It’s been a whirlwind year for Raphinha. The young Brazilian arrived at Leeds United a relatively unknown talent – those who got excited at the prospect of Rafinha Alcântara playing at Elland Road were to be disappointed, but not for long… Calm, considered and focused, Raphinha may usually be happy to let his football do most of his talking, but we were only too happy to hear more from him when we caught up recently.

Leeds United made their long-awaited return to the Premier League last season, but for the challenge of surviving that first season Marcelo Bielsa needed to upgrade his squad. One of the players brought in was Raphinha Dias Belloli, and his impact was instant. Leeds not only survived, but positively excelled, exceeding expectations, just as the young Brazilian himself did. For all his exploits on the pitch though, Raphinha is a quiet and reserved man off it, fully focused on his goals, both physical and metaphorical.

Speaking with him it became instantly clear that he is wise beyond his years. His is a journey that began with growing up and establishing himself in a favela of Porto Algre, battling in the várzea tournaments – a network of independent matches and tournaments organised by the local community – until the age of 18; this was gritty grassroots. So gritty, in fact, it was often even without the grass. But it all served to shape the man sat opposite us, giving him a determined focus; a focus that is only too evident in every answer he gives. Nice to get to know a bit more about the man who’s lit up Elland Road over the last year.

A year on from landing in Leeds, how would you describe the past twelve months?

I’m just grateful for everything that has happened. It's been a brilliant 12 months to tell you the truth. 12 months where we exceeded our own expectations for the first season back in the Premier League. It's been a great year both for me individually and for everybody collectively. This season we're having some difficulties but there are a lot of games ahead in the League and we are working hard to turn things around from the start of the season. 

There’s so much excitement and positive talk about you. In the Brazilian National Team, from the manager, from media – Leeds fans are loving you – how much do you like the idea of exciting people when you play? 

I've always said to my friends that I like and prefer playing under pressure. The pressure I'm talking about is where everyone is expecting more from you, the manager is expecting more, the fans are expecting something more. This motivates me not just to play my game but also to surprise people on the pitch. So you could say I enjoy playing under this type of pressure and expectation. 

What feeling would you like to give people when they watch you?

I want everybody watching the game, not just the fans, to feel that something can happen at any time. It might not be something extraordinary but something eye-catching I'm able to do at any moment to bring joy to those watching and that's what I've been doing. I always aim to do my best, responsibly of course, but still looking to play my joyful game with dribbling and goals. I think the fans don't expect anything less than the dribbling and goals so I always look to play this joyful football responsibly.   

With that in mind, let’s talk about you as a person – are you an emotional character?

You could say so. I'm a very emotional person to tell you the truth. Both in family and work surroundings I'm always looking to do my best, looking to win and when this doesn't happen I get frustrated. That's football however, for one team to win another has to lose, or it’s a draw. We won't always win and this is frustrating but when good things happen it creates a sense of joy that's hard to describe. 

raphina 10-min.jpg
raphina 7-min.jpg
I want everybody watching the game, not just the fans, to feel that something can happen at any time. It might not be something extraordinary but something eye-catching I'm able to do at any moment to bring joy to those watching and that's what I've been doing. I always aim to do my best."

Your story is one of incredible travel and graft. All those várzea games – what do you see when you close your eyes and think back to games back then?

I'll always remember the várzea pitches and tournaments I played in where it all started. I remember imagining myself playing in the best leagues in the world, putting on a Brazil shirt. I'm really happy that I never gave up, I'm pleased that I maintained my focus and worked hard on achieving more in my life and career. Whenever I close my eyes and think back I'm delighted with what I've made of myself today, but I've only become this person today thanks to that boy playing in the amateur championship on the várzea clay pitches in Porto Alegre years ago. I'm just grateful to that person who will always be a part of me, who I'll never let die. I’ll always look to keep my spirit from back then alive inside of me. 

So the young lad back on the várzea pitches already had the Premier League and Seleção in mind?

Definitely, I think anyone who wants to be a professional footballer should aim for the highest level. I always dreamt of playing for the national team, I always dreamt of playing in the best leagues for the best teams. I always dreamt of scoring goals in a packed stadium. I think anyone who wants to work at the highest level has to have these dreams of the future and believe they can come true. This dream together with a lot of hard work is the only way to make these things happen. 

It’s an understatement to say it’s not easy to graduate from the várzea tournaments and make it as a professional. What did you have that separates you out from the rest?

