Ahead of this weekend’s Asian Champions League final, Urawa Red Diamonds forward Rafael Silva looks ahead to the clash.
“When I was a little boy I was sure that one day I would become a football player but I could never imagine that I would be on this kind of a stage.”
Those are the words of Urawa Red Diamonds forward Rafael Silva – a man who has played a major role in steering his side to the final of the Asian Champions League, which takes place this weekend in Riyadh against Al Hilal.
There have been 139 matches since the tournament began way back in January and at that point most of the attention around the foreign players was focused on the big-money recruits being wheeled out by Chinese sides – the likes of Hulk, Oscar, Paulinho and Ramires. But it’s not overstating things to say that they’ve been upstaged by their fellow Samba Star from Sao Paulo.
The 25-year-old was a standout for modest J League side Niigata for three seasons after arriving in 2014 from Swiss outfit Lugano and it was no surprise when Japan’s best-backed club swooped for him at the start of the current campaign. He’s already gone a long way towards justifying the faith that Reds placed in him.
His five goals in the group stage propelled Urawa to the top of Group F ahead of former champions Western Sydney and two-time finalists FC Seoul. He kept up his impressive form in the knockout stages scoring in the quarters against fellow J League side Kawasaki and then grabbing the winning goal in the 2-1 semi-final victory over Shanghai SIPG.
Speaking this week with the Asian Game podcast, the Brazilian star said that the entire club is well aware of the expectations to try to claim what would be a second continental crown for one of Asia’s biggest clubs and also of his personal target to add to his seven goals and pick up the Golden Boot award.
“It’s a big pleasure to be in this spot and facing this situation which is a huge moment for us and we have to use everything we have in these two games,” he said.
“Each of us feels that responsibility that we can be a part of the history of the club and that’s why we have to give everything that we have to make sure that we win.
“My first goal is to become a champion and naturally with that situation if I can become the top scorer I’ll be happy with that. But if the team is doing well those things will happen but I’m doing my best to reach that target.”
With only three (plus one from an AFC nation) foreign players eligible to play in the Champions League, it’s natural that great pressure and emphasis is placed on those players who are expected to not only be key contributors but also match winners. While few live up to that billing there’s no question that Rafael Silva has.
After starting as the focal point of the team’s attack under former coach Mihailo Petrovic during the group stages, he’s been moved to a wider role on the right side of midfield under new coach Takafumi Hori’s preferred 4-1- 4-1 formation. But regardless of the tactical approach he’s continued to be a star for the Red Diamonds.
The direct running, slick passing and clinical finishing are hallmarks of his game and he’s proved a handful for defences game after game. He’s aiming to continue his hot streak this Saturday when the first leg takes place in Saudi Arabia after the team held a preparation camp in the UAE.
“It’s natural in football that when things are not going well to change the coach and we did that but after that moment each of us took responsibility – we were running for each other and trying to improve as much as we could,” he said.
“For me there was a change in my position but I’m now used to that role and while I know that’s there pressure on me as a foreign player it’s not something I think too much about.
“For myself I know I have to do something more than the other players and I feel obligated to do something special and improve all the time and so I’m telling myself I have to do more and more and I’m never totally satisfied with how I play.
“The thing for us though is that during the tournament we’ve had a lot of moments – in the beginning we scored a lot of goals and then things changed where we conceded some so we’ve had a bunch of situations that we didn’t expect but we learned from those experiences and I’m sure that will help us in the final.”
Rafael also spoke of possibly taking Japanese citizenship in the future which would allow him to turn out for the national team of his adopted nation.
He added: “I’ve lived almost five years in Japan and of course I think it’s possible and I’ve seen a lot of other cases and maybe one day that can become a possibility.
“I grew up in Brazil with a love for football and when I see the goal and the ball I think of all kind of emotions. As one of my friends once told me when you see the ball you need to think of it as your girlfriend and treat it softly and treat it with love and if you treat it with love you’re going to do the things you want to do.
“I’m dreaming of scoring in the final all the time – I’ve already scored many times in this tournament and I want to score in this most important moment for us and I think we have the possibilities to create that and get the dream that we are all chasing.”