Leah Williamson wasn’t the only Arsenal defender to captain her country to continental glory this summer. Her centre-back partner Rafaelle Souza hoisted the Copa América trophy for Brazil in Colombia around 16 hours before Williamson lifted the European title in front of a packed Wembley Stadium.
Brazil are the dominant force in CONMEBOL so, to the untrained eye, another Copa América, an eighth out of the last nine, doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But this one was different, as Rafaelle explains when Arseblog News asks her about her country’s success this summer- which also qualified them for next year’s World Cup.
“I know we have won eight of the last nine Copa Américas but this time, without Cristiane, Marta and Formiga, it was harder,” Rafa explains to me. “The level of the other countries in South America is getting much higher now too. This was a big win for us because a lot of people had doubts about us without those players.
“A lot of people didn’t believe in this new generation in the Seleção but we showed we are still a very strong team with a lot of good young players. We won the title without conceding any goals. For me, both as a captain and a defender, winning the Copa América was a big achievement.” Happily, another member of that new generation, 19-year-old Gio Queiroz, will join the club next summer.
🇧🇷 Representing Brazil 🇧🇷
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) August 15, 2022
Rafa’s achievement, alongside Arsenal’s trio of Lionesses, has brought them into the spotlight this summer but the twin victories will bring the two countries face to face in February as they compete in the Finalissima, the game between the champions of South America and Europe. “It’s going to be such an awesome game for Brazil and for England.
“I am already so excited about it and I have talked to the girls (Williamson, Wubben-Moy and Mead) about it and with my teammates in the Brazil team and everyone is really looking forward to this match. It’s going to be great fun to play against my Arsenal teammates and I know how difficult it will be, because England has such a good team.”
Fafá arrived at Arsenal from Chinese club Changchun Zhuoyue via a loan to Palmeiras in January. She made an immediate impression at the heart of the Gunners defence alongside Leah Williamson before her season was derailed by a thigh injury in March. “I feel really great now, when I arrived here in January I had had a long time off after the season ended in China.
“Physically, I don’t think I was ready at the beginning of the year. Now I feel ready, I look around and everyone feels ready. We have a lot of games but we have a really strong squad and we have been training really well and I think we just can’t wait for this big season ahead of us.” I ask Rafa whether the long break from the Chinese season ending in November and the lack of a proper pre-season contributed to her thigh problem.
“One of the reasons I got that injury, I think, was because I didn’t really have a pre-season. I came in the middle of the season after a lot of time off but I just wanted to help the club as much as possible and I got injured. But I am recovered, I just came from a good Copa América and I have been training here really well now too.
“I feel mentally prepared but it was really hard to be here and not play that many games because I was injured so now I feel even more pumped. We have such a good team and I have seen that. I really think we can win this league.” The Gunners will face stiff competition in that respect with Chelsea looking to secure a fourth title in a row, they pipped Arsenal to the post by one point last season.
“We were so close to winning the league last season and I really believe in this team,” the 31-year-old insists. “We have a chance to be even better now. I know Chelsea have brought a lot of players in but we brought a lot in at the beginning of the year, including me! We have Lina (Hurtig) now and I know how good she is. We have a strong eleven but we have a lot of players who can come into the team and bring a lot of energy and quality.
“We have a really good chance and we play a big team early on, we think we are ready to start on the right foot to win the title.” Arsenal start with a trip to Manchester City on Sunday, they could scarcely have asked for a more difficult opening fixture. Rafa is playing on her fourth continent now, having also played in Brazil, the US and China. However, she thinks the WSL is the most competitive league she has played in.
“I think it is between the US and here (England). In the US I think there are a few good teams but I think in England there are more good teams. There are players from all over Europe and the world here so the level is really high. The standard of the WSL is really high, I think to play in this league you have to be at a really high level and it makes me feel good to be here because it means I can deal with it.
“The bottom teams can beat the top teams and there are more teams here who can win the league, I think.” Arsenal know this only too well, their only league defeat of 2021-22 came away at Birmingham City, who were eventually relegated. That result, which came a few days before Rafa arrived at the club, cost them the title. Had she been able to play the outcome might have been very different with Leah Williamson, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Lia Walti also unavailable that afternoon.
Rafa knows competition for places will be fierce with Williamson, Wubben-Moy and Jen Beattie in the squad, however, she thinks Arsenal are capable of playing with a rotating cast. “It can be good to play with the same partner all year long so you get used to the way they play but the way we work here with Jonas, not just on the pitch but when we watch videos and the way we learn the way we play, I don’t think it matters as much. We always have the same game idea so I don’t think it matters to change centre-back partner.”
— AWFCLIPS (@awfclips) February 28, 2022
The Bahia born defender explains that her tactical acclimatisation to the team was rapid. Brazil are coached by Swede Pia Sundhage, who has a strong relationship with Jonas Eidevall and her Brazil side play in a very similar style. In fact, Pia recommended that Rafa move to Arsenal for that very reason.
“It wasn’t hard for me because I am used to playing this way with my national team. My first six months was more learning about the league and the players, that was really valuable for me, I know what to expect from that now. When I came here, I didn’t have a good idea about the teams or the level they play at.
“Now I know, I know what the atmosphere is like at games, I know the intensity of the league, I know more of the players and I got to know the Arsenal fans and the club. I feel like I am really ready and comfortable to play here.” At the time the roundtable interview was conducted, I only had a vague idea that the club were talking to her international teammate Gio Queiroz.
Rafa is asked by another journalist whether she envisages more Brazilian players coming to the league. “I know a lot of the Brazilian players are watching me here and enjoying the league here and I think it’s like a dream for some of them to play here. This is one of the strongest leagues in the world, I am really glad to be here and I want to bring more Brazilians here, more South Americans so I can speak more Portuguese and Spanish!”
As it turns out, her wish was granted.
🇧🇷 From playing barefoot in Brazil…
… to becoming a Copa America champion! 🏆
This is @Rafaelleleone’s story ❤️
— Arsenal Women (@ArsenalWFC) September 15, 2022