 days so I would lose my fitness and it wouldn’t be good for me. I talked to Pia and said I couldn’t stay in China anymore because the coronavirus situation will affect my playing with the national team so I have to move.
Aprendendo sobre CAPOEIRA! 🇧🇷Ludmila e Rafaelle mostraram um pouco sobre expressão cultural. This is BRAZIL! En vanlig fikapaus med Brazil pic.twitter.com/DXg0EYTlhD
— Pia Sundhage (@PiaSundhage) November 28, 2020
“I talked to Pia because I had a lot of other offers from teams in Europe and Pia advised me to come to Arsenal because she knew how good the league is and how good the coach is so we knew it would be a good move for me.” Rafaelle moves to London after spending six years in China playing for Changchun Zhuoyue and she admits that the move took her some time to get used to initially after studying and playing in the US.
“I stayed in China for six years and for the first year it was hard to get used to the culture and the food was very different to what I was used to eating in Brazil.” Rafa was not the only Brazilian to play in China at the time, international teammates Cristiane, Raquel and Darlene also made the sojourn. “After the first year I could get around, I knew where the good restaurants were and I had a lot of Brazilians to hang out with. It was important to have other Brazilians with me who I could speak Portuguese with but the people in China are really kind, they helped me a lot.”
Food is a very important part of the culture in the northeast of Brazil in particular, where a lot of the cuisine has distinctly Afro-Caribbean influences, as well as a prevalence of seafood dishes due to the proximity to the coast. Cooking food from the nordeste region has been a big part of Rafa feeling connected to home as she takes in a fourth different continent in her football career. I share some tips for good shops in North London that stock difficult to source Brazilian ingredients.
“I need to buy some farinha!” she laughs. Farinha is a type of flour that is very versatile and used in a lot of cooking but is often used to make very popular Brazilian side dish called farofa, which is usually sprinkled on meat and rice dishes or served as a side. We also talk about ‘acarajé na praia’ or ‘acarajé at the beach’- a delicacy I have enjoyed many times on my trips to Bahia. Acarajé is a crispy cake that looks a bit like a small taco, stuffed with shrimp, crab, peppers, nuts and coconut milk.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) July 24, 2016
Rafaelle spent most of 2021 back in her homeland where she made a temporary move to Palmeiras. The pandemic had made life in China difficult and she still had some of her contract to run. She says she had a clear idea that she wanted to move on again once her contract in China expired. “I had to stay and play in Palmeiras because I couldn’t play in China due to the pandemic. I needed to be fit for the Olympics so I decided to stay in Brazil.
“It was nice to play for Palmeiras but I want to play at the highest level and play with the best players I can be around. I decided that I probably had to go to Europe or the US. I decided to come here and I made the right choice.” By now, Rafaelle is very seasoned when it comes to upping sticks and moving to a different continent. But what about the first time she did it as a teenager, leaving Brazil for the USA?
“It was really hard in the beginning,” she admits. “I decided I could not just give up studying, I told myself that I need to study. At that time in Brazil, football wasn’t really possible as a career (for a female player). I couldn’t go to a public university and play for a club in Brazil, I would have had to pick one of them. I won a scholarship and got a chance to study and play for the university in Mississippi.
“That was life changing for me because I could get a major and I could keep playing so I didn’t have to choose between playing and studying. It was hard when I got there because I didn’t speak any English and I had to go to an intensive English programme first. I studied civil engineering as my major and I picked subjects like maths and sciences because it made the language less of a problem.
“It was life changing for me to go to the US from the northeast of Brazil. I came from a poor family and when I went there I could see a different life. Women’s soccer is just part of the culture in the US and they support it so much. I was so fulfilled in the US that I decided to keep on playing, that it was my dream and I wanted to keep following it.” Rafa says that she always had the dream to play in Europe but explains that the decision to play in China was primarily an economic one.
“I was always thinking I would like to play in Europe, playing in the Champions League is a dream for me, it is for any player in the world. But when I went to China I was thinking about my family, I wanted to make money to help my family. But at this point of my career, my thinking is that I want to play in the best leagues and the Champions League so I decided to come to Europe.”
Rafaelle’s left-footedness was also a driving factor behind Arsenal’s interest. All of their other centre-halves are right-footed. At Arsenal, Rafa will likely forge a partnership at the heart of the defence alongside Leah Williamson, who signed a new contract this month. “Leah is a world class player and you can see how much Arsenal value her with the new contract,” Rafaelle says.
“I am so happy to be able to play with her but I need to play my best no matter who I am playing with. It might be Leah or another player and I am so excited to play with this squad, the players here are so amazing.” I ask Rafaelle to record a short message in Portuguese for Arsenal’s Brazilian fans. In her message, she talks about how the Arsenal men’s team has a storied history with Brazilian players.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) February 1, 2022
Rafaelle is the first Brazilian player in the history of Arsenal Women and she talks about taking that to heart and wanting to create a connection and a legacy between Brazil and the women’s team. I ask her how much she knew about the history of the women’s team before she arrived at the club. “Obviously I was very aware of the history of the men’s side because a lot of Brazilians have played here. I have followed the women’s team and a lot of the players on social media, on Instagram and Twitter, for a long time,” she explains.
“I knew they had the best players in the world and I told myself that I want to be there. But in China it is difficult to follow a lot because a lot of social media is blocked and the time difference is big too.” Rafaelle’s career to date has been a story of chasing dreams, often on long haul flights and in unfamiliar tongues. I ask her what she misses most about her home in the northeast of Brazil and the response is probably what you would expect!
“I miss the weather!” she says without missing a beat. “I love Bahia because it is summer all year round and it’s nice to live by the beach. I miss being on the beach, the food is really good but I think I can find that in London; but I don’t think I can find the weather here!” Clearly, Fafá has already done her research on life in London…