FC Schalke 04 defender Rafinha is still dreaming of representing Brazil at this summer's FIFA World Cup having made a huge impact in German football this season.
The 20-year-old has enjoyed a tremendous start since moving to the Bundesliga from Coritiba FC for €5m last August. He quickly made the right-back spot his own, a relief to the Schalke management who had struggled to fill the position, even using midfielders Christian Poulsen and Hamit Altıntop. Indeed, such was the faith in Rafinha that he appeared five times in the UEFA Champions League group stage before Schalke's elimination.
That exit led directly to the UEFA Cup, and it is a competition in which Rafinha and Schalke have excelled. They stand on the brink of the final, with only a two-legged tie against Sevilla FC in their way. The first game will be played in Gelsenkirchen tonight, with Rafinha aware of what is at stake. "We are all very excited about this opportunity," he said. "I watch the Spanish league on television and know how strong Sevilla are. But it is a joy to play against world-class players and I am sure each of us will grow with the challenge we are facing."
The boyish Rafinha, who had to prove his identity to fans confused by his youthful looks on early trips to Schalke's training ground, has already done plenty of growing up. He earned his Bundesliga chance after a rapid rise at Coritiba, where he scored three penalties in 37 matches, having started out at Juventus São Paulo before switches to São Paulo FC and Londrina EC. He then impressed for Brazil as they reached the semi-finals of last summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands - scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 quarter-final victory over Germany.
He has yet to break into the full national team but remains hopeful of participating at this summer's extravaganza. "People ask if I am still hoping to play for Brazil at the World Cup," he said. "The answer is simple: yes, of course. It is something every Brazilian footballer dreams of. I know the quality of Cafu and Cicinho, who play in my position, but nevertheless I want to do my best to be ready if a gap should suddenly open in the Brazil defence."
Doubtless he will continue to catch the eye at the Arena AufSchalke, where he has linked up with compatriots Lincoln and Marcelo Bordon. As the likes of FC Barcelona and AC Milan can attest, a Brazilian backbone is becoming the order of the day for Europe's élite. Schalke manager Andreas Müller said of Rafinha: "He has great potential and signing him is an investment for the future." With a UEFA Cup final in sight and a chance of the World Cup too, Rafinha has more than justified such faith.
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