It was my focus and desire upon making something of myself in football together with the help of my parents. They helped me focus upon what I wanted and this was really important. It's not that there was anything different about me. I knew what I wanted, I knew I wanted to play football, I knew I wanted to play at the highest level. I knew it would be difficult to progress from the várzea tournaments to the youth team of a big club, however I was there doing what I loved, playing competitive football. I knew that at any given moment there could be someone there scouting me and that maintained my focus and priorities above anything else. 

Away from football now, you've spoken about your parents and your dad is a musician – how would you describe what having music around you did for you in terms of helping to shape your character? 

I've always said that football and music go together. Where there's football there's music, where there's music you can be certain there's people there involved with football. Especially with samba and pagode music. In my family we're very grateful to music as it provided for the bus fare to get to training, to eat properly at home. So music isn't just important for me within football but it was very important for me and my family to avoid struggle and keep my childhood dream alive. 

raphina 5-min.jpg
raphina 11-min.jpg

Did having a musical family brush off on you?

I’m good on the percussion instruments. 

Which ones?

Rebolo, tan tan, pandeiro, reco-reco you can make beautiful samba music with percussion instruments. 

From music to style to a genuine love for football – what are your passions would you say? Where does your mind go in terms of things you’d like to achieve outside of football?

My main thoughts are about being able to help less fortunate people in some way. Show young people how to believe in and achieve their dreams. Highlight how difficult it is, however I believe that with focus and hard work everybody can achieve their aims. My main objective is to help in anyway, even if it's just a chat, some material for school, advice, help with some expenses. Ever since I moved to Europe I've always looked to help somehow, I'm in a better position than I was previously, but I've always looked to help people in need. Whether it's for studying, doing a course or work, I'll always look to help those who genuinely want to be helped. 

So you'd like to be a role-model on and off the pitch? We ask that because on and off the pitch you come across as a creative person who likes to express themselves. Is that fair to say?

I'm a very shy person to tell you the truth. I try to appear as little as possible on social media. I don't take much personal responsibility for my Instagram which is the only social media I use. I'm a more reserved person, obviously there are times where you want to post something to share with your friends, it's normal at my age. I don't actively seek to be a role-model off the pitch. I ask to keep my name out of the majority of charitable work I do with my family and agent. I don't want it to look like I'm just doing it for the attention. I aim to do these things behind the scenes you could say, where no one will know that I contributed but what matters is that I feel good about what I've done. 

We've got a photoshoot today and we know you've got your own unique style. Is how you dress, how you style yourself, a big way to show the world a snippet of your character?

Everybody's got their own unique style. I try to dress comfortably in a way that I feel good about. Some days you dress better than others, the days you're dressed well are the ones when photos are being taken. 

raphina 8-min.jpg
raphina 20-min.jpg

What’s it been like to work with adidas and do they reflect what you’re about? 

Absolutely man, I can only thank adidas. I've been with them since 2015 if I remember correctly. It wasn’t direct sponsorship at first but I received the initial support from adidas at a time when I really needed it. I didn't have the equipment to play, no boots and I wasn't in a position to go out and buy clothes. The people at adidas got in contact with me to start working with them. I'm tremendously grateful to adidas for this, for having opened the doors for me to play football and show my game, giving me the opportunity to represent and now repay the brand. In the same way they helped me I can help them. I can only thank adidas for everything they've done for me and my family. 

So at the beginning of your career adidas's contribution was an important source of stability? Who else have been the rocks that have helped you keep rising?

My parents are my main rock, the foundation to be able to continue working hard with my mind at ease, knowing that they are there to support me with whatever. My agent is very important to me as well. He's someone who's played football, he knows the best way to do things. He supports me with advice and conversations, we're always looking to improve. My main rocks are my family first of all and then my agent, these days my wife provides me with a lot of strength to continue working hard, she supports me. For me it's always been and always will be family first. Family give you strength, they’re your pillar of strength to be successful in your work. 

What about role models? You've probably answered this question 100 times before but we have to ask what it's like to go to Ronaldinho's birthday party?

To tell you the truth, I was only little when I went to his birthday, I was about seven or eight. I don't remember it that well, but there are photos that help me remember. Just being around him, not just at his birthday, but being able to greet him, have a chat and take a photo is really powerful for someone who idolises him. He's been my idol for as long as I remember, ever since I first wanted to play football. He's always inspired me.

Later on there was Neymar, for his characteristics, for the person he is. Nowadays I know him personally and can say that he's someone who inspires me. I see lots of similarities between us in the way we play and our physical stature as well – skinny but always fearlessly taking on any opposition players. He's been a role model of mine ever since he started out at Santos.

With these role models I look to find out more about their football, watch videos, see what they are doing on the pitch see what I can emulate and this has helped me maintain my focus and motivation. 

raphina 9-min.jpg
raphina 12-min.jpg
I'm a very shy person to tell you the truth. I try to appear as little as possible on social media. I ask to keep my name out of the majority of charitable work I do with my family and agent. I don't want it to look like I'm just doing it for the attention, I aim to do these things behind the scenes you could say, where no one will know that I contributed but what matters is that I feel good about what I've done."

You’ve said what an impact Bruno Fernandes has had on you too. Who else, perhaps that doesn’t have the profile of Neymar, Ronaldinho Gaucho and Bruno Fernandes that has had a huge impact on your career?

I've met a lot of people in the game ever since I started playing. One of the most important people for me was [Tiquinho] Soares who is playing at Olympiakos now. He arrived at Vitória [Guimarães] at the same time as I did though had a wealth of experience in football already so I'd talk with him a lot, I still speak to him regularly. I talk a lot with Rodrigo here, he gives me a lot of advice as he's experienced so much in football. It's difficult to mention everybody as there are so many people who have genuinely helped me. People from outside football as well, people you get to know in the cities where you play and these friendships remain. But there's not enough time in this interview to name everybody. 

You said you don't like social media much, though personally I've had some great recommendations from your Instagram such as Mano Brown's Mano a Mano podcast. What people in the public eye give you a buzz and inspire you also? What is it about them?

It's not really possible to speak about one person in particular. Anyone who follows me on Instagram will notice that I post a lot of things which I identify closely with. I'm black and am totally against racism. I defend women's rights as well, I was brought up by women, my aunties, my mum's side of the family is all women. So I was brought up by strong black women, women who had to be stronger than usual to achieve things. Whenever I see myself in a post – on favelas, poverty, overcoming adversity – I'll always be sharing this type of thing, where I identify with the content.

You're obviously a family man and said that the financial side of things isn't the most important, but have you been able to change the lives and fortune, not necessarily just financially but fundamentally, of your family and was that part of your childhood dream?

Yes definitely, I believe that when those around me, people dear to me, succeed, I succeed with them. Likewise where I succeed they succeed with me. I think my circumstances today mean I can support them to do a course, study at university, help with something they need at home, or buy a property for family and friends. Through Adidas I can also get equipment to share with charitable institutions. So my circumstances don't just help me, they also help everybody else who needs some support. 

raphina 15-min.jpg
raphina 16-min.jpg

You said you don't like publicity for these actions. Did you find that your success has led to bad as well as good when it comes to say people coming out of the woodwork trying to take advantage?

Everything in life has its positives and negatives, success has its benefits and drawbacks. There's always somebody trying to take advantage, but I leave these situations with my parents, they manage these things better. My mind is just focussed on the club and the Seleção, just focussed on playing football to be honest. There's always someone who manages to approach you and we can perceive whether there are good or bad intentions, but we know how to dribble round these situations well. 

Take that goal against Norwich and what that does for you and showing people who you are … Lets talk about the fans – they’re an enormously passionate group here. Now being able to play in front of them, what have you noticed about fans here in comparison to other clubs you’ve played at?

I don't look to make comparisons, every club has its own history and culture. What really stands out about the Leeds fans is that even when we're not doing well in the League, whether it's home or away they fill every seat allocated to them and what is really special is the way they support us passionately from start to finish. We could be losing the game like in Manchester when we were losing five-one but the fans continued singing.

Personally, this is great motivation for me to do my best, to give my very last bit of energy until the final whistle. Even when we know we can't turn the game around just seeing them there and hearing them sing, sending us this positive energy on to the pitch makes me stronger and I want to send some energy back to them from the pitch as we're doing everything possible and doing our best. As I said before in football one team wins another loses, their support during games is remarkable. 

How would you describe the noise and the atmosphere at Elland Road? 

It's difficult to describe. Obviously there are moments in the game when I take it all in, but the majority of the game I try and focus on the pitch and block out everything else. Of course there are certain times like when we come on to the pitch before the game, come off at half-time where you feel it. It's really positive energy that they send to us on the pitch and we do our absolute best to repay that. It doesn't always happen but they can be certain that we're doing everything possible, however that's football there are good times and bad times. We're going through a difficult period but God willing we'll be getting back our good form. 

If you’re picking one song to go on when you’re heading to a game what is it?

Samba pagode, any samba pagode song. I've been listening to a lot of the Vou Pro Sereno and Caju Pra Baixo groups recently. There's not one specific song, but from the hotel to the stadium I'll always put some pagode music on, I keep it on in the dressing room right up until we go out to warm up. 

raphina 19-min.jpg
raphina 18-min.jpg

Raphinha wears the adidas X Speedflow .1, which you can pick up at